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Origins and anatomy of the deep state

By Edwin Wanjawa | August 18th 2020
President Uhuru Kenyatta (C) his deputy William Ruto (L) and Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga during the launch of Building Bridges Initiative report at Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi on November 27, 2019. [Stafford Ondego] 

Recently the concept deep state has sauntered into our political lexicon with razzmatazz. To hear Deputy President William Ruto and his supporters’ frequent invocations of the deep state, you get the spooky feeling that there is a secret army of malcontents lurking deep within the bowels of government whose goal is to vehemently curtail his presidential ambitions.

On the other hand, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga and his coterie are accusing Ruto of splitting hairs to find an excuse to reject the outcome of the 2022 presidential elections. They add that as DP he is, in fact, the embodiment of the deep state. Is Ruto chasing his own tail?

The term deep state, derived from Turkish derin devlet, refers to a type of governance made up of networks of power operating independent of a state's political leadership in pursuit of their own agenda and goals.

It arose in the 1990s as a way of describing a kind of shadow or parallel system of government in which unofficial or publicly unacknowledged individuals play important roles in defining and implementing state policy. Potential sources for deep state organisation include organs of state such as armed forces or public authorities (intelligence agencies, police, administrative agencies and government bureaucracy). In popular usage, the term carries an overwhelmingly negative context, although this does not reflect its scholarly understanding.

There are widely differing theories about what the deep state’s purpose is, if it does exist. Within social science and political science, scholars distinguish between positivism ('what is') and normativism ('what should be'). Because political science deals with topics that are inherently political and often controversial, this distinction between 'what is' and 'what should be' is critical because it allows diverse people with different preferred worlds to discuss the causes, workings, and effects of policies and social structures. Thus, while readers may disagree on the normative qualities of the deep state (that is, whether it is good or bad), it is still possible to study the positive qualities (that is, its origins and effects).

The normative concept of the deep state is distinguished from the classical concept of the state by the dual nature of the state as both an actor (which pursues certain ends) and a venue (which structures interaction between actors). In this day, the deep state is called the state-as-actor, while the classical concept of the state is called the state-as-venue.

The state-as-venue view reflects the state serving as an arena in which actors act. Under this concept, the state is seen as a passive organisational structure within which societal actors such as interest groups, political parties, classes, ethnic groups, private sector, among others, compete for power, influence and resources. Therefore, what people think of as the 'deep state' is just the Kenyan civil service, social security, the people who fix the roads, health and human services.

I'm all for people who devote their lives to making sure our food is as safe as possible, the cars we drive won't kill us, our planes stay up in the air, and roads, bridges and railways are built and maintained to connect us, not to speak of having clean air and water, public schools and universities to educate our young people, and a social security system to provide a safety net for us when we grow old. 

But there's another way of thinking about the deep state, one that suggests an ongoing threat not just to Ruto and his supporters, but to this democracy, our lives and livelihoods. In his book, Anatomy of the Deep State, Mike Lofgren describes the power and reach of this apparatus in chilling terms. It refers to a theme in a recent conspiracy theory according to which opaque segments of the public administration prevent the will of the people from being fully reflected in public policy and law. Remember the exploits of the Magaryan brothers? Or the Goldenberg scandal or the servers that have never opened? What about the death of Robert Ouko, Gama Pinto or IEBC’s Msando, and currently the Covid-19 millionaires? The reality of the deep state in this vein is more banal, but at once more frightening and dangerous.

However, the sense that ‘the people’ and the state are at odds is not unique to the rhetoric of the DP. In many countries, the ruling government mounts systematic attacks on elements of its own administrative apparatus. Not too long ago, CJ Maraga decried Judiciary budget cuts and discrimination from other State organs.

Therefore, notwithstanding who is stoking the embers of the deep state, Kenyans must guard against any efforts by political parties and leaders that seek to erode independence of the Judiciary, the integrity of the civil administration and ultimately to remove legal and institutional obstacles to the realisation of the will of the people. We must never allow governments that in effect rule against the state.


Dr Wanjawa teaches in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Pwani University

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