The ‘politics of my pocket’: forty years of eating Kenya to its knees

While the Kenyan political elite concentrate on shoring up their own personal fortunes, the masses of the Kenyan people are turned into ‘destitutes’.

In November/December 2011, I travelled to Kenya as I have done for many years as a Kenyan diaspora subject. During my previous visits, I have always felt a wind of hope gauged by the way the ordinary Kenyan people had been innovating and surviving. This time around, the wind of hope faded, and I kept wondering what had happened. I present three different cases of ways Kenyan people are turned into destitutes and that seemed to create the sense of hopelessness in me. When reflecting back, I realised that this feeling of hopelessness was not so much because of the eating by the political elite and the ‘politics of my pocket’, although over time, the network of eaters has become extensive and extremely entrenched, as the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission director Professor Patrick Lumumba, who was unceremoniously sacked for touching the network, was to find out. Instead, it is the depth of impunity and utter lack of political will to change. So many of the leaders at all levels and sectors are so entrenched in the eating, that no one can throw a stone without inflicting pain on oneself. The few who choose not to eat are labeled fools and enemies of the eating class.

Half justice is often instituted to make it appear that something is being done, but any of the big fish implicated somehow find a way of getting off the hook. Countless commissions and task forces to investigate this or that scam are then set up, and these commissions mostly end up finding no evidence. The commissions constitute another form of eating from the public coffers, since the commissioners such as those in the Goldenberg Scandal are well-paid.

Thinking back once again, it is the half-hearted justice that is the problem, because of the ability to blind the people into hoping that this time around justice will be done. The three cases I observed in November/December 2011 were part of my frustration. They demonstrate in different ways how the masses of the Kenyan people are turned into destitutes.


This was the demolition of homes in Syokimau estate in the outskirts of Nairobi. Although demolition of homes in Nairobi is not a new phenomenon, this particular one was very confusing, because the houses did not seem like the usual so-called illegal structures of poor people that the city council so often claims to be clearing for development. These were homes built on land the owners had bought and had received title deeds from the Ministry of Lands.

When I arrived, in November 2011, I watched on the TV news, as many Kenyans had done during that month, footage of government bulldozers demolishing homes as owners helplessly watched in disbelief. An elected government was demolishing homes that ordinary people had built with a lot of sweat, using all their savings not to mention the mortgage. Many would continue paying to the banks even as they were turned homeless by the act of demolition. Moreover, there had been little warning and neither were the owners given time to remove their own property. Searching for why such inhuman action was being perpetrated by the government, it became clear that there was a complex and long land racket history going back to the early 1990s and involving prominent personalities in the current and previous governments.

Those implicated, according to Cyrus Ombati of the Standard Newspaper, (2 January 2012) include the Commissioner of Lands, Land Control Boards, Lands Registry, Municipal Council of Mavoko, local politicians and speculators operating as self-help groups all making quick money through the fraudulent sale of public land on which the unsuspecting buyers were issued with fake title deeds on forged documents. As Bob Odalo argues, because of the heavy involvement of government officials, only half justice was done. The state, for example, terminated a court case involving seven people, including a one-time mayor and town clerk in the Mavoko municipal council, who had been charged with fraudulently receiving more than 154 million Kenya shillings from the public on the pretext that they could sell them land in the area.

When the demolition was executed in November 2011, a court case on the same land racket was apparently going on and obviously once again some big fish somewhere were avoiding the net. What is clear beyond any doubt is that large numbers of families have been rendered homeless, and as usual a commission has been set up to investigate the scam.


As one who has been involved in research on prevention of HIV and AIDS from the late 1980s, it became very disheartening to hear the same story on AIDS Day 2011, 40 years after the virus that causes AIDS was discovered in Kenya. On this AIDS Day, there was little to rejoice about. The stigma was said to be the same, the prevalence was similarly high and the ARV drugs which seem to be doing miracles elsewhere by turning AIDS into just another chronic disease had not done the same in Kenya. AIDS is still a death sentence. I am very aware of the global politics of AIDS drugs, but in my view we need another form of soul searching. If for example, the problem is just a question of resources not being enough, as is often drummed, one could still have a glimmer of hope that one day resources will be found to reach all. However, in the context of the eating I have described above there is little hope because similar scams exist in the HIV and AIDS business.

What was however more disturbing in the Kenyan context was the reported existence of fake drugs circulating in the market, an issue which should be of concern not just because meagre resources are used to buy fake drugs. More serious for people with HIV and for the public in general is the way such drugs can create drug resistant strains. I should also point out that the sale of fake drugs is not a problem that came in 2011. In 2006 the problem of black market AIDS drugs was already reported. The question therefore is who is doing business with fake drugs? The representatives of people living with HIV put the blame on the government agency for drug procurement for allowing the fake drugs to filter through the supply chain within a system riddled with corruption. The usual reply is that the government is investigating. In spite of the scam, the same song that the donors – in this case the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria – are not giving enough is sung, thus assigning blame elsewhere.


This is a slightly different problem. It sums up what happens when the country is eaten bare and instead of using a dollar a day to measure poverty, the jigger menance could be more authentic. The chigoe flea or jigger (Tunga penetrans) is a parasite where the female buries itself into exposed skin on the feet, especially toes, between the toes, on the soles, the elbows, buttocks and the genital areas. The flea remains for two weeks while developing eggs, sometimes causing intense irritation after which the skin lesion grows to a 5-10 mm blister and if left within the skin, infection or other dangerous complications can occur.

As a jigger survivor, I have personal experience with the menace. In my case, this started when we had been forced into villages or rather concentration camps after the declaration of a state of emergency in Kenya by the colonial government from 1952-1960. My family, like many others in Central Kenya, had lost everything after the colonial administration burned down our homes.

