From the one-party state of the past to the constitutional reforms of the present

Kenya’s recent political history is defined in part by robust elections, but that was not always the case. For much of the 1980s, for example, the country was officially a one-party state. However, the gradual liberalisation of the political system in the 1990s, combined with more recent reforms, have helped pave the way for a more inclusive and devolved form of governance – all under a new constitution which was approved in the 2010 referendum with a 67% vote.


Kenya’s 1963 independence constitution was co-authored with British authorities, but following independence in December of that year – which led to the selection of formerly imprisoned Jomo Kenyatta as prime minister – it was re-written in 1964, transforming the nation into a republic with a presidential system of government, and then again in 1969 to further bolster the executive branch. Under the 1964 constitution, Kenyatta was elected president, as candidate for the Kenya Africa National Union (KANU) party, and won election again in 1969.

The constitutional reforms consolidated power in the presidential office and although open party primaries were allowed, only KANU contested the elections. Reforms to the democratic process, including an amendment to the constitution, during the 1980s meant that the country was officially a one-party state until 1991, although KANU won the subsequent elections in 1992 and, albeit with a smaller majority, again in 1997. KANU’s four-decade rule eventually came to a close in 2002, when it lost the elections to the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) that unified opposition groups.

Mwai Kibaki, who was the NARC candidate, was elected as the country’s third president in December 2002 with 62% of the total vote, beating out KANU’s Uhuru Kenyatta. With further parliamentary reform during his tenure, coalition politics became firmly rooted, but tensions over identity politics and limited socio-economic growth began to rise.

In 2007 the country’s 10th elections resulted in a disputed result between Mwai Kibaki, of the National Unity party, and Raila Odinga, of the Orange Democratic Movement party. The stand-off contributed to an outbreak of civil unrest over the course of seven weeks following the elections, in which 1000 people died and half a million were displaced.

However, the subsequent National Accord and Reconciliation Agreement helped to end the violence and also introduced a two-tier representative system of government that served to diffuse the structural tensions in a sustainable manner. The resulting agreement also brought about the Grand Coalition, which saw Kibaki and Odinga serve as president and prime minister, respectively.

Recent Constitutional Reform

The subsequent Grand Coalition Government, through the National Accord Implementation Committee, created a raft of policies that began planning for wholesale constitutional reform to ward off further unrest and prevent further tensions.

A new constitution had been on the table since the 1997 elections, when the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) had begun working on a new proposal, but the rejection of a draft constitution in 2005 meant that momentum slowed until the Grand Coalition assumed office.

The 2010 constitution was approved by 67% of voters in August 2010 and resulted in a number of changes, including a substantive devolution of power to a new level of local authorities.

The country’s first election under the new constitution was held on March 4, 2013, which resulted in a victory by the Jubilee Alliance’s Uhuru Kenyatta as president. With 50.5% of the votes, Kenyatta’s Jubilee government is a four-party coalition of the National Alliance, NARC, the United Republican Party and the Republican Congress.

Government Structures

The Republic of Kenya is a unitary state with a multi-party political system, and the 2010 constitution identifies three arms of the government: the executive, the judiciary and legislature. The Parliament of Kenya is a bicameral house consisting of the National Assembly and the Senate. The National Assembly has in total 349 members of parliament, who are elected for five-year terms. This is divided between 290 elected constituency members, 47 female county representatives as well as 12 nominated members to represent special interests including youth, persons with disabilities and workers. The speaker is ex-officio.

As part of a system of checks and balances, the Assembly has the power to review the conduct of the president, deputy-president and other state officers. It also maintains the authority to initiate their removal from office, exercise oversight over state organs and approve declarations of war and extensions of state of emergency.

The 67-member elected Senate consists of 47 county representatives, 16 female members nominated by political parties and four special interest representatives elected for five-year terms. The speaker is also an ex-officio member. The senate represents and protects the interests of counties and their governments at the national level, and determines legislation and allocation of national revenue among counties. It also holds the power to determine the final course of action against impeached members of the executive branch.

The executive branch constitutes the president of the Republic of Kenya, who can serve a maximum of two five-year terms, the deputy-president and cabinet secretaries. National Assembly approval is required for cabinet secretaries, the attorney-general, the secretary to the cabinet, principal secretaries, high commissioners, ambassadors and other high-ranking public servants.

The number of ministries has been reduced dramatically, from 42 to 18, as part of a push by the government to streamline operations and lower costs.

The judiciary, which is independent, is modelled on the British common law system and was changed significantly following the implementation of the new constitution. It consists of the Supreme Court as the apex body, with seven justices presiding, along with the lower courts including an appellate body known as the Court of Appeal, the High Court and a variety of magistrate and religious Islamic courts, known as Kadhi courts.

