The Dynamics of Corruption in Kenya

Guest Writer
12 June ,2018

by Robert Munuku

It is expected for governments to be corrupt. This is a reality, not a vindication – of course corruption is wrong. But at the very least no one gets a heart-attack from surprise upon hearing that government is corrupt.

The most injurious things are those that are an unexpected, because they go unseen then untreated as they operate from the shadows. Corruption in Kenya is not a government phenomenon, but a nationwide one, pervasive in social life and hence all institutions. To deal with corruption we have to deal with many things, preferably at a micro-sociological level. To attempt to deal with it (as we are now) at a macro-level would be futile because at the macro-economic/political levels, corruption is guarded by the very same people/institutions with the power to do something about it. It’s like going to a Kenyan police station to report police brutality and expect results

We as the Kenyan population are also not organized enough, willing enough & politically neutral enough to unite and mobilize towards a fight to end corruption. The middle-class is busy trying to get richer so that they can join the elite upper class, so any malcontent with corruption is often a front to show they care, when they really only care about upward social mobility. Likewise, the elite is more concerned with protecting their already acquired wealth.

Once we accept that corruption in Kenya is not unique to government, we also need to remember that the institutions that traditionally had more muscle than the individual to fight corruption are themselves corrupt – this is what some call the civil society. Civil society in Kenya has been tainted by the commercialization of activism. It is marred with self-interest often hinging on foreign funding. Cartels now too exist in civil society because they need to keep securing funds to keep their NGOs functional, and what better way than to ensure that there’s a constant state of chaos?

Civil society may come in to support a fight against corruption, but this is because their interests shift with the tide that pays their bills. Today it’s climate change, tomorrow it’s the girl-child, the next day it’s water and sanitation, and the next week its poverty reduction. Those who fund civil society from outside the country don’t do so because they love Kenya so much, but because they too want to front foreign agenda to African states like ours, which is a form of neo-colonialism.

The media have one of the most powerful tools – voice, and distribution channels of the same. However, journalists often also fall victim to corruption themselves, being paid off to steer conversations in a certain way (brown envelopes) or to outright kill stories. This is not surprising, because the media houses are owned by individuals who are often politically aligned. Perhaps non-mainstream media & independent journalists are the ones we can count on

Religious institutions are also participants and beneficiaries, because political leaders are usually aligned with one (or more) of the religious denominations in the country, leading them to shy away from harsh criticism.

I believe that the fight against corruption is a one we all need to deal with at first as individuals. But that can only happen if we truly believe it’s wrong. But do we? Or do we wish we were privy to the same wealth that it brings, and only fight it out of spite?

Robert Mũnũku is a visual artist, writer & filmmaker based in Nairobi. Mũnũku is also the founder of Mau Mau Collective which is an organization that seeks to create a strong network of independent visual artists, filmmakers & performing artists on the continent. Follow him on Twitter @robertmunuku

The Kenyan Middle Class

Brenda Wambui
8 May ,2018

The Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) recently announced that it would begin licensing cooking gas firms to operate piped gas systems in residential areas. This would mostly make business sense in gated communities and flats, where Kenya’s middle class tends to reside. This led me to think about our middle class.

The middle class is the class between the upper and lower classes, said to live by their wits rather than by their labour, which was easy to distinguish during the industrial revolution when the term came about. The people who did manual labour at factories were the working class. Those who did clerical work were the middle class, and those who owned these factories were the upper class, better known as the rich. As we have progressed, the markers of a middle class lifestyle have changed, and they vary across countries and cultures.

As we have moved to a knowledge based economy, where the focus has shifted to services, one’s role at work is not the only indicator of class. Today, a person working a low wage or low salary job may not have to perform manual labour, but that does not make them middle class. So we see other markers begin to arise. Chief of which is earnings. Or income. This income then dictates where you live, what you eat, what you wear, the places you go, what car you drive, if at all you do. Then it becomes apparent that there can’t just be one monolithic middle class. We have the upper middle class, for whom richness, or being a part of the upper class, is just around the corner. Then we have the lower middle class, many of whom are a disaster or two away from being working class. Perhaps there is a middle middle class?

