NDEGE: Cartels, chaos and crisis in Kenya’s urban governance - Daily Nation

Cartels, chaos and crisis in Kenya’s urban governance

Sunday June 10 2018


Rahim Kurji sits on rubbles of their house after it was destroyed in unclear circumstances on December 4,2016 in Westlands. Radical land proposals contained in a report to the Ministry of Lands seek to reign in on cartels at Ardhi House. PHOTO| EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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I first heard the word cartel in my undergraduate history class in Makerere University in 1973. The lecturer, Professor MSM Kiwanuka, often made reference to this word in relation to Vladimir Lenin’s theory of economic imperialism as an explanation to the scramble for and partition of Africa.

In brief the theory argues that in the course of the development of capitalism in late 19th century Europe, there ensued such cut-throat competition among the merchant, industrial and finance capitalists that for purposes of their survival, a few of them merged to form cartels or combined to enjoy powers and privileges of monopoly.

In spite of this, the capitalist system experienced more crises as production, merchant and financial profits generally declined, persuading European countries to look for a vent for investable surplus capital and trade markets in Africa. It was this that led to the colonisation of the continent for the benefit of Europe.

For some time I have been wondering whether the emergence of so-called cartels in Kenya could be a positive response to a crisis as happened in Europe.

Well, the answer is that the situation in Kenya is quite different. The cartels in Kenya are a group of individuals who are taking advantage of the chaotic urban process and are exacerbating the crisis of governance in our urban areas for their own selfish advantage.


But who are the cartels in the Kenyan context? Are they, as defined by the Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, simply “a group of people who all agree to sell something at the same price so that they can all make profits without competing with one another”?

What led to their emergence and what precisely do they sell? Do they operate legally and, if not, why haven’t their operations been criminalised as in the United States of America and the cartel godfathers imprisoned?

What is the impact of their illegal operations on the governance of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Nakuru, Eldoret and the other smaller cities in the country?

The cartels in our urban areas are simply blue collar thieves whose operations are absolutely criminal. They are products of the chaotic nature of the country’s urban process.

For, unlike the urbanisation in developed countries, which was logically and naturally occasioned by agricultural and industrial revolutions, ours was externally brought about by the requirements of colonial administration, colonial trade and the onset of secondary industrialisation, particularly after the Second World War.


The urban process was, therefore, largely external and parasitic as it relied on the exploitation of the rural areas through labour supplies and the production of exports to Europe. Africans were meant to be periodic migrants to the urban areas rather than permanent residents. Those who were unemployed and had no identity cards or kipande were often repatriated back to their rural homes or imprisoned.

Africans were completely excluded from urban governance and from European and Asian residential and recreational areas.

They were denied licences to carry out trade. They survived by establishing informal settlements and trading activities in their quarters.

The attainment of political independence in 1963 dramatically altered this situation. It opened the floodgates of massive rural-urban migrations and, of course, an opportunity for semi-educated Africans to replace European administrators and Indian businessmen.


This has since led to “exploding cities in an un-exploding or dependent economy”, a condition that has made our towns and cities unable to effectively manage the exponential growth of the urban population.

Kenya’s towns and cities have largely failed to cope with the delivery of the required services such as housing, employment, transport, medical care, education, sanitation, collection of garbage, clean water, recreation, security, political representation, stable family life or what Luise White in her book Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi calls “the comforts of home”.

Not least, they have also failed to provide land, which is the dream of every Kenyan, to the majority of urban dwellers.

The reason for the lacklustre service delivery is, therefore, primarily because of the externally driven and parasitic nature of the urban process itself, the country’s weak agricultural and semi-industrial base and the weakness of the institutions of urban governance. As a consequence, the urban population is engaged in a vicious and painful struggle for the scarce urban resources.


These struggles have taken the following complexions: inter-ethnic rivalries; inter- and intra-class struggles; conflicts between national and international entrepreneurs; quarrels between county and national governments and officials; competition between men and women as well as between the youth and the elderly. All these have increasingly amounted to chaos and all forms of socio-economic and administrative malaise, which the weak national and urban governance institutions have failed to effectively deal with.

The consequence of all this has been the cartels’ proliferation. The cartels thrive in the interstices or cracks of the urban process and weak institutions which are also reflected in the weak governance of the country.


For their own survival the cartels widen the cracks and exacerbate the governance crisis. In other words they struggle to form a parallel and invisible government.

The cartels thrive because their operations have created the following illusions in the minds of the urban populace: That they speed up the necessary processes of getting things done; they provide services where urban institutions have failed; they step in to protect weak and vulnerable groups; they provide the necessary link with powerful politicians and entrepreneurs for jobs, businesses and other favours; finally, they provide financial assistance to their godfathers in high places, allegedly including political parties.

Ndege is a professor of history at Moi University