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Boniface Mwangi

Often too reform-oriented, current activism is incapable of midwifing radical transformation. Today’s activism is only mildly disruptive, is fragmented and addresses symptoms not systems. Its aims are short-term and it doesn't engage the masses. No coherent and convincing alternative visions are proffered. Instead, activists are busy petitioning the same oppressive powers they should be fighting. Entrenched systemic oppression can only be ended by a revolution.


Boniface Mwangi is the face of Kenyan activism today. The former award-winning photojournalist is often in the news leading protests in Nairobi, which are almost always violently broken up by the country’s infamously brutal police. Mwangi has led demos on nearly every imaginable subject of social injustice: grand corruption, the high cost of living, land grabs by the high and mighty, obscenely greedy pay of Members of Parliament (appropriately nicknamed “MPigs”), women’s rights, name it. After a protest, everyone goes back to their homes until another one is called.

Although one would be hard pressed to categorically point out what Mwangi’s exclusively Nairobi-based street activism has achieved over the years, he has nevertheless built a name locally and internationally. Mwangi is now moving on to bigger things. He is running for MP in the upcoming August 8 elections. He has branded himself as “the voice of the poor.” But whether his popularity will transform into electoral victory in the murky and shark-infested waters of Kenyan politics remains to be seen.

A dedicated lone activist demanding, at some personal risk, a better world for the oppressed is rare in Kenya and Africa. Generally, activism has increasingly come to be associated with the countless NGOs that sometimes mount loud marches, lobby, compile stats, publish studies, deliver memoranda or read out strongly worded press statements in their advocacy for one cause or another.

But common to the lone gun like Mwangi and institutional NGO activism is the agitators’ hope that they can pile enough pressure on the government to listen to their grievances and act on them. There is no indication the agitators are aware that, deep down, the authorities are actually the problem. Nor does the scattered and gradualist activism centre the oppressed people in a structured and continuous manner to dismantle the system and put in place an alternative one. What is sought is reform in the identified problem area, not intersectional radical transformation that overturns the entire system.

This article argues that current activism, being overly careerist and reform-oriented, is incapable of bringing about the transformation required to attain complete and lasting social justice. Today’s activism tends to be poorly thought-out, timid, only mildly disruptive, fragmented and addresses symptoms not systems. Its strategies are short-term and don't engage the masses. It enunciates no coherent and persuasive alternative visions and is too dependent upon actors in the oppressive order.

The first part of the article, guided by the concept of coloniality of power (explained later), highlights the case of Kenya. We attempt to historicize and contexualize systemic oppression, whose myriad of symptoms present-day activists target. In the second part, the article considers what it might take to organize for revolutionary change.

The system

Veteran Kenyan benga musician Gabriel Omolo’s powerfully evocative song, Lunchtime, captures the depressing situation in Nairobi after independence. When people break from work for lunch, many of them go out to lie down under trees in the parks because they have no money to buy food. Some eat cakes with soda while they desire the more delicious beef stew and chapati. Others wander about pretending to be window-shopping. The picture only changes at the end of the month when everyone, including casual workers, goes out to enjoy their favourite dish. Those earning a little more even dare to eat in hotels owned by foreigners.

Omolo’s Lunchtime hit was released in 1972, a decade into Kenya’s independence. It is clear from his lyrics that independence had not, as widely hoped, translated into a better life for the masses of the people. What had happened?

First, we need to understand the context of Kenya’s protracted and bloody struggle for national liberation. Colonialism was never meant to develop the colonized people. Rather, the system was set up to deliver benefits to the colonial power through exploitation of local resources and labour (Shivji 2007). Robbed of their land and other resources, and their freedom and dignity trampled with impunity, the colonized people were inevitably impoverished. Anti-colonial struggles were waged as a resistance to these injustices.

