State and Society in Kenya, c. 1930-2008

Tutor: Gerard McCann

Module type: Period Topic

Module code: HIS00040C

In the wake of the December 2007 elections Kenya was plunged into violent tragedy. According to some estimates 1,500 people were killed and some 250,000 displaced after incumbent Mwai Kibaki retained the presidency over the  challenge of Raila Odinga in a victory marred by accusations of malpractice and injustice. What happened? How did Kenya, one of Africa’s more ‘stable’ states in the eyes of many, descend into chaos so quickly? The explanation outlined in much of the international press was that the violence was the result of ‘tribalism’? Was that the whole story?

This module introduces late colonial and post-colonial Kenyan history with a view to explaining state and society today – not least why Kenya exploded in 2007-8 and its prospects following the 2013 polls. Some maintain that most of the blame for Kenyan division and underdevelopment should be placed on the brutality and disorientation of the colonial past; others that fault now lies primarily at the doorstep of Kenya’s independent leadership. Through engagement with relevant literature and certain primary sources students will navigate this controversial terrain for themselves. They will study the complex ways in which colonialism shaped the Kenyan state, economy and its people (for example in the construction of that ‘tribalism’), and how this conditioned the paths that were taken (or could be taken) in the post-colonial world. They can assess whether the famous Mau Mau, an episode with emotive resonance to this day, was indeed an independence movement, a rebellion or perhaps even a kind of civil war. Importantly, the course will expose students to debates on the nature of African agency in local political, economic and social transformation. Such change was not of course simply a matter of internal Kenyan factors, rather the emergent international spehere cut deep into local society. Students will therefore also touch on the ways in which the Cold War and international economy affected this East African nation and Africa more broadly. They will analyse debates on state formation and development in independent Africa, particularly unpacking notions of ethnicity, authoritarianism and democratisation. They will even be exposed to arguments on the place of South Asians within the Kenyan polity, another example of a sticky colonial issue that survived into the Africanising future. With such a variegated set of historical themes, students will attempt to explain why ethnic conflict, patronage and economic malaise have remained such tenacious factors in Kenyan history, but also perhaps think about where such seemingly pessimistic narratives might not tell the whole tale.


Seminar topics may include:

  • Capitalism, competition and ethnic cleavage:  Kenya’s later colonialism
  • Mau Mau – rebellion, freedom struggle, civil war?
  • From ‘second colonial occupation’ to decolonisation 
  • Independent futures: ‘African socialism’ and neocolonialism
  • The rise and rise of the wabenzi: Authoritarianism and the big man
  • Democratisation, corruption and structural adjustment
  • The Asian Question
  • Historians explaining the Kenya crisis, 2007-8


To find out more

You might like to look at the following:

  • Ogot, Bethwell A. and William R. Ochieng. Decolonization and Independence in Kenya, 1940-93. London: James Currey, 1995.
  • Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Devil on the Cross [novel]. London: Heinemann edition, 1987.