By Sam Hawke
Today, Kenya has gone to the polls for the 19th time in its 50-year history. Of course, it will be electing only its 4th President. That’s not to say that Kenya’s history – and its complex relationship to democratic politics – can be glibly summarised by reference to that unfortunate fact. However, violent conflict and authoritarianism remain some of the dominant forces within its political life, as the 2007/08 elections so strongly evidenced. The question with which Kenyans are faced, of course, is whether this year will further prove this terrible rule, or be its exception.
The most obvious feature of the last election’s violence was its deeply ethnic character. Raila Odinga had very shrewdly constructed a pan-ethnic coalition of Luo, Kalenjin, Kamba and Luhya (among other of Kenya’s many ethnic groups), all to take down the Kikuyu candidature of the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki (backed by current Presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta). The fight againsto Kibaki drew on historic opposition to (perceived) Kikuyu economic and political dominance since independence. The violence began as thousands protested their continued exclusion from power once more, with many taking the opportunity to settle tribal scores and secure access to resources. As a result, around 1,200 people were killed and 500,000 people displaced across the country in the largest bout of electoral violence Kenya had ever suffered. Current Kikuyu Presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta and Kalenjin Deputy-Presidential candidate William Ruto stand accused in the International Criminal Court of perpetrating crimes against humanity in masterminding their respective sides of the violence.
Evidence of massive vote-rigging by the President justly discredited his very narrowly-won re-election, after which – more or less immediately – the violence began. Protests erupted in areas dominated by opposition candidate Raila Odinga, and rioting and looting in areas such as Kisumu led to appalling police brutality: around 90% of the election’s deaths in the Luo-dominated Nyanza Province were caused by (Kikuyu-led) police violence. Kalenjin militias in the Rift Valley were mobilised to attack local Kikuyu, the culmination of which was the infamous church burning in Eldoret, where over 30 (largely Kikuyu) men, women, and children were burned alive. The cultish Kikuyu gang, the Mungiki, was mobilised in turn to march from house to house torturing and murdering non-Kikuyu opposition supporters across the Rift Valley.
How should we understand a country still reeling from violence of this kind? In his book Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya, Daniel Branch argues that, on independence, the country became “as much as a post-conflict society as a post-colonial state.” And it was in this conflict that the roots of post-independence political struggle were to be embedded. But Kenya remains a post-conflict society in many ways: not simply because the agonies of the independence struggle are still felt, but because successive years of authoritarian misrule have created new agonies of their own. Intertwined with this history of violent conflict, moreover, is a history of economic injustice and landlessness, the condition of the country’s majority poor which continues to fuel tribal struggles for power and resources.
Indeed, every competition for power since the beginning of multi-party politics in 1991 has been embroiled in violence, with hundreds killed and thousands displaced across each election cycle. And since the regime of Kenya’s first President, Jomo Kenyatta, imprisonment, torture, and murder have remained the ultimate tools of political competition. This continued, and deepened, through the regimes of its second and third Presidents, Daniel Arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki. And far from being a chaotic spasm of force across the country, Kenyan electoral violence has always been targeted, localised, and intentional. It is imbued by specific narratives and undertaken to achieve determinate targets. For many Kalenjin, Luo, and others, it is a fight against the political and economic domination of a repressive Kikuyu elite since independence. For many Kikuyu, however, it is the defence of their land and lives against bloodthirsty forces of ethnic persecution and criminality. For all, it is a zero-sum, all-or-nothing battle for survival – political, economic, or actual.
Ethnic violence from colonialism to independence
A grim anecdote has Kenyatta sharing a joke with the former colonial governor, Evelyn Baring, in his Presidential office after independence: Kenyatta noted that the same desk from which Baring signed his own detention order of 1952 saw the leader of newly-independent Kenya imprison political competitors of his own. In this way, the instruments of political violence were themselves part of the post-colonial inheritance that Britain left its former subjects. And whilst the problems with which Kenya is afflicted are also of its own making, it too laid the roots of ethnic strife that it so ruthlessly exploited in crushing the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s.
