Article by Izzy Davis

At the height of the British empire’s dominance in the 1800s, it controlled a quarter of the world, much of which was achieved through the colonial policy, with colonies established in all habitable continents. Africa has arguably been the continent most impacted by colonialism, with 18 countries under British occupation in the colonial era. The Oxford English dictionary defines colonialism as: “the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically,” (Oxford English Dictionary, n.d.) the word “exploits” accurately portrays the self-motivation fuelling British colonialism. The British government saw colonialism in Africa as a source of natural resources for the industrial era Britain had entered since the Industrial Revolution.

Kenya was a British colony from 1895 to 1963 (initially forming part of the East Africa Protectorate until it was established as Kenya in 1920). Many countries, such as Botswana, have been able to overcome the barriers to development created by their colonial histories, whereas others (including Kenya) have seen longer lasting and more detrimental consequences to their future development. Whether their colonial pasts have made countries more or less conducive to development remains an unresolved debate amongst political scientists. Areas assessed include the country’s political system, economy and society. This article will focus on how Kenya’s politics remain shaped by British colonialism 58 years since they achieved independence.

The type of political rule imposed on colonies varied between countries and included company, indirect, direct and settler rule; the form used was dependant on the colonies’ individual circumstances and the country carrying out colonialism. Britain usually enacted indirect rule as was seen in Kenya (although Kenya was specifically a hybrid between settler and indirect rule). Indirect rule was a form of governance in which natives were employed in day-to-day administrative positions and overseen by the colonial government with the government playing a more supervisory than active role. This meant indigenous people were, to some extent, left to rule as they saw fit on ordinary issues such as charges of theft. At first glance, governance by indirect rule appears less oppressive than direct rule, which meant little delegation by the colonial administration, suggesting indirect rule to be more favourable. However, most literature, such as that by Robinson (Robinson and Heldring, 2017), concludes that whilst countries suffered greater loss of national liberty under direct rule, indirect rule has affected countries far more negatively in the longer term.

An outstanding feature of indirect rule is known as the ‘African Chief Model’, in which chiefs were given the role of tax collectors and were encouraged to accumulate vast wealth, with some chiefs taking a 10% share of tax. Britain carried out indirect rule out of self-motivation with two primary aims. Firstly, it served as an example of the benefits of cooperation with colonists, installing obedience amongst the people (Mulinge and Lesetedi, 1998). This obedience would have been compounded by a low standard of living for most Kenyans, with 487 in 1000 children dying before the age of 5 at the height of colonial control in 1920. Child mortality gives an accurate sense of a country’s social development as it reflects the available access to high-quality medical care (in comparison, child mortality in Botswana was 381 per 1000 in the same year, demonstrating Kenya’s standard of living was low even amongst some sub-Saharan countries). A low standard of living incentivised cooperation with colonists as a route to education and healthcare and, as a result, an improvement in the quality of life. Despite appearances, this was not a viable option for most Kenyans as British investment in Kenya was kept to a minimum to reduce costs to the British government. Secondly and most crucially, the African Chief Model created deliberate division amongst Kenyans. The aim being to reduce the risk of an uprising which could overthrow the colonial administration. Colonists were successful in creating superordinate and subordinate tribes; this compounded small internal tensions that had previously existed before the colonial intervention. The deliberate cultivation of ethnic tensions saw a rise in ethnic nationalism and independence through the formation of what was, in effect, an autocratic state (despite officially being declared a democracy). The Kikuyu tribe profited the most from colonialism, and subsequently, the four presidents since independence have been members of the Kikuyu tribe.

Domination of Kenyan politics by the Kikuyu tribe has been made possible through the rampant cronyism(1) within the government; cronyism facilitated by the country never successfully abolishing colonial social hierarchical structures within government. The most salient example of the autocratic nature of Kenya was when the country was under the rule of its second president, Daniel Arap Mo. Mo declared Kenya a one-party state, eventually allowing entirely corrupt elections which facilitated his 24-year term as president.

Despite the economic successes of countries such as China which demonstrate autocratic characteristics (Ervine, 2011), it is crucial to remember that a country’s development is defined by more than mere economics (as was historically seen in the sole use of GDP, which the United Nations replaced with HDI in 1990). Even if GDP was still the barometer for development government, corruption and self-interest has meant Kenya has failed to achieve the economic success that some autocratic states have been capable of, meaning Kenya remains a Low-Income Country.

Although the extent of the economic legacy of colonialism which affects Kenya’s development is still debated, its political legacy has permeated all areas of development, generally stagnating it.


Ervine, P., 2011. Can China be defined as an authoritarian state?. E-international relations, [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 27 February 2021].

Mulinge, M. and Lesetedi, G., 1998. Interrogating Our Past: Colonialism and Corruption in Sub-Saharan Africa. African Journal of Political Science, 2(3), pp.17, 18, 21. n.d. Home : Oxford English Dictionary. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 10 February 2021].

Robinson, J. and Heldring, L., 2017. [online] Converse Africa. Available at: <> [Accessed 5 November 2020].

(1) the appointment of friends and associates to positions of authority, without proper regard to their qualifications. (definition from: