Lords of Uhuru: the political economy of elite competition and institutional change in post-independence Kenya

Biniam Bedasso


The post-independence history of Kenya is characterized by an unusual mix of stability with ever-lingering fragility. The high level of elite persistence in Kenya could be seen both as a cause and a result of this peculiar nature of the political economy of the country. This paper has the objective of studying the effects of historical elite competition and consolidation on political-economic stability and institutional transition in post-independence Kenya. The logic of the natural state is applied to organize the narrative and analyze the key features (North, Wallis and Weingast (2009), Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History: Cambridge University Press). Most of the existing institutional structures in Kenya are built on elite configurations inherited from the colonial times. The robust growth performance of the first decade after independence was generated by smallholder agriculture, while most of the rent was transferred to the elite via state patronage. The political instability of the later years had a lot to do with dwindling patronage resources and elite fragmentation. For most part of the political economy history of the country, patron-client networks and tribalism have played key role in regulating intra-elite bargains. Land has always been the leverage used by the elite to manipulate the aforementioned structures. Although the Kenyan elite have maintained keen interest in winning via constitutional means, they have kept reverting to extralegal avenues whenever intra-elite negotiations seemed to have failed to be enforced.

JEL codes: P16, D72, O55

Keywords: elites, dominant coalition, economic growth, institutional change, Kenya