Of course, the British government committed many atrocities during the period, the full details of which have only been recently published through the work of Caroline Elkins, Huw Bennett, and David Anderson – and for which 3 of its victims are seeking compensation in the pioneering legal battle of Mutua & Others. But crucial to the success of the government’s repression of the Mau Mau movement was a concerted campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kikuyu-heavy sectors of the population – the beginning of ethnic violence in modern Kenya. Both prior to and during the struggle, large sectors of white settler farmland in the Rift Valley were ethnically cleansed of its Kikuyu squatters, permitted to remain for decades as cheap, expendable labour until their white employers sought to punish Kenyans for wanting freedom. But the struggle centred around the military’s Operation Anvil of 1954, in which 34,000 Kikuyu, Meru, and Embu were forcibly removed from Nairobi and into the Kikuyu Reserves, areas of over-populated, poor-quality farmland of crushing poverty and disease.The rebellion began as a response to the injustice of settler colonialism and apartheid rule of the British colonial regime, emerging as tentative political agitation to become – as the government responded with a violent crackdown – fully-fledged armed struggle. Whilst there is much debate as to the nature of Mau Mau, the central aims of its members in seeking to win back land unjustly taken and eradicate the poverty into which many had been forced were clear. But whilst independence was ultimately won, it was not on the Mau Mau’s terms. As many of its former participants look back on the fruits of this armed struggle with bitterness, so too can we see the roots of today’s ethnic conflict in the fight for, and against, Kenya’s independence.
The conflict quickly turned from an (admittedly highly diffuse, disorganised) struggle for liberation against a repressive colonial regime to a brutal civil war. This was, however, the British government’s plan. Its campaign to ‘win hearts and minds’ in Kenya always entailed winning over a portion of the local population with promises of (unequal) prosperity and (limited) self-rule, who were then to form the cannon-fodder and foot-soldiers in its battle with the Mau Mau. The British Army, of course, played a key role in the fighting within the forests of Mount Kenya, running the concentration camps and torture centres, and generally beating the civilian population into submission. But, as the war dragged on, the government soon realised that it must employ a massive contingent of ‘Home Guard’ Kenyan troops and the tribal forces of Chiefs and Headmen in order to win.
For one, the British deliberately targeted the Meru as conduits for repressive loyalism, seeking to exploit pre-existing ethnic differences in dividing Mau Mau-sympathetic groups against each other – the Meru being a tribe based east of Mount Kenya very similar in language and history to the Kikuyu. From the wider loyalist class that it had created, moreover, the British sought to construct a conservative, privileged elite by which the country might be shepherded into independence on terms with which it could agree. Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s first President and (ironically) the presumed representative of the Mau Mau struggle, became the grandee of a landed Kikuyu elite selected to lead the country into its succession from colonialism. And it was through this elite that Kikuyu dominance, for the foreseeable future, was secured.
Of course, many Kikuyu felt they had a just claim to rule the country, at least on independence, grounded in the undeniable fact that they had provided much of the resistance to colonialism. Of course, the dishonesty of those most prominently making this claim should have been obvious to all. It was never those who actually participated in the struggle who were to benefit – that much remains obvious by the fact that the vast majority of surviving Mau Mau veterans remain in desperate poverty – but the landed Kikuyu elite (Kenyatta included), who sought to exploit the legacy of egalitarian struggle for their own accumulative purposes.
Indeed, Kenyatta’s distinctive brand of post-colonial ‘nationalism’ was aptly summarised by Kenyan politician J.M. Kariuki in one of his trade-mark speeches: that, with the fall of British colonialism, the new regime sought only to “substitute Kamau for Smith, Odongo for Jones, and Kiplangat for Keith”. With access to the levers of commercial success secured for well-placed Kikuyu, the rest of the country was deemed largely irrelevant. As the celebrated radical Ngugi wa Thiongo wrote, capturing the sentiment of Kariuki’s critique (with a little added socialist fervour): “Why should the poor die, why should women lose their husbands and sons and daughters only to see Kenya’s wealth, the product of their own sweat and blood, go into the hands of a small class of exploiters?” That these exploiters happened to be Kikuyu, of course, cemented in the minds of so many the perception that the whole tribe constituted a ‘Kiambu mafia’ of exploitative plutocrats (Kiambu being a heavily Kikuyu-populated area just outside Nairobi).