According to Ochieng’ (1995), Kenya’s colonial economy had been moulded into a distinctive pattern by the long years of British rule:

“It displayed characteristics of an underdeveloped economy at the periphery: the preponderance of foreign capital, the dominance of agriculture, limited development of industry and heavy reliance of export of primary products and imports of capital and consumer goods. This underdeveloped state of the economy meant that independent Kenya would have to formulate policies that would not only arrest Kenya’s mounting rural and urban poverty and decay, but would also put the economy into the hands of indigenous people.”

Maloba (1995) states that political independence was seen, even by conservative nationalists, as the path to redress the economic and social neglect and injustices of the colonial era.

“Activists and ordinary citizens in supporting the struggle for independence expected an improvement in their living conditions. This desire ‘to live better’ explains political support for nationalists and nationalism. There is no African political party that did not promise better living conditions for its citizens during the struggle for uhuru”.

The Kenyatta regime

December 12, 1963 ended 68 years of colonial rule, making Kenya the 34th independent African nation. But the celebrations did not last. The departing colonial regime had organized Kenya’s independence in such a way that political moderates who could guarantee continued links with Britain - and not radical nationalists who wanted a clean break – took power. The strategy, according to Odinga (1967), was to place in power in Kenya those elements that would be favourably inclined to Britain and that would safeguard her economic and military interests. “This explains the never ceasing efforts to foster moderate elements and to try to weaken the genuine progressive nationalists who recognized the forces of neo-colonialism and would not cooperate with them”.

Despite the soaring rhetoric and anti-imperialist posturing, the Kenyatta regime had little interest in crafting a truly liberated nation. He preserved the colonial structures. Ochieng’ (1995) writes that:

“Institutions such as the provincial administration, police and army were taken over intact. Kenyatta even retained the services of European officers such as Ian Henderson, the Police Inspector who had prepared a case against him at Kapenguria, and Whitehouse, the District Commissioner who had been his gaoler at Lakitaung. A British settler, Bruce Mackenzie, held the strategic Ministry of Agriculture, while another settler, Humphrey Slade, remained the Speaker of the National Assembly, and when an army unit threatened mutiny within a month of Kenya’s independence Kenyatta’s government did not hesitate to ask the British troops to put it down. Kenyatta’s call to forgive and forget became the keynote of his government.”

The Kenyatta regime amounted to what former political detainee, lawyer and legislator Wanyiri Kihoro (2005) calls “a most infamous betrayal of the Kenyan people’s quest for democracy and freedom”. For instance, the compensation plan (supported by Britain) for all Kenyans who had lost land during the colonial period was unjust and riddled with corruption. Citizens were asked to buy back their own land, which had been grabbed by the colonialists. Kihoro writes that,

“Previous capital accumulation formed the most important consideration in the resettlement and the poor, of course, did not have the cash to pay for it. It therefore turned out that the genuine landless were not settled. Most of the settled land, which was intended to be taken up by the landless poor, ended up in the hands of government ministers, assistant ministers, civil servants and rich businessmen. Paradoxically, even many settlers found it possible, because of the corruption in the system, to acquire new tracts to increase their holdings. The government scandalously failed to meet the most important demand on the nationalist agenda.”

Of the land transfers in the first year of independence, more than half of the farms were acquired by Europeans, writes Ochieng’ (1995). Individual purchasers bought 1, 185, 299 acres of land, of which 70 per cent was acquired by Europeans. And when the Mau Mau freedom fighters refused the ridiculous plots which Kenyatta’s government was offering them as settlement schemes they were quietly rounded up by the police.

As Kenyatta consolidated his corrupt and brutal personal rule, it began to be clear that political independence largely benefitted the political elites while the masses of the people wallowed in poverty. Public office was not an opportunity to serve the nation, but oneself. Those who resisted this “most infamous betrayal of the Kenya people” were thrown out of the regime; others were detained, exiled or assassinated.

