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Githongo: Colonial spoils recycled as new money

By John Githongo
Posted on Wednesday, 27 October 2010 13:32

Kenya was a project conceived by the British and inherited by an African elite. It was simple: take boys from the village, send them to Alliance High School and then Makerere University

Read our investigation into Africa’s middle classes.

The Kenyan middle class has turned state formation into a resource grab. In an agrarian country, that means mainly land. Four groups call themselves middle class. Firstly, the state elite, most of whom have stolen public resources. Then there is an entrepreneurial petite bourgeosie which started trading from a kiosk, then worked to put their kids through university and prospered without state patronage. There is also an agrarian middle class of landowners. Some benefit from state patronage but many do not – such as the man who grows French beans on his 20 acres of land, using the proceeds to pay for his children’s education. Finally, we see the middle class as the professional elite: lawyers, bankers, doctors, civil-society wallahs. They speak English without mother-tongue interference and sound Western.

The state elite has tentacles everywhere because of the scale of government spending and its effect on politics. A generational divide is developing in the middle class. The state elite stole billions of shillings and thousands of acres. Most escaped prosecution.?

Now, almost 20 years after Goldenberg and the other mega-scandals, the crooks have recycled their reputations. Memories of the crimes are fading. The sons and daughters of the state elite are back from school at Princeton and Yale. They will join you over a beer at Kengeles in Lavington. They are doctors and lawyers, a new generation of middle-class professionals. Daddy’s money has been washed clean in the laundry of our corrupt society. So we are building a middle class on corruption and impunity, which breeds searing inequalities.

The state security system tries to shut down the dissidents and the aggrieved. In an agricultural country like Kenya, it is about land, especially the Rift Valley. The Rift Valley was Kenya’s demographic shock absorber and now that is over. In Kikuyu, we say “andu mathi ruguru” meaning “people have gone to the West,” or the Rift Valley. The migration to ruguru ended in 2007. Even if we took all the land from the grabbers and redistributed it, we would briefly have peace, but then fundamental economic problems would spark new political crises.

The middle classes normalise the absurd. We are carrying the memory of the 2007 post-election violence: the maids and houseboys of the middle class were chopped up. On one hand, the middle class celebrates and is benefiting from the economic growth of President Mwai Kibaki’s first administration, yet the software of the nation has seriously malfunctioned.

We have to rethink what Kenya is. Three-quarters of Kenyans are under 30 and want to live in towns, but we are ruled by farmers and trapped by land disputes. The challenge for the middle class is to lead the country out of this crisis.

John Githongo is a former permanent secretary for governance and ethics in Kenya

This article was first published in the August-September edition of The Africa Report.