It was further Kenyatta who carried on Britain’s legacy of political detention, torture, and murder – all in the hope of crushing any political and economic change in the country, and in a manner that bore an ethnic character. During the late 1960s and 70s, Kenyatta’s (likely) assassination of future Presidential material such as J.M. Kariuki and Tom Mboya served to behead any possibilities for egalitarian reform or inter-ethnic harmony – calling, as they were, for a more equitable distribution of wealth across Kenya’s communities, both from a wider base of ethnic support than Kenyatta at that time commanded. The murder of Luo Tom Mboya and the destruction of the Luo-dominated Kenyan People’s Union (KPU) – a breakaway leftist challenger to Kenyatta’s increasingly right-wing Kenyan African National Union (KANU), banned in 1969 after the President was attacked during protests of Mboya’s murder – were widely seen as the beginning of Kikuyu repression of the Luo.
The culture of violence and authoritarianism deepened under the 2nd President, Daniel Arop Moi. Torture and arbitrary detention became institutionalised and intensified as instruments of control. From regime carefully selected which political targets to liquidate, Kenya met a far more comprehensive and penetrative system of political repression, with press freedom and political mobilisation rendered increasingly impossible. The role of ethnicity in Kenya’s politics also became more complex. Moi, being a Kalenjin, used the Presidency as an opportunity for his own tribal aggrandisement – crucially necessary to maintaining his political base of support– whilst carefully managing the ambitions of Kikuyu elites whose failure to receive their expected share would have threatened his hold on power.
With the return of multi-party politics in 1991, however, came an intensification of the use of violence in electoral competition. This has coincided, moreover, with the further rise of ethnicity as a mobiliser of political forces across the country. Across the decade, including the 1992 and 1997 general elections, brutal violence between ethnic groups became normalised as the way in which political competition was to be resolved. As the state failed – either deliberately or negligently – to protect communities and to resolve disputes (with its much-needed monopoly on violence loosened considerably), ethnic communities viewed violent action as the only means to defend themselves and resolve inter-community competition for resources.
For example, in Coast Province, around the 1997 elections, years of resentment driven by these inter-ethnic dynamics led to heavily-armed, coordinated attacks on Luo, Luhya, and Kikuyu communities by the Mijikenda, (a collective term for) 9 ethnic groups local to the region. As with violence in the Rift Valley, it received direction and financial backing by local KANU politicians and businessmen, and was carried out with the complicity of local police and military forces. This brutal strategy was, however, successful: the 1997 election saw Moi’s KANU MPs for the areas returned successfully, after around 100,000 non-Mijikenda voters were driven out of their constituencies in preparation. In other areas, it was only until after the 1997 election that the violence began, as communities – particularly the Kalenjin and Kikuyu – sought to punish those perceived to have voted wrongly, which, of course, proliferated reprisal attacks in turn. During a 3-month period from December 1998, for example, 300 hundred were killed in the Rift Valley. The violence, notably, took place at the local level, where those vying for Parliamentary positions most needed it. With the opposition too divided to seriously contest the Presidency, widespread electoral violence was at that time largely unnecessary to a Moi victory: the incumbent simply required a backdrop of vote-rigging, state intimidation, administrative chaos, and bureaucratic obstacle to consistently succeed.
As the violence raged, the decade also saw the economic health of Kenya’s majority poor substantially decline. The International Monetary Fund, for instance, colluded with the Moi regime by providing financial assistance in return for further decimating Kenya’s public services. With the rise of food prices, the introduction of fee-paying systems in education and healthcare, and the addition of widespread spending cuts to the extant problems in the delivery of essential services (such as poor administration and rampant corruption), Kenya’s majority poor were hit hard. That many would seek to violently defend or increase what little they had in such an environment is hardly surprising, falling back to allegiances of tribe for security and sustenance.