Freedom fighter Bildad Kaggia was among several members of parliament who lost their seats in 1966 when, led by former Vice President Oginga Odinga, they formed an opposition party, Kenya Peoples Union (KPU), to resist the capitalist policies of Kenyatta and the ruling party KANU. In the ensuing by-elections, President Kenyatta travelled to Kandara, Kaggia’s constituency, to campaign against his former fellow detainee and assistant minister. He addressed Kaggia as follows:

“Kaggia, you are advocating for free things, but we were together with Paul Ngei in jail. If you go to Ngei’s home, he has planted a lot of coffee and other crops. What have you done for yourself? If you go to [Fred] Kubai’s home he has a big house and a nice shamba. Kaggia, what have you done for yourself? We were together with Kung’u Karumba in jail and he is running his own business. Kaggia, what have you done for yourself?” (Kihoro 2005)

Days later, Kaggia, responded to Kenyatta’s jibe thus: “I was not elected to parliament to obtain a large farm, a big house or a transport business. My constituents sleep in mud houses; they have no shambas and have no businesses. So I am not ashamed to be identified with them. By the time they have these things, I will also be able to have them for myself” (Kihoro 2005).

In the years after independence Kenyatta and KANU pursued an economic strategy featuring close ties with western nations, especially Britain, in order to gain foreign aid, investment, and building overseas markets for local products and tourism (Ochieng’ 1995). The government focused on growth and not redistribution, promoting private ownership especially by multinational companies. Between 1964-1970, foreign investment almost doubled.

These policies, plus the repressive climate and deepening corruption in the Kenyatta state, worsened poverty and heightened a sense of disappointment with independence. It was in this period that former Mau Mau detainee and legislator, J.M. Kariuki, himself a very wealthy and philanthropic man, made his famous statement about Kenya’s 10 millionaires and ten million beggars:

“A small but powerful group of greedy, self-seeking elite in the form of politicians, civil servants and businessmen has steadily but surely monopolized the fruits of independence to the exclusion of the majority of the people. We do not want a Kenya of ten millionaires and ten million beggars.” (quoted in Ochieng’ 1995).

Kariuki was assassinated in 1975 and his murder remains unresolved. Much later, another famous Kenyan nationalist Ramogi Achieng’ Oneko would remark sadly that,

“A people who stood tall at the end of their liberation struggle and had made great strides towards meaningful political independence, social justice and economic emancipation have failed to marshal their human and material resources today to achieve basic self-sufficiency in human needs. The political greatness of Kenya, which we fought for so hard and for long, has failed to materialize” (Oneko 2005).

Kenya’s eminent historian Bethwel Allan Ogot (1995) observes that, despite notable gains made under Kenyatta,

 “…significant portions of the Kenyan population still remained on the fringes of society. They felt deprived of a place of dignity in the national life by barriers of class, ethnicity, gender or even geography. On the other hand, many Kenyans who were already enjoying the fruits of independence were reluctant or even opposed to sharing their fortunes with the disadvantaged groups. Questions were asked as to whether Kenya could any longer be regarded as one large community, one large family, when a significant number of its members remained alienated.”

Moi dictatorship

President Jomo Kenyatta died on August 22, 1978 and was succeeded by Vice President Daniel arap Moi. The new leader’s reassuring rhetoric was that he would follow in the footsteps (nyayo, in Kiswahili) of his predecessor under a new populist “philosophy” of peace, love and unity (Ogot 1995). Moi enjoyed significant goodwill from a country that was anxious for a peaceful political transition following extensive political shenanigans of the previous decade to lock Moi out of the Kenyatta succession (Kihoro 2005). But once he ensconced himself at State House, in no time the man who would later appropriate the sobriquet ‘professor of politics’ embarked on erecting a thoroughly repressive and avaricious single-party dictatorship that brought the country to its knees.

An anonymous leaflet distributed clandestinely in Nairobi and other towns in August 1980, apparently authored by a radical group of university students, aptly describes the Moi regime (Kinyatti 1966):

“A rule of talk, talk, talk and do the opposite. The nauseating demagogy which Moi and the traitorous clique around him employ to mask their unpopular rule has failed to hide the all-around suffering of Kenyans. One notices the intensified pauperization of the Kenyan people, as evidenced in ever rising unemployment, sky-high inflation, famine and starvation, wage freezes, forced cash contributions (under the pretext of Harambee) to the already wealthy ones. This is what they call “love, peace and unity”. We have a different name for it: FOREIGN DOMINATION, EXPLOITATION AND OPPRESSION” (emphasis original).

