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Why so-called ‘deep state’ is a fallacy in Kenya

By Charles Onyango | June 18th 2021

The idiom originated in modern Turkey. [Courtesy]

Kenya’s professional civil service and uniformed police (and military) are formidable barriers to mass clientelism. The “unelected bureaucrats” ensure the elected leadership carries out the people’s will in a democratic manner and according to rules.

And to ensure they do not become power unto themselves, our system allows each new president to install political appointees across the executive branch to help enforce his or her policy agenda.

But we all know that while these appointees are meant to work their agenda through existing laws and in the public interest, that may be impossible if the country’s CEO uses state instruments to reward friends and punish enemies. But does the “deep state” really exist?

The term is itself controversial. It purportedly refers to a covert network allegedly embedded within the government, bureaucracy, intelligence agencies, and other institutions that allegedly control state policy behind the scenes. The democratically-elected president and other elected officials are merely figureheads.

The idiom originated in modern Turkey, where it refers to a secretive military junta established in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to carry out clandestine actions and preserve governmental structure.

Since then, politicians have used it as a convenient target for their ire to help them drive the clientelism that they believe would propel them to power.

But the true resonance of the “deep state” conspiracy, I believe, is far deeper in the public psyche. When a politician claims that the “people and their God” defeating the “deep state” will somehow improve life of the fisher folk, he is framing him/herself in a specific trope. Since attacking the government’s institutionalised personnel and processes clears the way for mass clientelism, the “deep state” becomes a “useful enemy.” 

But the “deep state” conspiracy also benefits such a politician by triggering our collective culture’s cowboy-hero imagery, rallying his followers behind him and portraying assaults on him as insidious. 

It feeds on obvious flaws in our democratic structure, such as dwindling public confidence in government institutions and division between political parties. The ‘deep state’ conspiracy theory casts the government as a spoil of war, to be fought for and then enjoyed. 

-The writer is a Global Fellow at Moving Worlds Institute. [email protected] 

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