In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Politics of East Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Colonial Politics
  • Independence
  • Socialism
  • Constitutionalism
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender, Race, and Politics
  • Religion and Politics
  • Conflict
  • Corruption
  • Regionalism

Political Science Politics of East Africa
George Nyabuga
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0038


The focus of this article is Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, although countries including Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and to some extent Southern Sudan can be considered to be part of the larger East Africa. The former three countries have followed different but somewhat similar political trajectories, experimenting at some point with one-party, centralized political systems. Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania also share a common colonial background, their people straddle common borders, and they shared common services from the colonial period until 1977, when the East African Economic Community collapsed. The countries in 1999 revived the East African Community and expanded it to include Burundi and Rwanda. A political federation is expected to be established in 2017. Although Uganda has had a troubled political trajectory, with coups and a military dictatorship (especially under Idi Amin Dada between 1971 and 1979), Kenya and Tanzania have been relatively stable, albeit of course with political problems of their own. Poor and despotic leadership, corruption, and electoral malpractice, among other political problems, have been common maladies in the three countries. Accordingly, issues of constitutionalism, political developments and democracy, and conflict seem to dominate the literature on East African politics. The intrigues, fluidity, and unpredictability of politics in the three countries attracts not only East Africanist scholars but also general readers interested in African or indeed other politics.

General Overviews

Certain issues always come to mind when one thinks of East African politics, and the issues that inform the study of African politics are numerous. Thomson 2000 has written a text with wide-ranging coverage, including state, civil society, external interests, ideology, ethnicity, religion, neocolonialism, democracy, and legitimacy, among others. Thomson uses different case studies to illustrate the arguments advanced in the book. In addition, ethnicity, identity, conflict, power, democracy, corruption, and governance are often mentioned as issues of interest when examining not only African but also East African politics. Sometimes these issues make it difficult for people within the countries of East Africa to develop appropriate characteristics with which to identify themselves. This is perhaps the issue that Mwakikagile 2007 tries to examine as many nation-states grapple with their multiple identities. However, in most instances many people identify with their ethnic groups (see Ethnicity), whose consequences for politics in Africa are sometimes deleterious. In Kenya, ethnicity has been the cause of numerous conflicts, most recently the post-election violence of late 2007 and early 2008 (see Conflict). Salih and Markakis 1998 examines the power and potency of ethnicity in nation-states like those of East Africa. Azam, et al. 1999 specifically focuses on the causes, consequences, and costs of some of these conflicts. This is further examined by Berman, et al. 2004, which includes specific cases of the effects of ethnicity on African politics. This work contains three articles looking specifically at Kenya. Chapter 5, by John Lonsdale, examines the moral and political dynamics of ethnic development in the African continent; chapter 10, by Elisha Stephen Atieno Odhiambo, focuses on ethnicity and democracy in Kenya, seeing these as hegemonic enterprises and instruments of survival in the country’s political process. Githu Muigai’s chapter 12 is about Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s founding president, and what he calls the rise of the ethno-nationalist state in Kenya. Ethnic conflicts and other struggles impede good governance and democracy, as Bekoe 2006 rightly acknowledges. Kaiser and Okumu 2004 then deals with the challenges of such issues for democracy. What this usually leads to is a situation in which poor and unaccountable leadership is the norm. The ensuing struggles that occupy various actors, such as human rights nongovernmental organizations, are the subject of Mutua 2009.

  • Azam, Jean-Paul, Christian Morrisson, and Sophie Chauvin. Conflict and Growth in Africa: Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Vol. 2. Paris: OECD, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1787/9789264173552-en

    Explores the causes and consequences of conflict in the East African countries of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. The work explores the different levels of conflict in the three countries, and estimates the costs of such conflict.

  • Bekoe, Dorina, ed. East Africa and the Horn: Confronting Challenges to Good Governance. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2006.

    Explores the obstacles to governance and the opportunities for democratization in East Africa. The work looks at the conflict situation in East Africa and particularly in Somalia, the trade in small arms and light weapons, the refugee situation, tensions around national identity, the legacy of US policy in the region, and how these issues impact governance.

  • Berman, Bruce, Dickson Eyoh, and Will Kymlicka, eds. Ethnicity and Democracy in Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004.

    This collection of articles looks at the role ethnicity plays in the democratic process across Africa. Three chapters focus specifically on Kenya, where ethnicity or “tribalism” is a common feature in public and political life, determining the outcome of electoral and democratic activities.

  • Kaiser, Paul, and F. Wafula Okumu, eds. Democratic Transitions in East Africa. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2004.

    This work examines the challenges facing democracies in East Africa. It includes the consequences of issues like the Rwandan genocide, violent civil wars, and other factors in the quest for democracy. The book focuses on the challenges to the emergence of the democratic political systems in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.

  • Mutua, Makau, ed. Human Rights NGOs in East Africa: Political and Normative Tensions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.

    Considers the role of civil society particularly in the protection of human rights, including the rights of marginalized communities. It examines the not so rosy relationship between the state and civil society organizations, and how this informs the success or indeed failure of such groups in their battle against human rights abuses.

  • Mwakikagile, Godfrey. Kenya: Identity of a Nation. Pretoria, South Africa: New Africa, 2007.

    Examines Kenya as nation-state struggling to create a national character and identity. It looks at the role of ethnicity and diversity in the political process, arguing that this can be source of both unity and conflict. It looks at the Mau Mau, independence, political developments, and the country’s cultures.

  • Salih, Mohamed, and John Markakis, eds. Ethnicity and the State in Eastern Africa. Uppsala, Sweden: Nordic Africa Institute, 1998.

    Examines the potency of ethnicity as a tool for political mobilization, focusing on the relationship between state and ethnicity. It looks at how economic, social, cultural, and religious factors contribute to the politicization of ethnicity and the volatility of its relationship with the state.

  • Thomson, Alex. An Introduction to African Politics. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2000.

    Although this work deals with the politics of Africa more widely, including its struggle and decolonization, it has a case study of Kenya. This focuses on Kenya’s historical inheritance, examining the colonial period and what the country inherited, including the political system and constitution, from the departing British colonial government.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.