Maupeu (2005) asserts that upon assuming office, Moi immediately embarked on “politics of hegemonic construction”. He reactivated the single-party system by banning multipartyism in 1982. Moi then aligned to the ruling party Kanu all components of civil society that might threaten his rule: trade unions, corporate associations, women’s and youth associations. Next Moi, a ‘saved’ Christian, pursued a Christian ideology to unite the nation under him. He personally attended church every Sunday and gave huge financial and other forms of support to churches, thus cleverly manipulating the influential clergy to legitimize his rule.

As a neo-colony during the Cold War, Kenya’s economy was integrated into the world capitalist system and, therefore, could not escape the shocks of the global economic recession brought about by increasing oil prices in the late 1970s. The recession made Kenya’s mainly agricultural exports uncompetitive in the world markets. Local industry, largely agro-based, suffered. People lost jobs. Severe droughts necessitated large imports of grain (Maxon and Ndege 1995). Thus, Moi’s first decade in power was characterized by double-digit inflation, a falling shilling against major currencies, a ballooning public debt and reduced investment in national development, all of which translated into intensified poverty for the majority of the people.

Isolated by major Western donors over corruption and an atrocious human rights record (featuring assassinations, detention without trial, torture, forced disappearances and exile) Moi agreed to stringent structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) imposed by the West in order to get foreign aid (Presbey 1998). The SAPs threw the collapsed Kenyan economy into a tailspin, immensely worsening the quality of life for ordinary Kenyans. Major budget cutbacks saw the introduction of cost sharing in public services. There were mass lay-offs in the public and private sectors as businesses recorded losses due to high production costs and a depressed market. This crisis persisted throughout the 1990s.

Moi presided over unprecedented looting of the country’s coffers, extensive grabbing of public land and destruction of the environment, horrendous plunder of state-owned investment entities, infrastructural decay, collapse of all public services and mass poverty. By 2002 when he departed State House after 24 years, many Kenyans were in deep hopelessness. Annual economic growth stood at 0.6 per cent.

Kibaki adminstration

Mwai Kibaki was elected president under a broad political coalition called NARC by a massive 62.2 per cent of the vote. Kenya exploded into a frenzy of celebration. Moi handed over power to Kibaki on 30 December 2002 amidst heckling, insults and balls of dirt hurled at the departing despot. In a rousing inaugural speech, Kibaki promised a government that would chart a common path and create an enabling environment for its citizens and residents to fulfill themselves in life.

Remarkably, under the Kibaki administration a raft of bold decisions saw Kenya’s economy grow from virtual stagnation to 6.1 per cent by 2006. National poverty levels dropped from an all-time high of 56 per cent to 46 per cent in the same period.

But it took only a few months for Kenyans to realize that corruption was still alive in government. In addition, conflicts within the ruling NARC coalition over power-sharing arrangements, Kibaki’s poor health following an accident just before the election and a suspected stroke, and the established tradition in Kenya of using political office to enrich oneself, militated against far-reaching transformation of Kenya (Khamisi 2011).

Although praised for introducing free primary education and free maternity services, and developing the country’s infrastructure, it is arguable that the Kibaki administration failed to meet the expectations of Kenyans for a better life after 24 years of the brutal and thoroughly corrupt dictatorship of Moi. Frustrations with NARC’s failed 2002 “revolution” contributed to the post-election violence of 2007/8. It is unlikely that the chaos would have reached those levels if Kibaki had succeeded in addressing historical injustices, holding the country together, improving the quality of life of citizens and propagating a new politics of service that he had announced upon his inauguration.