Contemporary Drivers of Violence and the Coming Election
These diverse strands of Kenya’s political history, therefore, make political violence almost an inevitability – however large or small. Despite much talk of economic development since 2002, communities across the country remain deeply deprived. Almost half the country falls below the World Bank’s poverty line, life expectancy teeters at around 57 years, and over a third of its population are denied access to safe water and sanitation. Crucially for the prospects of violence within the country, moreover, the unemployment rate stands at around 40%. Kenya’s supposedly burgeoning economy consistently fails to employ 16 million people out of a population of 38 million – with 80% of those unemployed being young people – forming instead what is in effect a reserve army for political violence. It also leaves much of the country acutely vulnerable to vote-buying schemes, a central mechanism in consolidating political power at the local level (with both major parties accused of the practice this election).
The ethnic violence still draws on real inequalities. Children of the largely Luo-inhabited Nyanza, for instance, are almost 4 times as likely to die before their fifth birthday than those of the largely Kikuyu-inhabited Central Province. The violence of the Rift Valley, similarly, remains (partly) a function of the inequalities felt between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities there – where the former, on average, hold around twice as many household assets as the latter. Of course, there remains far less truth to the accusations of Kikuyu economic domination than its purveyors suggest, and certainly nothing to justify its assumed solution (of violent dispossession) – the history is far too complex for that. These inequalities remain keenly felt, but the scourge of poverty in Kenya cuts across divisions of tribe.
The Kenya police force remains poorly equipped, managed, and trained – not to mention monstrously corrupt. This was dramatically illustrated last November when a contingent of freshly recruited officers were sent into an ambush by a heavily-armed Turkana militia: 37 were killed by the gang, in what could only be described as a massacre. And the country remains, on the whole, shockingly under-policed: it barely makes up three quarters of the UN-recommended 220 per 100,000. Moreover, where the police are able to organise and respond with any degree of efficacy, it does so with a ferocity that often outstrips the violence it combats. For instance, the government response to the violent rule of the Mungiki in Nairobi was simply to execute anyone it could get its hands on: 500 suspected gang members were summarily executed by the state between 2005 and 2007, with thousands arbitrarily detained. And Kenya’s security forces continue to face accusations of brutality today as it detains, tortures, and murders its way through the endless ‘War on Terror’ with complete impunity. This is all in addition to the fact that – as in 2008 – the police show demonstrable ethnic bias in choosing which crimes to pursue and which to permit. In all, it is unsurprising that most Kenyans feel little to no trust in the force.
Crucially, no one has been arrested – let alone prosecuted – for the crimes of 2008. Where ethnic groups haven’t been forced out of their homes, perpetrators and victims live side by side, ready to settle their grievances or fearfully turn to violence in the coming days or weeks. And, at the international level, Kenya faces the uniquely discomfiting situation of having the constituents of a major Presidential ticket facing trials at the ICC. With the obvious fact that it’s rather more difficult for the ICC to prosecute incumbent heads of government, former adversaries Kenyatta and Ruto decided to pool their substantial electoral resources and run on a joint ticket against Ruto’s former running mate, Raila Odinga. With negotiations ongoing as the location and date of the trial, the two have managed to turn a cynical ploy to avoid prosecution into the semblance of inter-tribal reconciliation as the two most hostile ethnic groups appear to join forces in fighting the election.
As part of this effort, Kenyatta has managed to transform what may have seemed a serious electoral liability into a major strength. Exploiting widespread African discontent with the extant pattern of ICC prosecutions across the continent, he’s managed to transform the election into a partial referendum on its intervention in Kenyan affairs. The more that the diplomatic and trade consequences of the election of ICC suspects are stressed by foreign observers – with the US and France, for instance, warning of limited diplomatic engagement –, the more he can generate a siege mentality within the electorate that translates the prosecution of Kenyatta into the prosecution of Kenya. And hypocritical Western powers (who’ve consistently refused to take their own war criminals to court) know that China waits to pick up whatever slack is left in Kenya’s economy by their own qualms about trading with a country headed by ICC suspects (bearing especially in mind the recent discovery of oil reserves in the country). That the ICC may well delay the beginning of trials to well shy of the country’s election period (previously scheduled for around the same time as the second round run-off vote) will certainly be perceived by many as a personal victory for Kenyatta. It’s worth noting, anyway, that Kenyatta’s chief electoral base views the allegations against him simply as evidence of his unflappable commitment to protecting his tribe in the face of Kalenjin-led violence.
