CREATION OF THE MAFIA STATE: The colonial roots of corruption in Kenya

President Uhuru Kenyatta is racing against time to secure his legacy.

Other than the Big Four, which appears to have stalled, he told the BBC in an interview that he would also want to be remembered for slaying the corruption dragon. However, the war on corruption has stalled, with resistance from within government, linked to none other but his principal assistant, Deputy President William Ruto.

So why it becoming an uphill task to win this war, despite new appointments in the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the EACC and Attorney General’s office?

Graft is deeply entrenched, and history explains it.


When the colonialists introduced hut levy/tax, the motivation was to expand the cash economy, finance development and force Africans to work in their economy/ farms. This later led to colonial corruption.

Kenyan scholar Isaac Tarus traces the loss of public funds to this period. In an article in The Standard on June 13, Tarus links the rise of prominent families that later dominated the country’s public sphere to colonial corruption.

The heads of these families, some who were chiefs then, he argues, used their positions to enrich themselves. They had control over the masses, and with such enormous power, the common saying that absolute power corrupts absolutely can hardly be denied as a human phenomenon. And the thrust of abuse of power is to gain an undue advantage over others in the course of discharging their duties.

Some of these chiefs, it is alleged, collected more than what the colonial authorities had decreed and kept the extra cash.

They were also “rewarded” well by the colonialists for their duties. This is probably how they managed to educate their children in prominent schools in the country and abroad such that when Kenya gained independence, they were among the most qualified people to join government and politics.

Some of their sons were/ have been influential in government for years, and although some have since died or are old, their sons are either in active politics, behind the curtains, in government or in key economic/ business sectors. They call the shots.

Some of the scions of colonial chiefs include former Finance Minister Simeon Nyachae (Chief Musa Nyandusi), former Attorney General Charles Njonjo (Senior Chief Josiah Njonjo), former Minister of State Mbiyu Koinange (Senior Chief Koinange), the late Arthur Magugu, who was a former Finance Minister (Chief Magugu), former Githunguri MP Njehu Gatabaki and former CMA chairman and business mogul Kung’u Gatabaki (Chief Peter Gatabaki wa Thakwa). Others are lawyers Samuel and George Waruhiu (Senior Chief Waruhiu wa Kung’u), former Police Commissioner Bernard Hinga (Chief Hinga), former Lari MP Mburu Kahangara (Chief Luka Kahangara of Lari) and Mama Ngina Kenyatta, wife of the founding father, and mother to Uhuru (Chief Muhoho wa Gathecha)

Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan academic, author, and political commentator says the British invention of indirect rule was a system of “decentralised despotism”. It corrupted local authorities because it left native chiefs with almost unchecked powers of revenue collection. This contributed to the increase in extortion, especially when the colonialists left. The colonialists used chiefs to legitimise their stay and to subdue Africans. This incentivised or motivated the chiefs to amass more wealth, especially after the White Man left.


As Wamagatta Evanson notes in his academic journal African Collaborators and Their Quest for Power in Colonial Kenya: Senior Chief Waruhiu Wa Kung’u’s Rise from Obscurity to Prominence, 1890-1922in the early days of colonial rule, the office of chief was the highest rank an African could attain in the civil service.

He says there were many individuals, such as Waruhiu wa Kung’u, who aspired to be made chief because the position surpassed all other forms of collaboration and offered the holder more opportunities to acquire wealth, prestige, influence and power.  

Caroline Elkins, a professor of history at Harvard University, notes, These collaborator chiefs, who were largely catapulted by self-interest, were to be beneath Provincial Commissioners and District Commissioners but above the rest of a colony’s African subjects from whom they were to maintain ‘tribal order’ in exchange for generous rewards. Colonial largesse included free fertile government land, superior seedlings, cheap labour and trade licences, making chiefs some of the biggest beneficiaries of colonial rule.”

Author Joe Khamisi corroborates this in his book  Looters and Grabbers, 54 Years of Corruption and Plunder by the Elite, 1963-2017, saying, “The evil of corruption and bribery got worse when colonialists enacted the Chief’s Act in 1937 giving the officials a wider latitude of powers, including maintaining law and order, collecting taxes to help sustain the luxurious lifestyles of whites, overseeing agricultural activities in their areas, and mediating disputes.”

To meet their financial needs, chiefs confiscated livestock from tax defaulters to increase their herds and accumulated other peoples’ land.

Khamisi says these chiefs accumulated wealth sometimes through illegal means using powers conferred on them.

Elijah Waicanguru, who started as a headman in Ihithe sub-location in Nyeri District, later became a judge of a tribunal in Tetu. He was one of the first Africans to own a car in 1946 — a Chevrolet pick-up truck.

Godfrey Sang, a historian and biographer who writes for the Star newspaper, notes in an article: “In the colonial days, much of the corruption involved theft by public servants – both European and African – although the Africans often paid for it while the Europeans largely got away with it. But in establishing the colonial state, the British had to evict Africans to create ‘Crown Land’ over much of Kenya at virtually no cost. Much of this land was allocated to settler farmers particularly in highly productive land in the so-called White Highlands.”