According to the African Development Bank, Africa’s middle class is defined as such: Individuals or households that fall between the 20th and 80th percentile of the consumption distribution or between 0.75 and 1.25 times median per capita income, respectively. Or, Individuals who have a daily spend of between USD 2 – USD 20 per day (that is, between KES 200 – KES 2,000 at the current rate). That is 313 million people, or 34.3 per cent of the continent’s population. According to them, 44.9 percent of Kenya’s population is middle class.

On the other hand, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) says that a Kenyan middle class person spends between KES 23,670 and KES 199,999 each month. This seems more reasonable than a claim that 44.9% of Kenya’s population is middle class. According to KNBS, as at 2015, only 68,676, or 2.89 per cent, of formal sector employees in Kenya earn more than KES 100,000 per month. 64.5% earn between KES 20,000 and KES 40,000. The Institute of Economic Affairs found that there are about 272,569 middle class wage employees in Kenya, with another 74,337 wage employees taking home more than the middle class. On the other hand, 2.13 million employees take home less than KES 49,000. It’s fair to say that Kenya has a small middle class.

What is the function of the middle class in a country? In a growth economy like Kenya’s, much emphasis gets paced on the middle class. A growing middle class is a sign of a robust economy. It shows that upward mobility is possible in a country, and this upward mobility is an antidote to income inequality. Which is why “middle class” is such a catchphrase in Kenya. It is there, but it should be larger.

A lot of blame gets placed at the feet of the middle class, such as “the middle class doesn’t vote, they just tweet” or “the middle class finances its lifestyle through loans, it is fake.” There is no shortage of hot takes deriding the middle class. In Kenya, they are powerful and powerless at the same time, and instead of looking at how to expand the middle class from a systemic perspective, we instead place blame on this middle class for its stagnation, as if there is much it can do about this. To expand the middle class, we have to boost the productivity of our economy and encourage investment.

What boosts the productivity of an economy, and makes investors invest? There are multiple theories, but they can all be condensed into five factors (as described by Heather Boushey and Adam Hersch). One: The level of human capital and whether talent is encouraged to boost the economy’s productivity. Two: Cost of and access to financial capital, which allow firms and entrepreneurs to make real investments that create technological progress to use in the economy. Three: strong and stable demand, which creates the market for goods and services and allows investors to plan for the future. Four: The quality of political and economic institutions, including the quality of corporate governance as well as political institutions and a legal structure that enforces contracts. Five: Investment in public goods, education, health, and infrastructure, which lays the foundation for private-sector investment.

The middle class is important in each of these five factors. First, human capital. A strong middle class promotes the development of human capital through a well-educated population. Second, the cost of and access to financial capital becomes lower and more, respectively, in countries with a larger middle class because of reduced risk. Third, a strong middle class creates a stable source for demand because they have enough disposable income to spend on what matters to them.

Fourth, a strong middle class supports political and economic institutions, and has the power to rally behind them since gift politics that may appeal to the working class have no incentive for them, while the rich are the ones buying and influencing these institutions. Lastly, a strong middle class creates and fosters the next generation of entrepreneurs, since they have an adequate social and financial safety net to enable them to start businesses. It is clear that this group is very important to our economy, so it should worry us that it is so small yet we continue to claim that we are a growing economy.

Much of this growth is contributed to by the increasing wealth of the rich at the expense of the middle and working classes, hence the income inequality in this country. We have a Gini coefficient of 0.445 (for perspective, 0 represents complete equality and 1 complete inequality).

Yes, more of us should aspire to go to university, work in formal employment so that we can pay income tax. More of us should not have to take personal loans to get by, or to buy home basics. More of us should not have to buy second hand Japanese cars because public transport in Kenya is a sham. More of us should not have to take our children to private schools because public schools are in shambles. More of us should be able to own houses without selling our souls for a mortgage.

