Beyond 'Tribes': Violence and Politics in Kenya

Editor's Note

The violence and turmoil that overtook Kenya in the wake of the disputed December 2007 Presidential elections came as a surprise to many in the world. Although Kenya has long been viewed as a source of stability on the African continent, the current strife has already killed more than 1,000 people and displaced more than 300,000. For historian Claire Robertson all this tragedy was not unexpected. While many analysts have attempted to explain the events as tribal warfare, Robertson reveals the unrest's historical roots in the long standing economic mismanagement and political corruption of both colonial and post-independence governments.

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.

But hired thugs have been perpetually on the scene, drawn from an underclass with nothing to lose and no jobs. In the 1990s they burned down Gikomba to get the land for developers/corrupt government officials. Kenyan elections have been notoriously corrupt and have involved, to a greater or lesser extent, attacks by thugs on voters in every election. Toward the end of his regime Moi used them as well as the police to attack opposition leaders in the yearly protests in favor of multi-party government on Saba-Saba, July 7th.

Kenya's 2006 Nobel Peace Prizewinner, Dr. Wangari Maathai, was the victim of one of these attacks while leading a protest and so spent time in hospital as well as in jail, while Ngugi wa Thiong'o and his wife were beaten by thugs during a brief visit to Kenya more recently. Banditry and other forms of robbery have been common in and around Nairobi in particular, but also in some rural areas. A friend who was kidnapped and robbed in Nairobi christened it "Nairobbery".

Such violence and corruption also should not surprise us. Kenya's colonial regime relied on violence, especially during the 1950s Emergency. The British declared the Emergency when urban and rural guerrilla warfare began in central Kenya in 1952. Anti-colonial Kenyan nationalists (dominantly but not exclusively Kikuyu) attempted to achieve independence, calling themselves the Land and Freedom army, but called (and vilified) by the British as "Mau Mau." Those deemed to be Mau Mau fighters, or terrorists, along with many civilians, were interned in concentration camps and murdered by the thousands (fewer than a hundred whites were killed in the uprising).

These casualties are still a subject of denial and controversy in Kenya. One of the true ironies of Kenyan history is that after independence President Kenyatta, suspected by the British of being a Mau Mau leader and jailed as a result, declared that former Mau Mau freedom fighters were not to get land redistributed in reform efforts.

Understanding Kenya

So when we consider the massive problems in Kenya, then, "tribalism" is not the kind of explanation that a thoughtful public should accept. It may be useful as an easily digestible, simple explanation, and one that has the virtue of deploying the African "primitive" stereotype to play to American misconceptions about Africa. It is also useful for Kenyan government officials seeking to maximize their authority through manipulation of public loyalties and distraction from economic issues. Instead we need to understand the current crisis in Kenya as rooted in patterns of Kenyan history, not the least of which is the way governments have manipulated the idea of "tribe" to strengthen their hold on power, just as the British did during the colonial era.

Only when Kenya has achieved the kind of accountability and transparency in government proceedings that is one demand of the opposition—a form of politics that creates the possibility of achieving grassroots prosperity for the vast majority in the form of adequate infrastructure and promotion of small enterprises—will true political stability be possible and Kenyans' great collective energy devoted to communal advancement.

Kenya People

Mwai Kibaki
Born 15 November 1931, "Kikuyu"

Holds a B.Sc. with distinction in Public Finance from London School of Economics

Kibaki was elected President in 2002. On November 23, 2005 Kibaki dismissed his entire cabinet in the middle of his administration's first term.. The only members of the cabinet office to be spared a midterm exit were the Vice President and Minister of Home Affairs, Moody Awori, and the Attorney General whose position is constitutionally protected. The Cabinet was thereafter appointed, but some MPs who were offered ministerial positions declined to take up posts in the New Cabinet

Kibaki unveiled Vision 2030, a scheme to raise annual GDP by 10% on October 30, 2006. Kibaki's administration has seen continued GDP growth for 4 straight years, from a low 0.6% in 2002 to 6% in 2006.

Kibaki belongs to the Roman Catholic Church and attends the Holy Family Basilica Church.

Famous Quotes-
"[there is] no room for communists in Kenya"

Raila Odinga
7 January 1945 "Luo"

On December 30, 2007, the chairman of the Kenyan election commission controversially declared Raila's opponent, incumbent president Kibaki, the winner of the presidential election by a margin of about 230,000 votes. Raila challenged the results, alleging fraud by the election commission but has refused a recount. Independent international observers have since stated that the poll was marred by irregularities, especially at the final vote tallying stages.

Raila lists himself as a social democrat.

Oginga Odinga

1911-20 January 1994 "Luo"

Jaramogi Ajuma Oginga Odinga became a prominent figure in Kenya's struggle for independence. He later served as Kenya's first vice-president after being defeated in that first election by Kenyatta, and thereafter as opposition leader.

