From the 'Stranger King' to the 'Stranger Constitution': Domesticating Sovereignty in Kenya

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Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has asserted the near-universality of the notion that sovereignty in pre-modern polities is conceived of as foreign or alien. In his telling, sovereignty comes from abroad, from over the horizon, very often in the mythical form of the ‘stranger king’ or an immigrant prince. But, he argues, this alterity is complemented by equally widespread techniques of domestication; through sacrifice and marriage the stranger king becomes bound to the local people. Sahlins deployed this structure in his interpretation of the Hawaiian reception, killing, and deification of Captain James Cook in the late 1700s. This Article applies Sahlins’ construct to postcolonial governance, with a particular focus on Kenya and its new constitution of 2010. While the U.S. tradition may envisage constitutions as bottom-up expressions of the popular sovereign, in many postcolonial contexts constitutions are also imported products, often drafted by foreign experts. Despite such constitutions’ focus on ‘the people,’ the constitution itself might be said to be something of a stranger. The notion of the stranger king, as this Article demonstrates through its case study of Kenya, fruitfully expands the vocabulary of political and constitutional theory by pointing towards ethnographically grounded ways of understanding authority and law that come from beyond the boundaries of a political order.

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