Yet here we are. Whose fault is it that we do not have access to affordable financial capital? Whose fault is it that so many businesses fail in Kenya? Whose fault is it that human capital, better known as talent, is underdeveloped and not as skilled as we need to be to become a developed country? Whose fault is it that we have runaway inflation, especially of food? Whose fault is it that people cannot afford basic goods? That our political and economic institutions are held hostage by an elite few? That we do not invest enough in public goods, education, health, and infrastructure? Definitely not the middle class.

Choosing Ourselves

Guest Writer
22 November ,2016

by Brenda Wakiagi

In the year 1989, American professor and civil rights advocate, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality. Intersectionality has since grown to take center-stage in feminist discourse, laying focus on the fact that the fight to rid the world of structural forms of oppression cannot be undertaken if we do not first recognize the layered ways in which certain people are stripped of their humanity. Intersectionality has been defined by the Oxford Dictionary as the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”

The basic premise of intersectionality is that human beings experience the world differently based on their own perceived identities as well as how society perceives them & their identities. It only then follows, that our political motivations are largely influenced by the politics of identity.

In the current Kenyan context, we can list the following economic demographics that majority of people identify with: the lower class (ma-sufferer), lower middle class (ma-hustler), the upper middle class and the wealthy (sonko/barbie). These intersect with identities tied to tribe, religion, gender, sexuality, age and even geographical affiliation such as urban/rural association (Born city/mshamba).

The explicit expression of the politics of identity and representation has ranged from the controversy that has surrounded the one-third gender rule to the outright disrespect, harassment and violence experienced by women contending for/in public office. We have seen this country battle with the question on identity and belonging – through the cessation politics that have consumed the Kenyan Coast (#PwaniSiKenya).

Further, by clawing on artistic expression e.g. banning material they have considered ‘immoral’ – (a shameless ruse to clamp down on minority groups such as LGBTQIA), the government has centered the ideology of identity politics.  In a bid to control and define this thing they call “Kenyan” they have othered, ostracized and caused violence to many. And finally, in critiquing ‘social media activism’ which is one of the primary ways in which the Kenyan middle class participates in public politics – we are asking important questions regarding technology and economic access and how these factors are influencing the face of public politics in Kenya. In a nutshell, across all spheres, the politics of identity is one of the most powerful invisible forces within the electoral politics of Kenya.

I am particularly interested in the participation, role, influence and motivations of the Kenyan middle class in public politics in the face of a deteriorating economy and a government riddled with corruption scandals. There is literature and research devoted to the motivations behind participation in public and electoral politics – is it self-driven, social-identification driven or driven by altruism? There has been further research to understand the motivations of Kenyans who participate in the electoral voting system – are they driven by tribe, class or policies? Furthermore, it has been argued well and often that the middle class (due in part to the privileges and levels of political access they enjoy) has a civic duty toward democratization and the election of good leaders who ensure the protection & utilization of public resources and towards sustainable growth that benefits all.



Assuming access to the internet oft comes with class privilege, then most of those shares and likes were presumably by Kenyans who identify as middle-class. In the face of bad governance will middle class Kenyans lay down their ethnic allegiances for their shared class and economic struggles?

On 31st October 2016, I received a message on one of my whatsapp groups, a message I have since seen doing the rounds on various other groups. The message set off with a list of 25 companies that have closed shop/moved headquarters to a different location and retrenched employees in the period between 2014 – 2016[1]. The clincher of the message is a one-liner, an article whose headline calls to attention the grand allegations of graft that the Uhuru government has faced. What’s worse is the president’s admission that he is unable (unwilling?) to tackle corruption.

In addition, The World Bank reports that most job-creation happens in the informal and low-productivity sectors as well as the fact that Kenya’s economy has had lower growth and higher volatility than its peers in the period between 2013-2014. Inflation in the country is at an 8 month high driven by food items.

