On Sunday, January 27, 2008, I phoned Nairobi to speak with two Kenyans whom I have known for years. I wanted to find out how they were faring in the midst of the turmoil that has recently overtaken Kenya in the wake of the disputed December 27, 2007 "re-election" of President Mwai Kibaki. Already, the unrest has left over 1,000 Kenyans dead and more than 300,000 displaced.

The results of the elections have been contested by Raila Odinga, the leader of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and son of Oginga Odinga, a prominent post-independence political leader of the Luo group. The Odinga family is familiar with political defeat: the elder Odinga was bested by Kenya's first post-independence president, Jomo Kenyatta, a leader of the Kikuyu ethnic group. Kibaki too is Kikuyu.

My first call was to a respected founder of a 500-pupil AIDS orphanage/school in Kibera, Nairobi, a huge slum and key locale in the current troubles. He also founded a spectacularly successful rice-growing cooperative serving thousands of farmers in Western Kenya. As it turns out, he has now added to his achievements election to Kenya's Parliament as an M.P. He represents a district in Kisumu, a Luo stronghold in western Kenya, as a member of Odinga's ODM. He told me that he and the other new members of Parliament were going to take their seats the next day and that they were completely resolute in overturning the election and bringing Odinga to power. The Kibera school, he said, had now become a refuge for families whose homes were destroyed in the violence, and so far had survived intact. (However, I noted that subsequently mobs destroyed the railroad tracks immediately behind it, so I wonder if the school is still unscathed.)

Next, I called a woman who has worked for me for years as an administrator of a micro-lending development project for which I raise funds. She lives in eastern Nairobi with her young daughter and sells used clothing at Gikomba, Nairobi's largest outdoor market. She relayed how terrible and unsafe daily life had become, and lamented that genocide is being committed against Kikuyu, in particular. Given my very great affection for many ordinary Kenyans, whose hard work and creativity have earned my admiration, all of this is tremendously upsetting and unsettling.

The explanations given in the Western media for the troubles center primarily on "tribal" animosities, and are not particularly helpful in explaining the political deadlock and social strife. On February 20, 2008, on a local National Public Radio station an "expert" said that the solution for Kenyan political turmoil was power-sharing between the opposition and the Kibaki government. By "power-sharing," he meant bringing all ethnic groups into the government in proportion to their numbers in the population. The implications of this "solution" are even more severe than what is going on now. It would ensure the long-term political segregation of Kenya's diverse ethnic groups.

If we applied this "solution" in the U.S., we would have Congressional representation based on ethnicity rather than any other criterion. The resulting system would not only offer incentives to organize by ethnicities, but "ethnicize" our country in a way that could only be politically unstable. That is not a good idea here or in Kenya. This "solution" misunderstands the social and political patterns that have developed in Kenya over the last 100 years, in which poverty, political violence, and corruption are more important driving forces than "tribes."

Kenya is highly diverse ethnically and not easily segregated for political purposes. Since independence, political alliances have generally crossed ethnicities and much intermarriage between "tribes" occurred historically and at present. Today those identified as ethnically Kikuyu—along with the Kamba and Meru, who are related linguistically to the Kikuyu and inhabit adjacent areas in central Kenya—are Kenya's largest linguistic block at 37%. The Luo and the related Luhya compose the second largest block at 27%, with the next most numerous Kalenjin at 11.5%. Otherwise, Kenya's Maasai are only 1.8% of the population and there is a variety of others with relatively small numbers.

None of these ethnic or linguistic "blocks" dominates. The art of politics in Kenya—as elsewhere—has been defined by a variety of factors including idealism but also greed, corruption, and a realpolitik in which international pressures have exerted significant influences.

When Nobel Prizewinning author Ngugi wa Thiong'o says that the present conflict is more about class than ethnicity, he is right. Talk of "tribes" is essentially a cover for more basic class divisions that have been exacerbated, first by colonial and more recently by corrupt governments in Kenya. A global capitalist economy further abetted social fractures that consigned most Kenyans to being primary producers of coffee, tea, and cut flower exports.

A power sharing arrangement was reached at the end of February between Odinga and Kibaki that offered Odinga substantial powers as Prime Minister. It has calmed the country somewhat, but longstanding social and economic troubles remain. Just as the politicians opened the Kenyan Parliament in early March, the army was cracking down on groups in the western Mount Elgon region who were voicing protest over land rights and usage.

