After many cycles of betrayed hopes, Kenya votes again in August. Neither frontrunner promises a leftward break, but their visions differ vastly.

The upcoming Kenyan elections on 9 August will mark a turning point in the nation’s future and could be the country’s most consequential poll to date. The presidential contest election is effectively a two-horse race between Deputy President William Ruto and veteran politician Raila Odinga. Neither is proposing a paradigm-shifting leftward break with Kenya’s current neoliberal and neo-patrimonial character. Nevertheless, their agendas are starkly different and each would irreversibly change the country’s trajectory.

Ruto proposes returning Kenya to a pre-industrial era, reverting to small-scale informal production and subsistence agriculture, reversing gains the country has made in the past two decades. Raila promises a return to the country’s industrialisation agenda, which took off in the 2000s but has floundered under the current administration, with a vision of putting Kenya back on track towards becoming a standard capitalist advanced economy.

Most analysis of Kenyan elections tends to focus on the noise of politicians’ personalities and party dramas. However, it is crucial to understand and interrogate the two main candidates’ agendas, one of which will end up shaping the lives of around 56 million citizens.

This examination must begin by seeing the presidential aspirants’ visions in the context of the country’s history of governance and politics.

A legacy of colonialism and lost hope

Kenya is a nation of boundless potential yearning for change in which most people live in poverty while a handful enjoy obscene wealth. It is a nation of plenty, but one that has repeatedly been betrayed by predatory politicians who abuse the trust bestowed upon them.

This history can be traced back to the British colonial project, which was brutal and repressive as well as racist and parasitic. The colonialists forcefully expropriated Kenya’s rich highlands, creating the agrarian economy whose primary purpose was to supply British industries and kitchens. Meanwhile, unlike in colonies like Australia or New Zealand, the government made no investments in advancing industry or social welfare; education for Kenyan subjects merely imparted crude agricultural skills suitable for an obedient workforce.

In the 1940s, the British developed a new strategy as the possibility of decolonisation loomed. They sought to create a “responsible” middle class that could guarantee their foreign capital investments and head off any potential working-class rebellion. Kenyan nationalists were allowed to share power with their colonial masters as a subservient client elite in return for guaranteeing to reproduce colonial structures in the event of independence.

Despite this tactic, a radical independence movement known as the Mau Mau emerged and grew in the 1940s-50s. Kenya was granted independence in 1963.

At independence, the popular national movement Kenyan African National Union (KANU) came to power. It promised to not only liberate Kenya from the yoke of colonialism but free people from the degrading conditions they had been subjected to by imperialism. It vowed to eradicate poverty, disease, and ignorance. Kenyans were extremely excited about the future.

However, their dreams were already dead by the end of the first republic, killed by ethnic chauvinism and corruption perpetrated by a brutal cabal that captured the state. Political elites hijacked the “million-acre scheme”, which was meant to return vacated colonial land to its original owners. The government failed to engage in nation-building. And President Jomo Kenyatta undermined the multi-party system as he centralised power.

KANU’s development agenda meanwhile ended any hopes of socialist economic transformation. Even though the economy grew, it followed the colonial pattern of marginalising large sections of a dependent country that produced what it didn’t consume and consumed what it couldn’t produce.

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Kenyatta’s death in 1978 and replacement by Daniel arap Moi brought the possibility of a fresh start. But this hope was short-lived too. The country saw the reintroduction of torture chambers, detention without trial, and a reign of terror unleashed on opponents. Tribalism thrived even as Moi preached “peace, love and unity”. Furthermore, the economy collapsed. Kenya had to turn to structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), which led to de-industrialisation and the decimation of domestic industries as protective fiscal barriers were dismantled to liberalise trade.

From new hope to despair

A decades-long bloody struggle for multiparty democracy against Moi’s one-party dictatorship bore fruit in 1992, paving the way for multi-party elections in 1992 and 1997. Moi won both as nascent opposition parties fractured amid leadership disputes.

In 2002, however, the opposition learned their lessons and formed a broad national front under the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). Among others, this brought together 1997 presidential candidates Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki. Raila, who had served as a minister in Moi’s government in 2001-2 before defecting, stepped aside to allow Kibaki to be opposition flag-bearer. The NARC candidate defeated Uhuru Kenyatta, the KANU nominee that Moi had picked to be his successor, in a landslide.

Kibaki was sworn in on a wave of hope. Many believed their new president’s promise that “corruption will cease to be a way of life” and, in 2003, Kenyans were surveyed to be the most hopeful people in the world. Ordinary citizens arrested corrupt policemen and frog-marched them to police stations across the country.

Yet once again, Kenyans’ hopes were betrayed. Within months, the ebullient national mood had turned to despair. Impunity and corruption returned as the pillars of politics and public life, as an ethnic cabal known as the “Mount Kenya Mafia” captured the state. In the words of anti-corruption activist John Githongo, this new elite declared: “it is our turn to eat”.

In 2005, Kibaki brought a butchered version of a popular draft constitution to a referendum. Raila fiercely opposed the document, which would have consolidated presidential powers, as did the opposition KANU led by Uhuru and Ruto. When the constitution was defeated, Kibaki ejected Raila and his faction from the cabinet.

