Was the failure of Kenya Institutional or Neopatrimonial?

In 1964, Kenya gained its independence under the Kenyan African National Union (KANU), led by Jomo Kenyatta. Since then, the country has faced similar problems to much of Africa. Two primary approaches have arisen to explain Kenya’s political and economic crisis: the Institutional and the Neopatrimonialism approach. Institutions are defined as the formal and informal structures which govern behaviour within a society. Neopatrimonialism is a political relationship whereby a ruler’s authority is based on personal loyalty attained through material distribution – called rents.[1] This essay will be exploring the weaknesses of Kenyan institutions, then explaining the rise of rent-seeking and, finally, exploring which approach is superior. This paper will ultimately find that the approaches should not be mutually exclusive and that both can complement one another.

The fundamental weakness of Kenyan institutions arises from a disjuncture between the formal de jure institutions and the de facto informal institutions. Upon independence, Kenyatta faced the informal institutions of regional patrimonialist leaders.[2] In response, he introduced and strengthened the formal institution of the provincial administration, which allowed him to increase his control over these disparate informal institutions.[3] The importance of strong formal institutions is seen in their ability to reduce risk and encourage political participation through providing predictability.[4] Kenyatta had managed to elevate the formal institutions of the country above those of the informal, for at least a bit. With the ascension of President Moi, this shifted. Leaders despise and resist institutions that restrain their power.[5] Thus, Moi reduced Kenyatta’s formal institutions as it constrained his ability to rule.[6] Moi created institutions, formally and informally, of fear.[7] The government ignored its own laws, severely damaging the formal institutions.[8] Informal institutions were adapted and empowered. Moi used armed gangs to eliminate his opposition, destroying the monopoly on the legitimate use of force that is necessary for the existence of a state.[9] Alongside all this, the powers of the president were formally expanded.[10] The new system lacked any formal checks and balances.[11] The executive retained and increased its power, but at the expense of other formal institutions and overall trust in the Kenyan state.[12] What ultimately characterises Kenya’s weakening institutions is Moi’s disregard for the formal institutions in favour of the informal institution of his capricious rule.[13] This had led to a scenario where the market is unsure and struggles to function effectively, as well as limiting any effective state implementation of policy to provide public goods.[14]

Neopatrimonialism is rife in Kenya and often construed upon ethnic grounds. To reiterate, neopatrimonialism is a system whereby there are little to no formal institutions and where the ruler distributes rights and resources to ensure loyalty.[15] This distribution of resources and positions is called “rent”.[16] Kenyatta began Kenya’s rent-seeking behaviour by using his position to appoint his ethnic supporters as civils servants.[17] This exacerbated a trend whereby Kenyan politics was ethnically divided. Politics became a means to uplift oneself and one’s ethnicity. Thus, rather than becoming a means to distribute public goods for the betterment of the country, neopatrimonialism turned politics into a system where individuals maximised their ability to attain and distribute private goods. In response to Kenyatta’s ethnic-clientism, Moi attempted to reduce Kikuyu economic and political power, in favour of his own ethnicity’s privilege.[18] To fund his patronage network, he ransacked the treasury.[19] This entrenched corruption and destroyed trust in the state.[20] As Mueller put it:

“Politics is viewed primarily as a winner-takes-all zero-sum ethnic game.”[21]

This is all because of a system where politics becomes about personal gratification rather than serving a formal institution or society. Neopatrimonialism makes political power too necessary for survival, which inevitably leads to violence.[22] Fundamentally, institutions prosper because they allow the distribution of resources to ensure the prosperity of as many people as possible.[23] The problem with Kenyan neopatrimonialism is that rent-seeking was ethnically based and exclusionary. Ironically, the increasing formal power of the state would encourage this neopatrimonialism, as rent-seeking becomes more profitable as the state grows.[24]