Kenya’s political parties, moreover, are not designed to be vehicles of substantive change. As Ngugi wa Thiong’o recently wrote in The Guardian, “The contending parties in Monday’s elections are all paper parties – or less politely they are regional mafia blocks under a boss.” As others have pointed out, Kenyan politics tend to be a matter of ‘coalitions of convenience’, whilst the International Crisis Group notes that Kenyan political parties “tend to be ideology-free electoral vehicles for their leaders”, moving in and out of coalitions and internal configurations insofar as this benefits those at the top. The claim of a lack of ideology, however, isn’t strictly true: the appearance of an ideological vacuum is simply a function of the comprehensive victory of Kenya’s neoliberal right. For instance, even one of the most credible candidates in the current election, Peter Kenneth – whose substantial development record in his constituency of Gatanga very much precedes him – frames much of his campaign in the need to spur entrepreneurialism and generate wealth, two of the chief totems of US-imported neo-liberalism. Indeed, the ideology of acquisitive individualism is so widespread that Presidential candidates simply vie for the status of most capable technocrat, the most functionally-effective guardian of private gain.
Both of these phenomena – the victory of the right and the crushing of democratic dissent – have deep historical roots. The anti-Moi stuggle of the 1980s and 90s, for all its importance, generated an artificial coalition of the left and right fit only for attacking the Presidency, and certainly not debating competing political theories. Indeed, the 1960s present more or less the only period in Kenya’s modern history where genuine political differentiation and debate emerged to challenge the executive at the national level. This culminated in the formation of the KPU, a breakaway party began by two of Kenya’s first post-independence leftists, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga (father of Raila) and Bildad Kaggia. It emerged from the considerable grass-roots dissent against executive policy felt within local KANU branches immediately after independence, where they were largely staffed by radical ex-Mau Mau detainees, acutely aware of the need to redistribute the material gains of the independence struggle. Throughout the 1960s many came to realise that this dissent was only permitted by Kenyatta to the extent that the Parliamentary and extra-Parliamentary wings of the party were given no opportunity to influence policy. The actual governance of the county was done in much the same way as in the colonial period, through the executive-dominated Provincial Administration and tribal police. The split from KANU, however, largely doomed any prospects for leftist change after KPU-led protest pushed Kenyatta into banning the party and detaining its leaders in 1969. Thereby becoming a de facto one-party state (with the constitution prohibiting multi-partyism in 1982), Kenya’s political parties remained a superficial gloss on the exertion of executive power.
All these dynamics interlink to form new possibilities of violence. And whilst the hotspots of the last election have thus far failed to breed political violence, there remains serious ethnic violence elsewhere. Over the last 6 months, for example, around 200 people have been killed and 34,000 displaced in the Tana River Delta (with over 100 people killed in one 2-week period), a conflict fuelled by ethnic rivalry between the Orma and Pokoma groups in the struggle for land and other key resources, with each group seeing its economic future tied to violent struggle for its chosen ethnic leaders. As a result, the forced movement of ethnic groups across constituency boundaries remain a key strategy in the run-up to the elections.
Current polls, moreover, indicate that the election will be, as in 2007/08, a very narrow victory for either of the front-runners. And with Raila having already made claims of vote-rigging, the chances of a disputed result are very high – the recent death threats allegedly faced by Chief Justice Mutunga are a testament to this probability. An election disputes may well begin in the courts, whose deliverances, in the event, will be explosive. And the ultimate results of the election are likely to be disputed in the streets, with the predictable interplay of citizen protest, police brutality, and organised gang violence that this will bring. The conflict of 2008, moreover, was fuelled by machetes and spears. This year’s violence, by contrast, may well be catastrophically amplified: the greatly increased death toll in the Tana River Delta and elsewhere can be in part attributed to importing of guns through Somalia and elsewhere.
There has been some change, of course. Indeed, the sheer fact that Mutunga is being targeted evidences the new-found power of an increasingly independent judiciary in the country’s political life. (Until Mutunga, Kenya’s judiciary could be almost entirely dismissed as simply a bunch of Kibaki stooges.) This crucial step towards reform comes also with a new constitution, in many ways specifically designed to address the causes of the 2007/08 violence. For one, in the creation of its myriad new devolved offices, it is hoped to generate an architecture of local empowerment and redistribution across the country (although whether this simply serves instead as a conduit for intensified ethnic strife remains to be seen).