In middle-class Nairobi neighborhoods like Jamhuri, Madaraka and Lang’ata one comes up against the lost hopes and dreams of a middle-class life that we were birthed on, fed on and raised against. Buildings sprout on top of each other, survival for the fittest imagined only as a fight for space. There is a sense of suffocation. Everybody is trying to rent out whatever extra space they have. Perennial shortages of water, potholes and sewer/drainage problems. And yet- a government that deals in corruption with impunity and without accountability, a government that steals its own livelihood. Najihurumia kuwa Mkenya.

On social media, the rage is articulated eloquently and with some humor but will this translate to any behavioral change? Will this rage be put to work by changing the way in which middle class Kenya directs their political agency?

Bannon, Miguel & Posner question whether urbanization, industrialization, education, political mobilization, and competition for jobs deepen ethnic identities rather than weaken them, as individuals exploit their ethnic group memberships as tools for political, economic, and social advancement. Further, as the election period becomes more imminent ethnicity becomes more salient amongst respondents. Ethnicity becomes most salient were two or more equally sized groups are competing for power – a case obviously apparent in Kenya, where conversation around politics seems to teeter between Luo or Kikuyu.

Cheeseman argues that middle class Kenya acts as the conscience of the country – not in small part due to privileges afforded by good education & wealth. They are more likely to oppose the status quo and support the opposition. His research showed that while ethnicity determines which political party Kenyans pledge allegiance to (regardless of class), support for democracy was differentiated along class lines – with the middle class choosing to support democracy against authoritarian rule.

Given this context, how will middle class Kenya engage with the 2017 elections? Will they choose to wager a better individual livelihood through advantages brought about by tribal association? Or will they choose to seek for a greater common good – leaders who will work for all, govern towards a better Kenya for all Kenyans?

After all, what are we if not the choices we make?

Brenda Wakiagi is a shoemaker who reads while balancing anxieties about her bank account balance. Find her on twitter @notyourkato


[1] Time period:  2014- 2016

  1. Fluorspar laid off workers as Kenya Fluorspar company closed down in April.
  2. East Africa’s biggest broadcaster to close radio and TV stations in Kenya.
  3. Sameer tyre factory closure
  4. Cadbury Kenya closed shop
  5. Eveready East Africa, the biggest dry-cell battery maker in the region, shut its Nakuru factory.
  6. Banking giant Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) formally exited Nairobi.
  7. Reckitt & Benkiser, Procter & Gamble, Bridgestone, Colgate Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson and Unilever have all relocated or restructured their operations mostly to Egypt or South Africa
  8. Tata Chemicals Magadi closed down its main factory in Kenya.
  9. Coca-Cola Company downgraded its massive regional headquarters in Nairobi and relocated most of its operations to South Africa and Nigeria.
  10. Barclays Africa shuts down Nairobi office over redundancy and moves to South Africa.
  11. Royal media lays off over 100 employees to cut costs.
  12. Sidian Bank staff layoffs point to a bigger issue with the Kenyan economy.
  13. Family Bank will lay off unspecified number of workers in a bid to cut costs.
  14. StanChart Kenya lays off 167 as parent firm orders cost-cutting.
  15. EABL to lay off 100 staff at main Kenya subsidiary due to high costs of operations.
  16. Ericsson Kenya staff demand to know retrenchment terms (However this affected larger sub-saharan Africa).
  17. Telkom Kenya to lay off 500 employees in fresh retrenchment wave Read more at:
  1. Kenya Airways cuts 80 jobs in first phase of layoffs.
  2. Kenya Meat Commission lays off 119 employees in it’s rationalization of staff.
  3. Mumias lays off 100 staff at closed water bottling plant.
  4. Equity Bank reports drop in staff costs as 660 workers exit.
  5. Co-op Bank sends 160 managers packing in cost-cutting measure.
  6. Agony for 2,600 workers as Karuturi flower firm shuts down Read more at:
  1. Oserian flower farm lays off 400 employees.
  2. Airtel lays off 60 employees.