Kibaki’s controversial second term, beginning late 2007 during which he was forced to form a coalition government with his erstwhile opponent Raila Odinga, was hobbled by political bickering over power-sharing, corruption scandals and a bloated cabinet. A lame duck presidency made worse by the aging head of state’s failing health, succession politics and the high-profile cases at the International Criminal Court (ICC) against suspected masterminds of the post-election violence pushed the bread and butter issues for the majority of Kenyans into the back burner of national politics.

Enter Uhuruto

Uhuru Kenyatta became Kenya’s fourth president, with William Ruto as his deputy, following a tight election on 4 March 2013. The Uhuruto administration (as they had branded themselves in campaign paraphernalia) promised “a revolution in Kenya”, constituting, among other things, food and clean water on every Kenyan table, quality education for every child, creation of wealth and quality and affordable healthcare for everyone.

But keen watchers of Kenya were not deceived. There was little chance that the son of Jomo Kenyatta, the chief architect of mass poverty in independent Kenya, was actually interested in spearheading a revolution to end the national crisis. Campbell (2013) observed that the winning coalition represented a section of the Kenyan society that had monopolized political and economic power since independence.

According to celebrated writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o (2013), “The real winner was a man who wasn’t on the ballot: Daniel arap Moi, the country’s leader from 1978 to 2002, who terrorized it for 24 years and destroyed all credible institutions, including political parties.” Uhuru and Ruto were Moi’s political heirs, Thiong’o pointed out. “The sycophancy and corruption of his era are still ingrained in the political culture and are embodied by the rise of his allies in this election.”

At the time of the election Uhuru and Ruto were facing crimes against humanity charges at the ICC for allegedly being the masterminds of the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007-8. Harrington and Manji (2015), Mueller (2014) and Lynch (2014) argue that Uhuruto were determined to win the election in order to use the powers of the presidency to defeat their cases. Posing as victims during the campaigns and mudslinging the ICC as an imperialist court targeting Africans, Uhuruto succeeded in rallying behind them their ethnic blocks. With the support of elites allied to the departing President Kibaki, they managed to snatch victory.

Uhuruto’s first term ends in August. In his fourth and last State of the Nation Address in March, Uhuru Kenyatta said the country was celebrating an extraordinary journey of four years of transformation, growth, and the deepening of democracy. In other words the Uhuruto regime has delivered on all their election pledges. But a few weeks before this speech, Kenyatta had declared famine ravaging half of the country a national disaster and appealed for local and international aid. A national strike by doctors was on its third month over failure by the government to honour a collective bargaining agreement signed four years earlier. Public health services collapsed across the nation . A new World Bank Report says more than 61 per cent of Kenyans in urban areas live in slums.

A major highlight of the Uhuruto rule is the steep rise in public debt to put up showy mega-projects. According to the Central Bank of Kenya, national debt has doubled during Jubilee government’s first term, rising by 98.94 per cent.

The Uhuruto regime has been dogged by frequent reports of grand corruption involving billions of shillings that disappear into the pockets of powerful individuals and their networks. According to the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC), corruption gobbles up to a third of the national budget.

Can fragmented, single-issue activism change this deeply entrenched system that has condemned the majority of Kenyans to misery?

The path to emancipation

“You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future.” Thomas Sankara

What is described in the preceding section is what the Peruvian scholar Aníbal Quijano has termed ‘coloniality of power’. This means the reproduction of colonial structures and practices despite the end of formal colonialism. At independence white rulers were merely replaced by black elites. This phenomenon is very well exposed in Kenyan first Vice President Oginga Odinga’s 1967 autobiography, ‘Not Yet Uhuru’.

Upon coming to power through the gun in 1983, the young revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, embarked on radical transformation of everything, including the country’s name. His four-year government remains an outstanding example in Africa of how to deal with coloniality. Another example is Tanzania under Mwalimu Julius Nyerere. The Arusha Declaration, which turns 50 this year, offers remarkable insights into Nyerere’s revolutionary agenda for Tanzania. There are several other examples showing that transformative change that will put the people first must be systemic, thoroughgoing and long-term – not the mere piecemeal reforms sought by today’s activism.