Moreover, the mechanisms of political violence may have reached such a ferocity as to become counter-productive to the aims of the country’s elites. President Moi, for example, perpetuated the cycles of violence during the 1990s for the benefit of himself and those close to him: he sought to demonstrate that Kenya remained entirely unready for the multi-party politics that threatened his rule, whilst he continued to employ and permit electoral violence as a means to maintaining the status quo. Whilst the latter incentive towards violence no doubt remains, both Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto appear to have realised that the last elections got rather out of hand. The international community was able to (shamefully) tolerate the violence that preceded it, but as Kenya has opened up to better diplomatic and trade relations since the 2002 fall of Moi, elites have realised that what once kept them in power may finally force them out. Ruto and Kenyatta’s alliance in the Jubilee Coalition, therefore, is not simply a cynical ploy to combine Kikuyu and Kalenjin electoral bases in the achievement of power and the potential avoidance of ICC prosecution, but may be a genuine attempt to limit the now-unacceptable violence of Kenya’s electoral contests (notwithstanding their motives for doing so).
It may well be that the Kenyatta-Ruto alliance will in fact go some way to lowering tensions. The unity for which both candidates now call may be more than a superficial gloss over the divisions separating their two communities. In certain areas, for example, their respective parties have agreed not to field opposing candidates, effectively uniting the two communities against other contenders. However, many areas are subject to no such agreement, including Nakuru, the site of some of the most devastating Kikuyu-Kalenjin violence of the last elections. And their national-level unity may be unlikely to quell the distrust and hatred that many within these communities bear for each other at the local level. With the multiplicity of devolved positions created by the new constitution – such as the offices of county governor and senator –, there remains plenty for local actors to fight over in the coming weeks.
Boundary changes by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) – such as those in the already-fraught Tana Delta region – will also present a strong temptation to further alter ethnic balances through targeted attacks. Ethnic violence threatens also to extend even to areas previously thought immune. Some worry that recent anti-Somali riots may be repeated (and to more destructive effect) during the upcoming elections. Like many of Nairobi’s urban and peri-urban areas during election time, the Somali-dominated area of Eastleigh may well fall prey to (supposed) reprisal attacks for Al-Shabaab-linked bombings and myriad ethnic prejudice against the Somalli community in Kenya. Over in Coast Province, moreover, we can see violence brewing around demands for succession made by the Mombasa Republican Council – demands deeply rooted in the marginalisaton of Coast communities since independence.
It’s also important to remember the power of Kenya’s civil society. Emerging most strongly within – and in resistance to – the repression of the Moi regime, some of the best evidence there is of a brighter future for Kenya is the newspapers, human rights bodies, and religious groups that have provided something of a home for dissent and debate over years of misrule. Moreover, talking to ordinary Kenyans provides some sense as to the felt need for reconciliation and unity. Of course, this is often then counterbalanced with the pressing of tribal grievances and inequalities. And, as the country’s feted Presidential debate showed, talk of this kind comes fairly cheap. The candidates can preach inter-ethnic harmony and flagellate themselves as a class for the election, but the fundamental historic and present drivers of violence remain in place.
Conclusion – the perpetuation of violence?
With this complex history of ethnic conflict, what was surprising about the violence of the 2007/08 elections was not its occurrence, but its scale. Previous electoral contests have led to deaths and displacements in the hundreds and tens of thousands (respectively), significantly less than the 1,200 killed and 500,000 displaced of the last election. It’s clear there will be some violence this coming election, but just how much remains unclear. The complex history of this marvellous but deeply troubled country needs serious examination. The twin tragedies of colonial and post-colonial exploitation continue to condemn its peoples’ future. But it would be simplistic to tie the country’s ills to these dual poles alone: violent struggle over scarce resources and offices of power, against a backdrop of widespread institutional failure, has left many Kenyans little choice but to fall back on allegiances of tribe for survival and sustenance. Its history has many villains, certainly, but its problems are too systemic and structural to be solved with a changing of the guard – as so many thought they would on the removal of Moi in 2002. If those in power fail to address this history, and its political and economic drivers, it won’t fail to repeat its tragedies.