Ideas & Debate

British technocrat’s insight on Kenyan political history

A section of the Thika superhighway at Ngara.  Author Charles Hornsby says in his book ‘Kenya: A History Since Independence’, that the country’s  investment in infrastructure has a huge long-term potential value to spur economic growth.  Photo/File
A section of the Thika superhighway at Ngara. Author Charles Hornsby says in his book ‘Kenya: A History Since Independence’, that the country’s investment in infrastructure has a huge long-term potential value to spur economic growth. Photo/File 

You might think that Charles Hornsby is a typical senior corporate executive. He has enjoyed a successful career with Shell, where currently he is the London-based ethics and compliance officer for Shell Downstream.

His professional life has been in a predominantly information technology (IT) role, including as IT Manager for Shell East Africa in Nairobi from 1999 to 2001.

But he has always been deeply interested in African, and in particular Kenyan, politics.

Although he earned an M.Sc. in Computer Science, his first degree was in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, and his D.Phil. was in African Politics.

Even as he pursued his career he has been a researcher on Kenya since 1985, including as a journalist and election observer in most of our recent elections.


He is also the author, together with David Throup, of the 1997 book ‘Multi-Party Politics in Kenya’, and he has recently published ‘Kenya: A History since Independence’, a 958-page monster of a production.

I was given his latest tome by my wife as a birthday present, and I have been dipping into it ever since. (I hardly have the time to read it, leaving me wondering how on earth he managed to make space for researching and writing his opus magnum!)

The history starts at independence and takes us across the decades all the way through to last year. I have lived in Kenya for 35 of those 48 years, and so I eagerly looked forward to seeing how my memories of these times related to Hornsby’s perspectives.

Let me state at the outset that by and large they do. The Kenya he writes about is very much the Kenya I know.

For he and I have both known a country of extraordinary opportunity, some of which we have managed to fulfil but far too much of which remains mere potential.

Hornsby is impressed by how, unlike many other African states, Kenya has survived five decades as a functioning nation-state.

It has held regular elections, however flawed; its borders and political systems have remained intact; and it has avoided military rule internally and open war with its neighbours (by the time of going to press the incursion into Somalia had not yet taken place).

It has found good support from the West and others in terms of aid, trade, investment and tourism, and it has remained a close security ally of Western governments.

But too many of Kenya’s fast growing population are still poor, and corruption and tribalism have remained obstinately present.

The key underlying causes of conflict are largely unchanged, as the struggles over land, money, and the power to influence their allocation, are an ongoing feature of our economic and political landscape.

Hornsby delves deep into the frustrating exploitation of ethnicity for political purposes, and into the accompanying tensions between economic classes.

“Today,” he rightly observes, “Kenyans are arguing over many of the issues that divided them 50 years ago.” (Hello, promoters of Gema and Kamatusa and other groupings, are you listening?) He accepts that the Constitution provides an opportunity for national renewal, but worries that “it must confront a heavy legacy of history”, and that while the rules have been changed, the players have remained the same.

And, one might add, many still imagine they can continue nonetheless playing by the old rules. The author writes as the political economist that he is, with an easy grasp of all the interconnected strands of his subject.

And his prose is fluent, indeed elegant, in the manner of all polished historians. Take this as an example: “The role of Kenya’s history in driving its political culture remains strong and yet, to a degree, manufactured. Kenya’s history is poorly understood by most Kenyans, and is often simplified into linear narratives of development, corruption or repression. Accepted wisdom and reality often differ. Yet Kenyans have been determined to replay the divisions of the past, and real and imagined injustices have merged to create conflicts and entitlements that in turn drive contemporary politics.” It resonates well, does it not?

My one wish is that Hornsby would have paid more attention to our three recent national development plans — the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, the NARC government’s Economic Recovery Strategy, that was quite heavily influenced by its Kanu era predecessor and the present Vision 2030 and its first Medium Term Plan.

They have made an increasing and cumulative contribution to driving the economic and social development, and not least because they have got us to begin thinking a little more beyond politics and beyond the life of a single government.

Influence of corruption

Hornsby’s history is bang up to date, including mention of our recent heavy investment in infrastructure (“of huge long-term potential value”) and our potential for becoming a high tech hub.

But he is also concerned that our growth has been constrained by the influence of corruption, insecurity, non-tariff barriers and fears for the country’s political future.

This not only makes potential investors reluctant, he says, but leads others — like his own employer Shell — to exit. Interestingly, even as his book was going to the printer, we have been seeing more and more multinationals, including GE, IBM, Nokia and others, make Nairobi their major regional centre.

I recently challenged my readers to go through the long report of the Task Force on Education, and today I end with a similar appeal regarding this important book.

Get yourself a copy of Hornsby’s history (knowing that you’ll only have to handle 818 of the 958 pages, as the rest are devoted to chapter notes, a bibliography – itself extending to 20 pages – and the index.)

Revive your memories of these times. Learn about incidents and aspects you were not aware of. Feel comfort and discomfort; be stimulated and provoked.

And as we continue to drown in the daily coverage of our frantic and debilitating politics, reflect deeply about Kenya: about our past, our present… and our possible futures.