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How inheritance continues to foster inequality in Kenya

Monday February 17 2020


While this inheritance is a child’s guarantee, it gets even more complicated when you consider that African culture sidelines female children in succession battles. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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When Namibia’s First Lady Monica Geingos said she would give all her wealth to charity upon death, the announcement elicited a lively debate on Kenya’s social media with many wondering where that left her children.

“I strongly believe that inheritance is one of the biggest drivers of inequality,” she explained.

The 43-year-old lawyer and former head of Namibia’s first and largest private equity fund told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that she made that decision in an effort to address sexism and inequality in the country.

Upon her marriage to Namibian President Hage Geingob on Valentine’s Day 2015, the couple voluntarily disclosed their wealth - approximately 110 Namibian dollars (about Sh740.8 million).

Both instances raise important questions on the class divide across the African continent, and how the wealthy can use their privilege to bridge this gap and actively tackle the scourge of corruption, though Geingos mentioned in her interview with Reuters that her decision to donate her wealth was motivated by her concerns on inheritance in the African context.

She believes that it plays a big role in inequality. In a striking quote from the interview, she said: “If I'm telling poor children that they must be well educated, have the right attitude, and they must stay away from self-destructive behaviour and they'll be fine, then surely that message should apply to my kids too?”


In Kenya, the divide between the haves and have nots is even more prominent, and it is not just because of the politicians, who hardly ever disclose their wealth until an anti-corruption scandal erupts.

It dates back to the pre-independence era that has ensured children of British collaborators and the political elite still boast of life in the fast lane today.

Names like Charles Njonjo and Uhuru Kenyatta come to mind when discussing individuals who appear to have inherited wealth and subsequently power from their fathers.

They had a chance to attend the best schools, return home and attain leadership positions at a time few had the opportunity of getting basic and/or quality education for those whose parents could afford to take them to school.

One cannot speak of inheritance without discussing how education as a basic need helps the rich stay rooted in their positions and then bequeath the same positions to their offspring.

Consider, for instance, the ceremony last Wednesday when Gideon Moi was crowned heir to his father Daniel Toroitich arap Moi’s political throne following the latter’s burial.

During the interview, Namibia’s First Lady contrasts this privilege, saying her parents could only afford basic primary education under Namibia’s racially-segregated regime.

Her background then inspired her to make the most of her life, as she is a graduate lawyer working with several human rights campaigns, using her privilege to highlight and resolve inequality in her nation and beyond.

Closer home, we see this example where parents work hard to secure a better life for their children, if not their own.

For generations, parents have toiled to ensure that their children can be whoever they want to be and never lack basic needs.

Upon their death, they leave wealth in the form of property and trust funds to continue supporting their loved ones in their absence. The amount does not matter.

While this inheritance is a child’s guarantee, it gets even more complicated when you consider that African culture sidelines female children in succession battles, the first layer of this inequality.

Most customary laws favour men as the custodians of familial wealth, as women are not considered part of the family once they’re married.

However, in Kenya, a landmark decision in February 2019 by Justice Lucy Waithaka held that married women were entitled to reap the benefits of their fathers’ estate.

This was influenced by the launch of the 2010 Constitution that treats a child as a child regardless of marital status.

Even with this resolution, that inheritance may be beneficial to those in this generation remains a moot point.

This is only a guarantee in the event of death, presumably by natural causes. World Health Organisation (WHO) put the average global life expectancy at 72 years.

Is it possible for the current generations (Millennials and Gen Z) to inherit from the baby boomers?

Wealth as a product of inheritance depended on who managed to get it right generations before.

As Frederic L Pryor writes in the February 2010 issue of Current Anthropology, class divides developed as a result of colonial rule or slavery, where a certain group of people were not allowed to own material wealth.

Everything from the most fertile land to certain foods and cash crops were a preserve of the rich.

Then, of course, there is the institution of marriage. Marrying someone in the modern age is usually a question of love, right?

However, subconsciously, people partner with those they have proximity to, often of the same social class and educational background.