Neopatrimonialism in Kenya, while being accused of not being an institution at all, is more accurately treated as an informal institution. The Institutional approach diagnoses Kenya’s problems as stemming from weak formal institutions, while the Neopatrimonialism approach accuses that system of being the reason for Kenya’s crises. But there need not be a dichotomy. Neopatrimonialism is rife because of a lack of formal structures. When a formal institution, such as the provincial administration, did exist, neopatrimonialism was weakened on some levels. Also, formal institutions can be seen to contribute to neopatrimonialism, as seen in the increasing executive power under Moi. Neopatrimonialism has been formalised before, Kelsall argues, claiming that Kenyatta institutionalised a form of rent-seeking that was effective.[25] Overall, it is imprudent to choose one approach over the other. Rather, both should be treated as complementary explanations – keeping in mind the neopatrimonialism is simultaneously its own institution that contributes to the institutional approach by eroding formal structures if not harnessed properly.

This essay has examined two seemingly differing approaches to understanding Kenya’s crises. It has outlined the institutional approach and how institutions are weak in Kenya. The essay then discussed the phenomenon of rent-seeking and the neopatrimonialism approach. Finally, the essay determined that the approaches are not mutually exclusive as neopatrimonialism should more accurately be a form of institution that can complement some formal institutions, but often erodes them. Fundamentally, both approaches should be used complementarily.


  • Acemoglu, Daron and Robinson, James. A. “Why is Africa Poor.” Economic Theory of Developing Regions. 21-50. Routledge, 2010.
  • Evans, Peter B. “Predatory, Developmental, and Other Apparatuses: A Comparative Political Economy Perspective on the Third World State.” Sociological Forum 4, no. 4. (1989): 561-587.
  • Kelsall, T. “Rethinking the Relationship between Neo-Patrimonialism and Economic Development in Africa.” IDS Bulletin 42, no. 2 (2011): 16-27.
  • Mueller, Susanne. “The political economy of Kenya’s crisis.” Journal of Eastern African Studies 2, (2008): 185–210.
  • Orvis, Stephen. “Conclusion: Bringing Institutions Back into the Study of Kenya and Africa.” Africa Today 53, no. 2 (2006): 95-110.


[1] T. Kelsall, “Rethinking the Relationship between Neo-Patrimonialism and Economic Development in Africa,” IDS Bulletin 42, no. 2 (2011): 16-17.

[2] Stephen Orvis, “Conclusion: Bringing Institutions Back into the Study of Kenya and Africa,” Africa Today 53, no. 2 (2006):  100.

[3] Ibid., 101.

[4] Ibid., 96.

[5] Ibid., 98.

[6] Ibid., 108.

[7] Susanne Mueller, “The political economy of Kenya’s crisis,” Journal of Eastern African Studies 2, (2008):  196.

[8] Ibid., 198.

[9] Ibid., 189.

[10] Ibid., 195.

[11] Ibid., 200.

[12] Ibid., 195.

[13] Ibid., 197.

[14] Daron Acemoglu, and James. A. Robinson, “Why is Africa Poor,” Economic Theory of Developing Regions, Routledge, 2010, 22.

[15] Ibid., 26.

[16] Kelsall, “Rethinking the Relationship between Neo-Patrimonialism and Economic Development in Africa,” 17.

[17] Mueller, “The political economy of Kenya’s crisis,” 188.

[18] Ibid., 188.

[19] Ibid., 188.

[20] Ibid., 196.

[21] Ibid., 200.

[22] Acemoglu and Robinson, “Why is Africa Poor,” 43.

[23] Orvis, “Conclusion: Bringing Institutions Back into the Study of Kenya and Africa,” 98.

[24] Peter B. Evans, “Predatory, Developmental, and Other Apparatuses: A Comparative Political Economy Perspective on the Third World State,” Sociological Forum 4, no. 4. (1989): 564.

[25] Kelsall, “Rethinking the Relationship between Neo-Patrimonialism and Economic Development in Africa,” 21.