Busting, for good, the myth of ethnic exceptionalism in Kenya

Sunday June 28 2020

Fans wave Kenyan flags on Day 5 of the the World Under 18 Championships on July 16, 2017 at the Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani. PHOTO | FILE |


Nothing is more cancerous to post-colonial nation-building than the myth of ethnic, or racial, exceptionalism. Or the reverse – the trope of tribal or community inferiority.

There’s no pandemic that devours the fabric of emergent states more than primordial divisionism built on fictions of biological group superiority, or subordination.

In these narratives, one group is elevated – rises – above all others and is bestowed with the mantle of “natural” leadership. Group-think soon becomes the zeitgeist not only of the “chosen” group, but of the national psyche. “Lower” groups, or children of lesser gods, buy into, and internalise, this “pre-ordained” biological determinism. In Kenya, many Agikuyu, my close cousins, suffer from this psychosis. So do many Kenyans from other ethnic backgrounds.

In a controversial piece, economist David Ndii once argued that Kenya was a cruel marriage which must be ended by forcible divorce. A lot of people, including the high punditry, gagged on empty air. I wasn’t one of them. That’s because as unpalatable as it was, I recognised that Dr Ndii had spoken the truth. He fingered toxic ethnicity as the culprit.


That’s one of the major reasons Kenya has failed to cohere into a nation and remains a rickety polity valid only in law and landmass. It’s a state in a country with a government, but a nation it isn’t. One could argue, as I have, that a divorce isn’t necessary if we are willing to unwind ethnic cruelty.


A new cartography isn’t necessary if we are willing to re-engineer a new covenant and abandon the tribe as the basis of state power. That means slaying Kikuyu exceptionalism, the most dangerous tribal dragon of them all. But since Kikuyu exceptionalism is only a myth – not reality – it means we have to slay all other myths of ethnic exceptionalism too. Let’s sample a few.

The Luhya are deemed docile and unambitious. The Akamba are sex maniacs, if not addicts. The Luo are showy and arrogant conspicuous consumers. The Kalenjin are violent. The Somalis are unpatriotic and prone to terrorism. The Coastal Bantu are lazy flakes. The Maasai are stuck in the Stone Age. The list of tropes is endless.

But of these, it’s the Agikuyu exceptionalism which has primacy and must be deconstructed and debunked for good. It essentialises the Agikuyu and demonises them to their – and Kenya’s – detriment.

Let’s interrogate some of the fictions about the Agikuyu. The first, which argues that they are the “natural” rulers of Kenya, is perhaps the most corrosive. It relies on their supposed ethnic “superiority” and charges them with unrivalled political greed, ethnic favouritism and the exclusion of non-Kikuyus, and secretiveness – including oath-taking. The second charges the Agikuyu with a proclivity for thieving, cunning and trickery to amass wealth by any means necessary. The last is “flattering” because it recognises a far superior industriousness and ingenuity.


These essentialising myths are self-fulling in real life. But in actual fact, none of them is true. There’s no genetic, or biological, fixity to them. Are the Kikuyu elite as a whole the wealthiest in the country? Sure. Are the Kikuyu elite the most powerful group within the state?

Of course. But that isn’t a function of genetic predisposition. In fact, there were times the Kikuyu elite weren’t politically dominant.

In the 24 years under former dictator Daniel Moi, they were politically neutered. Their wealth dwindled. In contrast, the Kalenjin elite rose to the pinnacle of the state. Of course, the Kikuyu are the most numerous group but they are still a minority when you combine other groups.

Myths and stereotypes exist everywhere. But they are a bunch of malarkey – baloney – even though they are very corrosive and destructive. Idi Amin, the Ugandan military dictator, blamed Asians for all the country’s economic woes much in the same way Adolf Hitler blamed Jews for the economic collapse in Germany. None of these canards have any substance.


However, it’s easy to scapegoat a racial, ethnic, or religious group for the failures of society. But the opposite is also true – a racial group can benefit from racialised narratives and myths.

One such myth is that blue-eyed blondes are more beautiful than other women. Or that whites are smart, hard-working, and beautiful while blacks are stupid, lazy and ugly.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found group myths and fictions unacceptable. The problem is that many people from within and without the group believe these myths.

Kenya’s 2010 constitution, which is built on the tenets of equality, anti-discrimination and equal protection will be for naught if we continue to believe in – and practise – these myths. 

There’s no ethnic, or racial, predestination. No one was born to rule, or be ruled by, others. White people weren’t born to rule and lead the universe. Nor do blacks exist to emulate, copy, mimic or serve whites. The Agikuyu are no different. Their vices, virtues, and foibles are the vices, virtues and foibles of us all.

Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC. Twitter: @makaumutua.