The Political Consequences of Economic Troubles

Admittedly, the crisis is perhaps the worst since independence in 1963; and this in a country whose government has seemed relatively stable to Westerners. Aside from a failed coup attempt against Jomo Kenyatta in 1972, Kenya has had a parliamentary democracy, at least in form, since independence. However, it has until relatively recently been a one-party state dominated by the Kenyan African National Union (KANU) party founded by Kenyatta. They have held regular elections and have seemed on the surface to have a sound capitalist economy.

Having knowledge of Kenya, however, this violence does not surprise me. In the late 1990s, I wrote about the destructive and fractious Kenyan political economy under then President Daniel arap Moi, who succeeded Jomo Kenyatta as leader of KANU and is of Kalenjin ethnicity. Moi held office from 1978 to 2002, and stepped down only after being forced to institute a multi-party government by the opposition.

Moi expanded dramatically a series of punitive policies begun by the British colonial government against thousands of Nairobi street traders (especially women). Kenyan governments have generally had a hostile relationship with street and market traders, characterized by failed policies of requiring licenses and insufficient provision of space for them to sell legally. Their trade has long fed Nairobi with staple commodities and prepared foods, particularly in the 1990s, but they stood in the way of Moi's approach to economic development (and enrichment of himself and other elites through corruption).

The troubles of these traders were and are emblematic of the problems caused by the governments—both colonial and independent—for many ordinary Kenyans. I wrote then,

"With government authoritarian tendencies exacerbated, immediate political considerations [population control measures intended to keep down opposition support] outweigh the necessity not only to provide employment but also to feed Nairobi. Such a policy seems bound to bring trouble...

"Criminalizing many survival-oriented strategies of an underclass makes it inevitable that they will break the law and seek to change things…For lack of other opportunities more and more educated young men and women are joining the ranks of the [disadvantaged] and adding literate talents to increasingly vociferous political efforts. More political ructions have already resulted…

"In March 1991 a new squatter settlement demolition campaign began in Nairobi; the incidence of brutal demolitions was increasing in a systematic campaign involving not only demolitions, but also police beating and mugging the inhabitants. The reasons? Developers wanted the land, especially around wealthy suburbs, and those in power feared the poor as a political threat. Such policies encourage riots and efforts to overthrow the government. There may be political limits to the privileging of wealth, especially where most people are poor."

In Kenya, colonialism and the present dominance of predatory multinational capital have taught locals that government exists to enrich those who govern. Kenya was and is what has been called a colony (or neo-colony) of exploitation, in this case primarily of agricultural products rather than minerals. The colonial government's dominant policy goal was to generate profits for settlers from export products. Colonial-era white settlers attempted, not always successfully, to achieve a high standard of living by using the mechanisms of head taxes, price controls that dictated lower prices for African-produced than white-supervised agricultural products, lower wages for Kenyan than white labor, forced labor and forced cultivation of certain crops.

One consequence of these policies, combined with strictures imposed by the World Bank, is that, like many African countries, Kenya is no longer self-sufficient in terms of food production. The World Bank's focus on exports intended to help pay off international debts has left many farmers dependent on cash-bought food, and damaged Kenya's already weak governmental provision of social services.

The Kenyan government has never protected its population from the incursions of international capital. The only barriers for multinational corporations have been the bribes extorted by government officials (at one point airlines pulled out of Kenya due to the extortionate demands of one of Moi's sons for payment for landing rights) and poor infrastructure, whose maintenance money has been drawn off by corruption.

Bribes at every level—from those collected from small business owners by impecunious police whose government pay has been siphoned off by corrupt officials up the line, to those paid by the middle class to obtain licenses of some kind, to those paid by international contractors/corporations in order to be treated preferentially in Kenyan business contracts—have also impeded the achievement of a stable prosperous economy.

Indeed, governmental corruption has contributed directly to the current breakdown of order in Kenya. With funds diverted to further enrich the rulers, the government has left its citizens at the mercy of all forms of violence. Several years ago in northern Kenya there was a cross-border attack from Ethiopia caused by intra-clan camel and cattle rustling that resembled strongly the better publicized Darfur raids. The feud resulted in a massacre in which an Ethiopian branch of a clan, related to those attacked, destroyed a Kenyan village, killing all of its inhabitants. One of the victims had the presence of mind to call the police on his cell phone, but it took three hours for the police to arrive because they did not have a vehicle. Money for such things usually disappears before reaching those whose job it is to keep order. The only survivors were two persons buried alive in a pile of bodies.

