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3 books offer deep dive into Kenyan politics

This week’s African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular examines bureaucratic wrangling, the links between land and violence, and refugee life

- July 29, 2021

Kenya’s Court of Appeal will soon decide whether to uphold the High Court ruling in May that blocked the government’s Building Bridges Initiative (BBI). BBI’s supporters — including President Uhuru Kenyatta — claim it will reform Kenya’s politics, long driven by ethnic rivalries and competition.

The BBI proposes multiple changes to Kenya’s constitution that could lead to more power-sharing than the current system allows. From reestablishing the office of the prime minister to improving judicial system accountability, the BBI effort hopes to, in the words of Chairman Yusuf Haji, “promote greater inclusivity, and mitigate the drawbacks of the winner-take-all electoral formula.”

Since the introduction of multiparty democracy in Kenya in the 1990s, Kenyans have tended to vote for leaders from their own ethnic groups. The leader who wins office can direct resources to fellow ethnic group members and their home region. This typically involves building infrastructure, schools and hospitals, and providing government jobs.

Kenya’s electoral rules effectively exclude from power groups that can’t form an electoral majority. Since none of Kenya’s ethnic groups are large enough to win elections on their own, leaders form electoral coalitions. Since 2002, members of one ethnic group — the Kikuyu — have continuously led the country and, therefore, directed resources to their community and the communities of their coalition partners.

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Resentment about political exclusion boiled over into violence after the 2007 election, with Luo ethnic group members from the country’s west thinking that the election was stolen from their presidential candidate, Raila Odinga. Despite steps to create a new constitution and enact significant reforms after that violence, including devolving more power and resources to the local level, many Kenyans still feel excluded from political opportunity.

Three new books help shed light on Kenyan politics and why reforms are necessary: Mai Hassan’s “Regime Threats and State Solutions: Bureaucratic Loyalty and Embeddedness in Kenya”; Kathleen Klaus’s “Political Violence in Kenya: Land, Elections, and Claim-Making”; and Bram Jansen’s “Kakuma Refugee Camp: Humanitarian Urbanism in Kenya’s Accidental City.”

Rulers use bureaucrats to manage threats

Readers may have low expectations for the intrigue of a book about bureaucratic appointments, but Mai Hassan’s “Regime Threats and State Solutions” is a fascinating book that will change their minds. Hassan shows how important bureaucratic appointments are, arguing that leaders use appointments to manage both elite and popular threats to their rule.

Hassan’s book examines bureaucratic appointments to Kenya’s Provincial Administration, the country’s administrative and security bureaucracy tasked with locally administering national-level policies and improving provision of public goods and services, like health clinics.

Hassan argues that leaders appease elites who can challenge leaders’ ability to maintain power, by appointing elites as bureaucrats. And leaders deliberately choose posting locations where those elites will be least harmful to the ruler — i.e., not in a place where there is popular discontent with the ruler. To address potential threats in areas of popular discontent, leaders will dispatch loyal bureaucrats willing to force compliance and use coercion.

Hassan draws on a wealth of data to make her compelling argument, while also offering readers colorful, illustrative examples of how Kenyan politicians shuffle bureaucrats to serve leaders’ goals to maintain power.

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Land narratives shape interethnic conflict

Klaus and Hassan’s books are nice complements — as Hassan writes, there are “overlapping connections between ethnicity, land conflict, and policy administration.” In “Political Violence in Kenya,” Klaus argues that where land or property rights are not secure, one group can perceive a neighboring group as a threat to its own security.

Klaus’s carefully argued and clearly written book documents how land narratives — defined as the ways people talk about and make sense of their claims and rights relative to others — serve to coordinate how elites and ordinary citizens use violence. Klaus finds in Kenya that land narratives “are infused with narratives of ethnic identification and belonging” and that these highly contentious narratives delineate insiders and outsiders. Politicians can exploit this volatile discourse during elections.

Readers do not need to be familiar with the scholarly literature about how conflict emerges around elections to read and learn from “Political Violence in Kenya.” Importantly, Klaus’s book emphasizes that electoral violence is not simply an elite-driven process but a joint production in which elites organize, collaborate with or coerce local supporters.

Klaus’s book has serious implications for the BBI and related initiatives, not least the importance of looking beyond who holds power in Nairobi, and considering how securing ordinary citizens’ rights to land and livelihoods can reduce the potential for violence.

A window into refugee life and politics

Jansen’s book offers a history of the development of Kakuma refugee camp in the decades since its founding in 1992. “Kakuma Refugee Camp” gives a vivid virtual tour of the camp-turned-city, describing where people live, what services are provided in which locations and what the built environment looks like.

Kenya might expel refugees to their home countries

Jansen writes about this “accidental city” in northwest Kenya that was originally meant to offer temporary refuge to people fleeing war in Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Congo, Uganda, Eritrea, Burundi and Rwanda. Through illustrating the protracted nature of refugee situations, Jansen pushes us to reconsider a history of the camp not as evolutionary phases shaped by powerful decision-makers, but through the experiences of the people who make a life in the camp, navigating its opportunities and challenges.

The Kenyan government looms in the background of Jansen’s book, which characterizes refugee camps as “islands within the Kenyan state” effectively under the power of the U.N. Refugee Agency. The government recently threatened to close two refugee camps — including Kakuma — and media coverage of refugees in Kenya is largely negative.

Will the BBI resolve the problems these books identify?

It’s probably too much to expect that a constitutional reform initiative will fix the long-standing issues around political inclusion, land rights and the distribution of government resources identified by Hassan and Klaus. But as Jansen reminds us, new settlements and a growing population demand and inspire creativity. All of these thoughtful books do the same, and policymakers seeking to enact meaningful reforms would do well to take their insights seriously.

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