This set the stage for the 2007 elections in which Kibaki faced Raila. Kibaki was narrowly declared the winner, but many believed the vote had been manipulated. Raila also claimed victory. Popular demonstrations descended into an orgy of deadly violence in which 1,500 people were killed and 350,000 were displaced.

Kenya was rescued from full-scale civil war by the signing of the National Accord and Reconciliation Act in 2008. This led to a power-sharing deal in which Raila became prime minister. The deal also paved the way for the promulgation of a new 2010 constitution, which devolved power and resources from the centre to many hitherto ignored regions in the periphery. The document also explicitly sought to demand higher ethical standards of Kenyan leaders, though attempts to improve governance by referring to the constitution’s standards have had little success. As author Issa Shivji aptly observed: “Constitutions don’t make revolutions. Revolutions make constitutions… Constitutions rarely herald fundamental transformations. They are the product of fundamental transformations”.

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Another legacy of the 2007 post-election unrest was an International Criminal Court investigation into the alleged architects of the violence. Indictees included Uhuru and Ruto who, aware that holding public office would insulate them from facing trial, joined forces to run against Raila’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) in 2013. Amidst claims of vote-rigging facilitated by the infamous Cambridge Analytica, the two were declared winners and took office.

President Uhuru and Deputy President Ruto ran for re-election in 2017, again against Raila. They were declared victors once more, but the Supreme Court nullified the results on the grounds that the electoral commission had overseen a litany of irregularities. When the opposition boycotted the rerun in protest at the electoral commission’s failure to address the problems identified by the court, Uhuru won uncontested.

Kenya was left split down the middle with a president who had legal authority but little popular legitimacy. Some politicians and citizens actively contemplated secession. In a bid to restore calm, Uhuru and Raila held talks that led to a now infamous handshake between the two rivals in 2018. The nation exhaled.

No sooner had the ink dried on their agreement than a new internecine battle emerged between Uhuru and his deputy Ruto. The last four years has seen an unseemly public spat unfold between the president and his newfound ally Raila on the one hand, and Ruto on the other.

Uhuru and Ruto

In their almost decade-long rule, Uhuru and Ruto have overseen the most corrupt period in Kenya’s history. Levels of public looting today are so brazen that perpetrators no longer bother concealing their malfeasance. Billions of dollars have disappeared from public coffers, and the president himself has publicly said that at least Ksh2 billion ($17 million) is lost to corruption every day. Kenya has taken on unmanageable levels of debt for phantom projects that have never materialised and paid hugely inflated costs for those that have.

The Uhuru-Ruto administration has also purposefully deindustrialised the economy, decimating local manufacturing and increasing Kenya’s dependence on imports. The education sector has floundered as the government has restricted access to universities in favour of “vocational education” aimed at creating a low-skilled working class. Intellectual and professional pursuit and honest work have been shunned in favour of “hustling”, which in practice means self-enrichment through theft of public resources.

The ambition of becoming a middle-income country that feeds her people through high-tech agriculture have been replaced by musings on the merits of small-scale subsistence farming and the glorification of low-tech “wheelbarrows”, which have become the icon and central campaign promise of Ruto’s presidential bid.

Where Kenyans saw themselves as beacons leading the rest of the continent towards economic nirvana, Kenyans are now being sold primitivity and ignorance as aspirational.

The choice facing Kenya

This is the backdrop of the upcoming 9 August elections and how we got here. Once again, Kenyans will face a choice between two familiar faces at the ballot box, but each with a very different vision.

Ruto, a self-designated “hustler-in-chief”, romanticises ignorance and poverty to advance a cynical class warfare agenda. He advocates “bottom-up economics“, which when interrogated mainly promises sustained deindustrialisation. His vision echoes both the colonialists’ plan for the indigenous population and Kenyatta and Moi’s deliberate suppression of Kenya’s advancement to ensure a subservient populace.

Ruto’s agenda leaves many questions unanswered. What does it mean for the average Kenyan? How can a country of 50 million feed itself on subsistence farming? What does it mean to create a low-skilled “hustler” working class who cannot respond to increasing global demands for technical skills and automation? How can a country without industry compete in a world in which other countries are aiming for self-sufficiency?

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Raila’s ten-point manifesto builds from a vision of Kenyan life transcendent from the brutality of poverty and ignorance. It aims to reinvigorate and safeguard industry to produce for Kenyans and gain global competitive advantage. Raila promises universal healthcare, and his campaign’s central feature is an ambitious social welfare programme for the indigent. His manifesto attempts to break Kenya away from path dependency shaped by its colonial origins. It attempts to right the wrongs of the past and present and to help Kenya leapfrog into an advanced future.

Kenya is at a crossroads. After decades of betrayed promises, these elections provide another opportunity for citizens to mobilise a movement for a new more equal Kenya. We need a politics that aims to transform the degrading, dehumanising and back-breaking conditions under which most of our compatriots live and work. We must reject a politics that seeks to perpetuate poverty, disease, and ignorance.

In this political contest, the choice is an easy one.

Dave Anyona is a political economist and public policy advisor in the East African region.

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