The media have also discussed how the Kenyan political chaos impedes supplies to other countries in the area because of banditry on the Mombasa Road. Five African countries (Uganda, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, western Tanzania, Kenya itself) depend on imports from the Kenyan port of Mombasa. But recent bandit attacks on freight are hardly the only issue. International aid donors have not yet caught on to the Mombasa Road game played by the Kenyan government. The road's constant problems, seemingly caused by the high volume of traffic it bears, relate also to the usual process of repairing it with a very thin layer of asphalt while pocketing the cost of a proper repair.

Colonialism and the Making of "Tribes"

The severe economic and social problems facing the Kenyan population, caused in no small part by political corruption and exploitation (both before and after independence), overshadow the role of ethnicity in the current conflict. Kenya remains a country divided into different ethnic communities, but all suffer from the common history of an economic situation created by colonialism and neo-colonialism, one of whose manifestations is corruption. The common images of Kenya (and other African countries) as riven by "tribal" animosities are by no means the only explanation of events.

The roots of today's "tribes" are to be found in Kenya's colonial history. In Kenya, a British colony from about 1898 to 1962, the colonizers were concerned about dividing and conquering. They engaged in both creating "tribes" and dividing them from each other using population control policies. Around Nairobi, for instance, an ethnically mixed area of impermanent settlement before colonialism, white settlers came to take up rich highland territory for their homes and farms. They converted its Kikuyu inhabitants to labor, turning them into farmers. In contrast, the British defined the Maasai as being herders and consigned them to different reservations, or reserves.

The colonial government made it illegal for Kikuyu or Maasai to go onto each other's reserves, helping to create and promote ethnic differences. Yet, before colonialism, these people intermarried regularly and both lived in the same areas, mostly peacefully. Similarly, the British rulers designated East Indians, who had an old presence in coastal areas, to be small businesspersons. Big business was reserved for white settlers and Indians were forbidden to own land.

The British viewed tribal designations as fixed; many Kenyans did—and do—not. Yet, locals were quick to understand the meaning of these "tribal" distinctions, and they could put their ethnic affiliation to use when it suited them.

In 1988, a 96 year old man, who was a boy when the British first arrived in the Nairobi area, told me that his father fled a war among Maasai clans (note that by British definitions such intra-"tribal" warfare should not have occurred) for the Nairobi area and married a Kikuyu woman, settling there and acquiring land. As a boy the man was set, like most Kikuyu boys, to herding cattle, which task often took him and his Kikuyu age-mates onto a Maasai reserve in violation of the law.

In this pursuit, he had the advantage of not only speaking Maasai but also having the stereotypical appearance, according to the British, of a Maasai warrior: tall, thin and dark-skinned. The British thought the Kikuyu to be short, lighter-skinned and more suited to farming. According to this stereotype, the Maasai were great warriors while the Kikuyu were not. It was an odd designation given the actual history of Maasai capitulation to the imposition of colonialism and of implacable Kikuyu resistance. So when the police chased the boys off of the reserve they left him in occupation when he pretended to be Maasai, although he self-identified as Kikuyu and had gone through Kikuyu initiation rites (along with Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta).

Fast forward to post-independence and contemporary Kenya. When Kenyatta followed ethnic preferences in the redistribution of land that took place after independence, much of the land went to a small Kikuyu elite. Some established or took over highland plantations and continued to employ locals as labor. President Moi, in particular, during his long reign shamelessly created, manipulated, and advertised "tribal" loyalties in an effort to control the population and enrich certain powerful social groups.

"Tribalism" was an effective way to keep power, but it did not necessarily reflect Kenyan society. The enrichment brought by government corruption has continued to consolidate the power of a small landholding elite. However, this elite is now more markedly mixed ethnically because of Moi's policies of privileging Kalenjin and others. President Kibaki selected as his vice-president a Kamba man, Steven Kalonzo Musyoka, who came in third in the disputed election running in a third party.

Violence and "Nairobbery"

Violence has long played a role in Kenyan politics and society. Moi, for example, deliberately organized attacks by hired thugs on his enemies to convince Westerners that he was the only one capable of keeping order in Kenya. Under his regime—in which the current President, Mwai Kibaki, was Vice-President—most of the government ministers pursued corrupt careers that persist under Kibaki. Hired thugs have now become, according to Amnesty International, a prominent feature of the political scene and the source of some of the murders/assassinations.