During the particular time when our homes were burnt down, a teacher had been murdered by the Mau Mau fighters, just near our home, accused of being a loyalist and therefore a traitor. In fear of retaliation by the colonial administration, my family ran into the bush. We stationed ourselves on high ground, observing our homes go up in flames. The flames and the agony expressed by my mother and grandmother are still vivid in my memory, 50 years later. After this we became destitute, as many other people around us. At that time, most able men were either in the forests fighting the colonial occupation or were incarcerated in detention camps around the country. My father too lost everything of his business in Nairobi when, like other men, he was moved around in detention camps. The rural villages or concentration camps had mainly women and children.

The colonial government instituted a policy of forced labour on women who worked from dawn to sunset. They were given only one hour at five o’clock in the evening to go to the farms to look for food. If they came back one minute late, they were thrown into a detention cell where they spent the night with no food. This meant the children went for days without parents, food or any form of care and this is the time the jiggers did their round. The soil was the only readily available food except for the occasional powder milk from the Catholic nuns whom we called cucu wa iria (milk grandmother). Many of us were extremely deformed by the jiggers, but worse still many children died from the combined jigger infestation and malnutrition. The jigger menace is a measure of destitution and poverty. That so many people in Kenya are still infested by jiggers, are still getting deformed and are still dying from jiggers should call for much critical reflection on what happened to the promised development of governments of independent Africa.

What seems to have happened in the case of Kenya is not just the expansion and sharpening of the ‘politics of my pocket’ locally. More significantly, it is the utter inability and lack of will to seriously take charge to close the various mechanisms of capital flight to foreign destinations by local and foreign corporations. The amount siphoned through capital flight is staggering (Ndikumana and Boyce 2011, Abugre 20011a-d).

Since Kenya attained flag independence in 1963, the political elite has, as indicated, excelled in the ‘politics of my pocket’. The first president, Jomo Kenyatta, made it clear from the beginning that the country was for grabs. In the mid-1960s Jomo Kenyatta made his infamous rebuke of Bildad Kaggia, and publicly wondered whether Kaggia was a kihii (a derogatory term used to refer to an uncircumcised boy). He asked what Kaggia had done for himself, since his release from detention as a response to Kaggia standing by the principle for which the Kenyan people shed their blood fighting the British colonialists. Kenyatta moreover accused Kaggia of being a traitor to the Kikuyu for what he said was trying to hand over power to a Kihii because Kaggia had joined the party led by Oginga Odinga, a Luo, for whom male circumcision is not a cultural practice.

Kenyatta had then retorted that those who want to get rich should work and get rich. Work in this case should not be confused with working on one’s own farm or business and hoping to get rich. If this was the meaning, all the peasants or the urban poor who chip away on their small farms and businesses would have been filthy rich by now. Instead, Kenyatta’s meaning was working hard to cleverly amass wealth from public coffers. In this meaning of work, only the political elite class had access to public coffers. The ‘politics of my pocket’ were sharpened by the two presidents who took over power after Kenyatta.

The story would perhaps be different had the siphoned public resources been wisely invested in some productive ventures in the country. Instead, most was stashed away in foreign banks or was used for constructing housing estates.

This means that the class that has been in power since independence never plants back where it harvests and of course during these 40 years the number of eaters has kept expanding, largely because of impunity. Furthermore, the methods of eating have become varied. An example is the common practice where a government official, say in the Ministry of Education conspires with a head teacher to share half of the funds earmarked for schools. If the head teacher agrees, the two stash half of the money earmarked for the school into their pockets. Because such an official deals with many schools round the country, the amount eaten is enormous – as the $46 million missing from the Ministry of Education free primary education fund indicates. When confronted with this information, the responsible minister did not contemplate resigning as he did not feel responsible for this scam.

This is not the only government ministry that could not account for missing millions. In the Controller and Auditor General’s report for the 2009/2010 financial year, tabled in Parliament in July 2011, five other ministries could not account for a total of KSh 6.4 billion. It seems no wonder the country has been eaten bare, as was obvious during 2011 from the numerous strikes, the latest being that of doctors in December demanding better pay. The picture, as already indicated, could have been different had it not been for the lack of vision and political will to create strong institutions to both identify the various ways of eating locally but also deal with capital flight by foreign corporations. This would have in turn given the country and its people a firm base to develop a strong code of ethics, thus not just restoring the African ubuntu spirit that recognises the sovereignty of the human person, but more significantly giving people courage to be vigilant about so-called investments, including aid.

Instead, the exit of the colonial administration was replaced by a local class that allowed the continued siphoning of local resources, in ways so well described by Charles Abugre. In a series of articles, Abugre (2011a-d) gives a very vivid but complex picture of how the ‘politics of my pocket’ are played at the global level and the multitude of actors in capital flight. However, in this complex scenario of the ‘politics of my pocket’, there is a tendency to sing one song and silence others. What is mostly seen and talked about is corruption among the African political elite, as the recent cases of three Kenyan political elite suggest. The three were accused by the west of corruption, money laundering and drug trafficking. The silence on capital flight from Kenya or the role of western corporations in corrupting African political elites highlights an extremely hypocritical position, given that it takes two to tangle. However, such an expectation is like giving a child a piece of cake and than asking the child to share with you. Is the problem here not the inability of the political elite to create strong institutions which could help them fight back?

  Beth Maina Ahlberg is with the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health, Uppsala University, Swede and Skaraborg Institute for Research and Development, Skövde, Sweden. beth.ahlberg[at]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>