For the rich, keeping generational wealth within the family also meant that every social interaction mattered. Enter the concept of a ‘marriage of convenience’, where a marriage is a contract of sorts because of its social or financial benefits.

Marriages like these are common in Kenya, such as that of Raila Junior and Yvonne Kibukosya, granddaughter of Eddah Gachukia, co-founder of the Riara Group of Schools.

The two are in the third generation of considerably well-off families, the former in the political elite, a result of his father’s toil, and the latter from a musical and educational one.

“Even if the coupling was unintentional, one must critically look at the environment that allows generational wealth to thrive. Systemic issues like the quality of education, segregation of neighbourhoods, and even occupations affect the kind of people we end up dating, and eventually marrying,” argues Robert Kariuki, a sociologist.

A more local example of this, he points out, is say, a lawyer marrying a lawyer, or a doctor marrying an engineer.

“The desire to appear as a ‘power couple’ and possibly secure the best possible future for their unborn child is so common; you can throw a rock and probably hit a pair of people that fit this description,” adds the sociologist.

Economist Tyler Cowen is apt in his take on marriage and inequality in the December 24, 2015 issue of the New York Times.

He broaches the topic of “marrying up” as a means of social and financial mobility, and how much harder it is getting to do so as people begin to marry people of similar social and educational backgrounds.

While there is a need for data on the reasons people marry in Kenyan middle class settings, it is easy to see that a child born of two well-educated and financially stable parents will end up in a better position than one without this kind of stability.

Worse still, we live in a country where “connections” — patronage by the wealthy for each other and their children — ensures that after these children secure the best education at the best schools, they also get the best paying, most influential jobs.

The idea that these children have to work and earn their own fortune is used as a kind of social curtain, not just to ensure the public never questions the source and continuity of this wealth for another generation but also to ensure their children appreciate where the comfort they have been afforded comes from.

All at the expense of the have-nots, who work and clamour for these jobs only to find that they are already taken.

The expectation that their parents and those before them worked hard and know the right people to ensure they never sleep hungry fosters a breeding ground for entitlement.

In September 2019, a 29-year-old Kenyan, a shareholder in a profitable petroleum firm, sued his father for a sum of Sh2.8 million for refusing to fund him as he pursued a master's degree.

His argument was that his father was “rich” and bore equal responsibility to his mother for his upkeep, despite funding his first degree and taking care of him until the age of 22.

He claimed his mother had gifted him Sh2.6 million for upkeep and urged the court to force his father to foot his school fees, including refunding his mother the money she had given him.

The man’s father, however, told the court that his son was a shareholder in a firm that was granted retailer status by Vivo Energy Kenya and that he had got Sh2.9 million as profit.

The magistrate agreed with the father and dismissed his son’s case, only for him to move to High Court, complaining that although he had attained adult age, he was still dependent on his parents to complete his education.

He claimed his parents had set a high standard for him, hence they had a responsibility to promote his social progress.

“It is against my right to education for my father to discontinue my education prematurely. The respondent is a man of means and he has the ability to educate me,” Njau argued.


The High Court dismissed the case and instructed the son to pay his father the cost of the suit.

With all the factors working against the success of the have-nots, Cowen says it discourages those without access to these connections from even trying, as they can already see their peers with a head start in life, achieving what will either take them years or a stroke of good luck to achieve.

While they may aspire to be better, as Geingos did, the probability of them matching up against, say, a three-generational tier of money, access and power may be slim to none.

In her words, she feels that her line of work coupled with a form of “unearned privilege” by virtue of her marriage to the president has provided her with a bird’s eye view of economic strife in the country.

While inheritance does contribute to such strife, her decision to give hers to charity is an extension of the primary use of this wealth, which is a form of care to the disadvantaged.

The care that parents have for their children when they work hard to provide them with a better future, the same one that causes them to open trust funds to ensure they are always taken care of, is at the heart of this debate.

Which begs the question, when you already have more than you need to survive, whether it is money, power or access, is giving it to those who do not have your duty to society?