Odinga started the Luo Thrift and Trading Corporation in1947.

Jomo Kenyatta
20 October1894? – 22 August 1978 "Kikuyu"
Kenyatta served as the first Prime Minister (1963–1964) and President (1964–1978) of Kenya. He is considered the founding father of the Kenyan nation.
Kenyatta was born Kamau wa Ngengi in the village of Ngenda, Gatundu, in British East Africa (now Kenya)

Kenyatta briefly studied economics in Moscow at the Comintern school, KUTVU (University of the Toilers of the East). In 1934 he enrolled at University College London and from 1935 studied social anthropology under Bronislaw Malinowski at the London School of Economics. He published his revised thesis as "Facing Mount Kenya" in 1938 under his new name Jomo Kenyatta.

Famous Quotes-
"When the Missionaries arrived, the Africans had the Land and the Missionaries had the Bible. They taught how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible."
"Some people try deliberately to exploit the colonial hangover for their own purpose, to serve an external force. To us, Communism is as bad as imperialism."

Ngugi wa Thiong'o
5 January 1938 "Kikuyu"

Kenyan author of novels, plays, short stories. After exile from Kenya, became a professor at Yale and NYU

President Daniel arap Moi
2 September 1924 "Kalenjin"

Daniel Toroitich arap Moi (born September 2, 1924) was the President of Kenya from 1978 until 2002.

Thus when Kenyatta died on August 22, 1978, Moi became president and took the oath of office. The Kikuyu elite referred to him as "a passing cloud" and a "limping sheep that could not lead other sheep to the pasture", the implication being that he would be pushed aside in a short while to allow them back into power.

Moi took the opportunity after a failed coup to dismiss political opponents and consolidate his power. He reduced the influence of Kenyatta's men in the cabinet through a long running judicial enquiry that resulted in the identification of key Kenyatta men as traitors. Moi pardoned them but not before establishing their traitor status in the public view. The main conspirators in the coup, including Ochuka were sentenced to death, marking the last judicial executions in Kenya. He appointed supporters to key roles and changed the constitution to establish a de jure single-party state.

Moi won elections in 1992 and 1997, which were marred by political killings on both sides. Moi skillfully exploited Kenya's mix of ethnic tensions in these contests, with the ever present fear of the smaller tribes being dominated by the larger tribes. In the absence of an effective and organized opposition Moi had no difficulty in winning. Although it is also suspected that electoral fraud may have occurred, the key to his victory in both elections was a divided opposition.

Dr. Wangari Maathai 
1 April 1940 "Kikuyu"

Environmentalist, global green party advocate and Nobel Peace Prize Winner. Holds a Ph.D. in veterinary medicine.

Kenya Ethnicities

Bantu Groups

The Kikuyu primarily live around Mount Kenya, they migrated into the area from East and North East Africa during the 16th century. For the Kikuyu, land ownership is the most important social, political, religious, and economic factor. They have a complex system of land ownership that revolves around close kin, The importance of land brought them into conflict with the colonial government when white settlers and farmers occupied their traditional lands. Today, Kikuyu farmers produce most of the fresh produce consumed in Nairobi, as well as coffee and tea for export.

The Luyha live around Kakamega in western Kenya.

Akamba (or Ukambani)
The Akamba migrated into their present homeland, which is east of Nairobi towards Tsavo national park, around 1800. Known as accomplished traders across Eastern Africa, they also traded for food with their neighbors the Maasai and the Kikuyu.

The Meru is a blanket ethnicity that includes eight different groups. They migrated to the North East side of Mount Kenya from the Eastern coast of Africa.

Nilotic Groups

The Luo settled on the shores of Lake Victoria, migrating there from the Sudan around 500 years ago. The Luo have played an important role in the middle of the 20th century during the independence struggle.

The Kalenjin migrated to the Rift Valley from the Sudan around 2000 years ago. Kalenjin is a blanket ethnicity that comprises the Kalenjin are the Kipsigis, Nandi, Tugen, and Elyogo. Kenya's current president, Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, is a Tugen. Because of his political power, the Kalenjin have become politically powerful.

Maasai (Masai)
The Maasai migrated to Kenya from the Sudan about 1,000 years ago and They are famed outside of Kenya as stoic and brave lion hunters and warriors. In spite of pressure from the Kenyan government to modernize, the Maasai have maintained much of their traditional cultural practices.

The Turkana live in Northern Kenya, near Lake Turkana on arid land.
They are related to the Maasai and the Samburu, and also have a reputation as fierce warriors and cattle herding.

The Samburu live around Maralal in Northern Central Kenya. They are still nomadic people and when pasture becomes scarce in this semi-arid land, they pack up their manyattas (small settlements) on camels and move with their cattle.

Audio Version of Article
Suggested Reading

Claire Robertson, Trouble Showed the Way (Indiana University Press, 1997).