WHAT OTHERS SAY: Is Kenya really exceptional in E.Africa?

Thursday July 14 2016

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Recently, there has been quite a bit of stuff in the Kenyan media about “Kenyan exceptionalism”.

In the regional context, this is the idea that Kenya is in a class of its own from the rest, and should therefore be judged differently.

It is an interesting, and very Kenyan debate. Other people in the region like to joke that patriotic Kenyan journalists and commentators, like to say things like “Kenya, the largest economy in the region, topped the medal table at the Beijing World Athletics Championships”.

There are two problems there. For one, from a historical perspective there is some meaning in what Kenya’s economy is relative to its neighbours.

In the late 1960s, through the 70s, into the early 80s, it was the only country that embraced “capitalism” in East Africa, and in the context of the time, it now seems extraordinary.

Secondly, Kenya is not the only country afflicted by bouts of exceptionalism. Tanzania, perhaps today even more than in the past, likes to see itself as a special case of “stability and unity”, now that Kenya had its moment of madness in the post-election violence of 2007/2008.


Rwanda with its orderliness and having made a time-defying turnaround from the 1994 genocide in which nearly one million were slaughtered, also likes to feel special.

Uganda, it was the 1990s super kid on the block.

But I find Kenyan exceptionalism fascinating today because there are several notable things about it.

One, there is actually no agreement on it. Generally there are three trends in it.

The first one, linked to historical grievances about marginalisation, and aligned to what we might collectively call the political left, denies that Kenya was ever exceptional. It was a lie, they say, conjured up by a corrupt privilegentsia as opium for the masses to give them a false sense of national pride and accept their exploitation.

The second trend sees Kenya as exceptional, but a regional power in decline hobbled by graft and tribalism, eclipsed by Ethiopia to the north, a resurgent Magufuli-led Tanzania to the south, a shining far-flung Rwanda, and a political alliance with an ossifying oligarch in Uganda to the west.

Then there is a trend that is unshakably sure of Kenya’s greatness: its athletic heroics, a Lupita Nyong’o Oscar, and Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage all reaffirming this glory.

Yet I still hear something very different. When you talk to a Ugandan who is interested in Kenya, he won’t talk about the country. He will talk about Kenyans as individuals.

It is an important distinction, because when East Africans talk about Rwanda, it will be about the country and, often, President Kagame. Tanzania is also still spoken about mostly as a country, although Magufuli has changed that a little.

A(ex) Chief Justice Willy Mutunga who defies convention with his ear stud. Equity Bank chief James Mwangi is a popular conservation subject. You are more likely to be asked about the fortunes of CORD leader Raila Odinga, than about opposition politics.

Some well-heeled Ugandan women recently wanted to talk about “some issues”. Turned out it was about publisher Susan Wakhungu-Githuku, and specifically about her latest book “Women over 50”. 

A friend who is looking to do something with his expansive land in western Uganda, spent almost an hour regaling me with stories of Kenyan macadamia farmers he had visited with. He had little inkling of anything else about Kenya.

Many times the conversation is about companies. The moneys made by Safaricom, which are near Burundi’s annual national budget, is a regular conversation subject, and the vexing issue of how come M-Pesa was developed in Kenya, not Uganda or Nigeria, for example.

Therefore we see a big change in this matter of Kenyan exceptionalism. When most people speak of Kenya, they no longer speak of the country. They think of its people and their works.

I guess the best way to think of this to imagine Britain. If you were to ask most people which countries are global powers, Britain might not make it into the top five.

But if you were to ask them which is the world’s best football league, they will probably tell you the English Premier League. And if you inquired what they thought were the world’s best universities, they might say Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge.

You could say the same of Kenyan exception. The society has crawled from under the country.