Skip to main content

Mutua, M. (2023). Illiberalism, Human Rights, and Rule of Law: A Kenyan Paradox. In: Nasong’o, W.S., Amutabi, M.N., Falola, T. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Contemporary Kenya. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. 


Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue (La Rochefoucauld, 2009). While this appears to be the vox populi of Kenyans—elites and the hoi polloi alike—it is a paradox of the country’s politics. On the one hand, the masses of the people seem to cry out for a democratic state. But on the other hand, they seem to be possessed by a culture of cynicism and incipient fascism (see Cheeseman et al., 2020). The elites swear by the values of liberalism but practice the exact opposite. It is not even the imperfection of the idea. Rather, it is the complete repudiation of those ideals in virtually all facets of national life. The country has been gripped by an orgy of self-cannibalization in which people say one thing but do another. The country’s zeitgeist is a despair of contradictions, most of them debilitating to national interests. What is left is a ruinous landscape on which only evil seems to germinate. How to reconcile the seemingly genuine desire—and often hard-fought struggles—for a progressive, left-of-center, liberal democratic state with deep-seated illiberalism speaks volumes about the apparent inability of the Kenyan post-colonial state to cohere a national character and ethos of democracy (Mutua, 2008). Vertically and horizontally, human rights and the rule of law are on every lip, yet they are observed more in their breach than the observance. As elsewhere, a gene of illiberalism lurks everywhere (Zakaria, 1997: 22).

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.