The judges for the Supreme Court are nominated by the Judicial Service Commission and appointed by the president, pending approval by a majority vote of the national assembly. The justices are allowed to serve until the age of 70, with the chief justice serving a 10-year term.

The Court of Appeal consists of at least 12 judges, and hears matters that have already come before the High Court and have been appealed. The High Court has unlimited jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters, with the exception of constitutional and presidential election cases. Kadhi courts are comprised of three judges and are allowed limited family jurisdiction when both parties are Muslim and voluntarily submit to Kadhi jurisdiction.

In 2012 the Judicial Service Commission established a new body within the high court to focus on transnational issues, including money laundering, piracy, organised crime and human trafficking. The seven-judge court, known as the International Crimes Division, is also tasked with investigating low and mid-level cases stemming from the post-election violence of 2007 and 2008.

Foreign Policy

Kenya has strong ties with Western countries. The country and the US are close allies and have enjoyed cordial relations since Kenya’s independence, while the UK as its former colonial power has a long history with the country and remains a key trade partner.

With strong ties in terms of trade, security and development, the EU also serves as a longstanding strategic ally and a major trading partner. According to Eurostat data published in January 2013, trade with Europe represents some 17% of Kenya’s overall trade. Trade volumes are also likely to see a jump in coming years, following the signing of an economic partnership agreement between the East African Community (EAC), a regional economic body of which Kenya is a member, and the EU.

Meanwhile, bilateral cooperation with Asian partners, especially China, has increased significantly in recent years as the country has pursued its “look east” policy of strengthening ties with Eastern allies.

Measures to promote bilateral trade with China include the signing of a comprehensive partnership and an agreement to boost collaboration in a number of areas such as economic cooperation, infrastructure, finance, environmental protection and new energy in August 2013. China is one of Kenya’s largest sources of foreign direct investment, with approximately $500m worth of capital inflows in 2012, according to the Chinese embassy.

Despite increasing cooperation with Asia, data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics show that Western nations including the UK, Netherlands, Germany, the US and France remained Kenya’s top export destinations in 2013.

Exports to the UK totalled $432m in 2013, followed closely by Netherlands with $376m.

A Regional Actor

Kenya is a member of the EAC, an economic bloc consisting of Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda.

The organisation – which was originally founded in the 1960s but collapsed in the 1970s before being resurrected in 2000 – seeks the establishment of full economic, monetary and trade integration among the member states.

Regional performance depends to a great extent on Kenya as the anchor of the EAC. Kenya, which is a significant source of capital for other member states, also accounts for approximately 40% of regional GDP, in large part a result of its substantial production capacity for manufactured products and fast-moving consumer goods.

A number of large capital projects are in the pipeline to help concretise these efforts, such as the $25bn Lamu Port and Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor and Standard Gauge Railway, connecting Uganda and Rwanda to Mombasa.

Kenya is also a member of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the African Union (AU) and the UN. Regional integration under COMESA, which aims to achieve the removal of all physical, technical, fiscal and monetary barriers to intra-regional trade, continues and in July 2014 Kenya was granted a €2.46m grant from the regional body’s adjustment facility to support regional integration programmes. COMESA is currently Kenya’s leading export destination, with the region now accounting for approximately 33% of the country’s exports (see Economy chapter).

Kenya hosts the UN headquarters in Africa and continues to contribute military and police personnel to UN and AU peace-keeping operations. The country’s active attempts to secure peace within the region have been maintained, in spite of occasional domestic attacks by foreign terrorist groups, such as the September 2013 siege of Nairobi’s Westgate mall. Today, Kenya has peacekeeping forces in Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The country has also played a key role in seeking and brokering solutions to regional conflicts; since the start of the conflict in December 2013 President Kenyatta has been involved in efforts to broker a peace deal between the government of South Sudan and the opposition forces.

Good Neighbour

In spite of the electoral unrest six years ago, Kenya has been a comparatively stable country for the bulk of its post-independence history – although the same cannot necessarily be said for its neighbours.

Kenya’s diplomats and military have been involved in everything from trying to broker solutions with the Uganda-based insurgency, the Lord’s Resistance Army – with former Kenyan Defence Forces lieutenant general Kiprono Tuwei serving as the AU special envoy on the matter – to helping mediate the initial peace discussions in 2005 between Sudan and what would later become South Sudan.

However, the country’s involvement in those issues extends far beyond intervention or mediation. In addition to Kenya’s heavy involvement in multinational peacekeeping forces in Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan, the country has also hosted extensive numbers of refugees and displaced persons from nearby countries. According to US government estimates, Kenya hosted around 550,000 refugees in 2014, the bulk of whom – nearly 425,000 or so – were from Somalia, along with another 85,000 from South Sudan. According to US government figures, the country has a similar number of internally displaced persons, or roughly 400,000, due in large part to the post-election violence experienced in 2007-08.

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