So, should Boniface Mwangi get himself a gun and shoot his way to Kenya’s State House, instead of attempting to join parliament – where the system will very quickly tame him? Not necessarily, although armed struggle cannot be ruled out entirely; it has its merits, as the story of African liberation shows.

Organizer and educator Ajamu Nangwaya, a frequent contributor to Pambazuka News, emphasizes “the need for organized collective action by way of formation of political organizations of and by the oppressed.” Not lone-ranger activism. Not reformist “governance” NGOs that appear to be illiterate about coloniality of power. The organizations of the oppressed will be by definition political, that is, they pursue People Power to dismantle the oppressive order and erect an alternative. Nothing out of this world is being proposed here. All liberation movements in Africa and the world have followed this path.

Ajamu Baraka, the vice presidential candidate for the Green Party in the 2016 US election, and a contributor to Pambazuka News, observes that one of the greatest lessons from Malcolm X’s activism is his understanding that “appealing to the same powers that were responsible for the structures of oppression was a dead end. Those kinds of unwise and potentially reactionary appeals would never result in substantial structural changes. Malcolm understood that oppressed peoples must commit themselves to radical political struggle in order to advance a dignified approach to human rights.”

Systemic oppression can only be dismantled by systemic resistance. Without a clear political programme articulating an overarching revolutionary vision, strategies for recruitment and political education of the oppressed, building networks of allies, and strategies for invading, weakening and finally dismantling the oppressive system, little will be achieved. That much is obvious from the scorecard of current activism. Where is the Occupy movement? Where is the so-called Arab Spring or African awakenings? Revolution requires organizing, not merely mobilizing or occasional short-term, single-issue reform protests.

That is the critical transformation that activism in Africa needs. Now.

* Henry Makori is an editor with Pambazuka News and a graduate student of Anthropology at the University of Nairobi.

End notes

Baxter, J. 2011. Dust from our eyes: An unblinkered look at Africa. Cape Town: Pambazuka Press.

Campbell, H. 2013. "Electoral fraud and democratic struggles in Kenya: Lessons from 2013 electoral process." Pambazuka News.

Harrington, J. and Manji, A. 2015. "Restoring Leviathan. The Kenyan Supreme Court, constitutional transformation and the presidential election of 2013." Journal of Eastern African Studies Vol. 9, Issue 2 pp.175-192.
Khamisi, J. 2011. Politics of betrayal: Diary of a Kenyan legislator. New York: Trafford Publishing.
Kihoro, W. 2005. The price of freedom: The history of political resistance in Kenya. Nairobi: MvuleAfrica Publishers.
Kinyatti, M. 1996. Kenya: A prison notebook. London: Vita Books.
Maxon, R and Ndege, P. 1995. "The economics of structural adjustment". In, B.A Ogot and W.R Ochieng' (eds), Decolonisation and independence in Kenya 1940-1993. Nairobi: EAEP. pp 151-186
Odinga, O. 1967. Not yet Uhuru: The autobiography of Oginga Odinga. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers.
Ogot, B.A. 1995. "The politics of populism." In, B.A Ogot and W.R Ochieng' (eds), Decolonisation and independence in Kenya 1940-1993. Nairobi: EAEP. pp 187-213
Oneko, R.O. 2005. "Foreword." In, The price of freedom: The history of political resistance in Kenya. Nairobi. MvuleAfrica Publishers. pp. xi-xivxi-xiv.
Shivji, I.G. 2007. Silences in NGO discourse: The role and future of NGOs in Africa. Nairobi: Fahamu - Networks for Social Justice.
TANU. 1967. The Arusha Declaration. Reprinted on the occasion of the 2nd Julius Nyerere Intellectual Festival Week, April 12-15, 2010, organised by Mwalimu Nyerere Professorial Chair in Pan-African Studies, University of Dar es Salaam, with generous support from HakiElimu.
Thiong’o, N. 2013. "A dictator's last laugh." New York Times, 14 March 2013.



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