To this day, European-owned multinationals in tea and coffee, among other sectors, still hold huge tracts of land corruptly acquired from the Africans and they continue to quietly enjoy such holdings.

When the colonialists left, the chiefs had a field day.

They took advantage of their experience and the absence of the British and entrenched their crooked behaviours and amassed more. They were in power and had influence in resource allocation, division of land and other development interests.

Their sons, now having gained an education and in government, tasted power at the state level. As more and more people got educated, positions in government became competitive. The sons of the chiefs’ closeness to power and their control was now being challenged. They had to protect it.

The Global State of Democracy 2017: Exploring Democracy’s Resilience notes: “Big money provides a disproportionate advantage to a selected few, and creates an uneven playing field.” This creates the elite system that amasses wealth to protect their power and position.

Chief Koinange wa Mbiyu was appointed “headman” by the colonial administration in 1921, and Senior Chief of Kiambu District in 1938. By 1942, he was Senior Chief without a location. He then became an adviser on African affairs to the District Commissioner.

By the time he was appointed headman, his first-born son, Mbiyu Koinange, was 14 years old.  Six years later, he proceeded to Virginia, US, for his university degree. He later became Kiambaa MP and served in Jomo Kenyatta’s government for 16 years in various powerful Cabinet dockets, among them Education, External Affairs, Pan-African Affairs, and later became Minister of State in the Office of the President.


As Kenya was gaining independence, certain leaders who were “active” in the struggle were slowly taking the leadership of the country. And they were not as rich before they took over power.

Sang gives a very interesting description of Kenyatta’s wealth. Citing a document he says is at the Kenya National Archives, he notes that on March 5, 1955, the Kiambu District Commissioner listed all of Jomo Kenyatta’s property as follows: 12 textbooks, 1 iron bed, 2 spring beds, 2 round tables, 2 chest of drawers, 1 woman’s dress, 1 khaki hat, 1½ pairs pyjamas, 1 scarf, 5 collars, 1 window curtain, 4 shirts, 2 kanzus for servants, 1 towel, 1 small table, 1 wash basin stand, 1 small lock, 8 coats, 1 chair straight back, 1 folding chair, 1 maize grinder, 6 chairs soft seat and 1 Hudson Terraplane car. The DC instructed this property be distributed to Kenyatta’s relatives.

Sang, however, observes that another letter dated July 9, 1960, detailed Kenyatta’s property — and held by his brother James Muigai — as follows:  One Hudson Terraplane car, 1 maize mill No. 10595, 10 dining room chairs, 1 stirrup pump, 2 chests of drawers, 2 beds and the spring of one bed, 1 table and 1 table top, 1 water jar, 1 folding chair frame.

The letter noted there was no record of what happened to the remainder of the property that had been listed in the March 1955 list, which had presumably been distributed to his relatives as per the instruction of the DC, who was by then deceased.

This details Kenyatta’s personal wealth before he came to power. He was released from detention a year later and when he died 18 years later, his wealth was and still remains massive.

Did his being President contribute to this wealth?

In 1975, the New York Times reported the following in an article headlined, “Corruption and Repression Mar the Success of Kenya“: “In recent years, however, Mr. Kenyatta has damaged his political image and alienated more and more Kenyans by abuses of power, by piling up a growing fortune and by moving to stifle the development of a freer society in this East African nation…”

“Another situation involving the President that has disturbed Kenyans is that he has neither restrained nor disciplined his family and his closest associates in their amassing of wealth, much of it through evasions of law and the exploitation of such national resources as wildlife and forests…”

“Last spring the President reportedly wrote a letter to a farmers’ cooperative telling it not to renew the question of a $196,000 debt he had incurred for seed, fertilizer and other supplies for his several farms. The letter said he did not intend to pay, even though the debt would have to be absorbed by fellow farmers, many of them smallholders.”

The newspaper noted that corruption in Kenya was mild by African standards, possibly because the government had provided more legitimate private economic opportunities than existed in most countries in Africa. And Kenyatta’s record and that of this family, the newspaper stated, had come to light partly because little effort had been made to conceal it.

So when it became clear to his confidants that his then Vice President, Daniel Moi, would automatically replace Kenyatta when his health deteriorated, there was the Change the Constitution movement, which was out to change the law to prevent Moi from ascending to power.

During the change Constitution Movement in 1976, the powers that be, which were also referred as the Kiambu Mafia [Kiambu was Kenyatta’s home area] wanted to protect their interests, because, as they expected, Moi would scuttle their deals and reduce their influence and power.

There is unpopular saying in Kenya that when a certain community gets to power, then it is their turn to “eat”, at the exclusion of the others.

With corruption so entrenched, it is not even clear whether Uhuru means what he says in the war on corruption, or whatever is going on is another plot to protect his family and confidants’ interests before he leaves office in 2022.

A repeat of the Change the Constitution Movement? Time will tell.

Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and his son Uhuru. With them is former President Daniel  Moi (centre). CREDIT/ NATION MEDIA GROUP

You have successfully subscribed to the newsletter

There was an error while trying to send your request. Please try again.

The Brief will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing.