Kenyans have voted in two presidential elections since August, prompting political violence and ethnic tension in the country.
More than 60 people have been killed in the aftermath of the votes, and there are fears that more protests could lead to further deaths.
Many observers are particularly concerned by rhetoric highlighting ethnic faultlines in the country. Indeed, the election drama represents another chapter of an ethnopolitical saga that has plagued Kenyan politics since independence. Political parties have been, to quote Susanne Mueller, ‘non-programmatic and little more than shells for ethnic barons’.
The enduring ethnic character of Kenyan politics has eclipsed civic nationalism and entrenched notions of ethnic citizenship. The pervasive narratives, largely based on the precipitous actions of Kenya's leadership, have both reified and demonised the ethnic ‘other’in a profoundly multi-ethnic society.
With at least 42 distinct ethnic groups, all with different languages, traditions, and economic interests, the task of addressing Kenya's social cleavages has always been fraught with difficulties. The enormity of the challenge has only been intensified by political leaders, all of whom have sought to mobilise support on the basis of ethnic appeals.
Ethnic faultlines in the 2017 election
Divisions have been most pronounced between Kikuyu and Luo ethnic groups. Incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, was declared victor in the first election held on 8 August. He held a nine-point victory over his main opposition Raila Odinga, a Luo, with an 80 per cent turnout for the poll. But the Kenyan Supreme Court nullified Kenyatta’s re-election due to irregularities in the vote count, ordering fresh elections.
Odinga withdrew from the rerun and called on his supporters to boycott the vote, citing the need for comprehensive reforms to the electoral system. The poll on 26 October was again won by Kenyatta amidst a dismally low turnout—only 39 per cent. Branding the election a ‘sham’, Odinga called for a third poll. However, Kenya’s Supreme Court recently upheld the victory of Kenyatta in the re-run of the presidential elections.
The elections laid bare the major historical fault lines in Kenyan society. The provinces exhibit highly uneven patterns of economic development, from the comparatively wealthy Central Province to impoverished Nyanza. These economic inequalities have typically been framed by Kenya’s political class as ethnic grievances.
With the exception of Nairobi, the provincial demarcations of Kenya map closely onto the established locales of principal ethnic groups: the Kikuyu (17.2 per cent of the total population in 2009) from Central Province; Luhya (13.8 per cent) from Western Province; Kalenjin (12.9 per cent) from the Rift Valley; Luo (10.5 per cent) from Nyanza; and Kamba (10.1 per cent) from Eastern Province.
Political support continues to be mobilised along ethnic lines, exemplified by two episodes of history: the independence period and the post-election violence of 2007-08.
Son to father: Kikuyu and Luo at early-independence
In December 1963, the Kenya African National Union (KANU) formed Kenya’s first independent government. KANU was a consortium of Kikuyu as well as Luo. It was led by the presidency of Jomo Kenyatta, father of Uhuru, and the vice-presidency of Oginga Odinga, father of Raila. KANU's alliance of ethnic groups accounted for over half of Kenya's population at the time.
Independence ushered in a period of Kikuyu dominance over Kenya's political sphere. Not only did Kenya have a Kikuyu president, but the civil service was also Kikuyu-dominated. This was due both to ethnic favouritism and, more benignly, Kikuyu homeland proximity to Nairobi and consequent Kikuyu interaction with British institutions.
The distribution of patronage and services also favoured the Central Province, Kikuyu homeland. This became a major source of discontent for the Luo, who received little preference from the state despite having supported KANU into government.
In 1966, after numerous disagreements with Kenyatta over the direction of the country, Odinga resigned from KANU to form the Kenya People's Union (KPU). The split alienated Kenyatta permanently from the Luo community, who instead supported Odinga's KPU.
As a result, the Luo lost significant status among Kenyan society and soon came to be viewed as second-class citizens. In the public sector, they became increasingly distrusted in the military, police, and parastatals because they were no longer aligned to KANU. In the private sector, they could not gain traction because Nyanza was unsuitable terrain for growing tea or coffee and the commercial sector was already dominated by Kikuyu. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Luo increasingly blamed their marginalisation on Kikuyu.
In 1969, tensions escalated when Tom Mboya, a prominent Luo politician who had remained loyal to KANU, was assassinated by a petty crook of Kikuyu descent with connections to the intelligence services. Later in the year, a visit to Nyanza by Kenyatta was met by hostile Luo crowds who blamed Kenyatta for Mboya’s murder. Kenyatta’s security team fired into the crowd, leaving several dead, hundreds injured, and dramatically escalating the animosity between Luo and Kikuyu.
In the wake of these events, the KPU was banned and Odinga was imprisoned for two years. Kenyatta would rule up until his death in 1978, at which point KANU vice-president Daniel arap Moi, an ethnic Kalenjin, took the reins of power. As a member of what was then a non-contending ethnic group, Moi was – at least at the time – an acceptable compromise to Kikuyu and Luo.
Father to son: the 2007-2008 post-election violence
The propensity of ethnicity to divide Kenya was more recently demonstrated by the post-election violence of 2007-08. Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Jomo, had been appointed by Moi as successor to the leadership of the KANU party to run in the 2002 presidential election. After almost 40 years in power, the reconfigured leadership could not engineer a KANU election victory.
A previously fragmented opposition united to form the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) party, a loose alliance between a KANU former vice-president and ethnic Kikuyu, Mwai Kibaki, and Luo leader Raila Odinga, son of Oginga, winning the 2002 presidential election. In a recreation of the original KANU alliance, the coalition stitched together ethnic support from Luo and Kikuyu, along with support from Kamba and minority ethnic groups in the Coastal Province.
But power tussles within the NARC government soon led to its collapse in November 2005. Tensions between Kibaki's National Alliance Party of Kenya (NAK) faction and Odinga's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) contingent were already palpable after Kibaki's failure to honour pre-election agreements with Odinga.
Differences eventually came to a head over constitutional reform, with LDP opposing NAK's proposed changes. When the government lost the Kenya Constitutional Referendum, Kibaki retaliated by throwing key LDP leaders out of government. These actions effectively signalled that the multi-ethnic consensus that had held NARC together had disintegrated.
Its breakdown led to a resurgence of ethnic citizenship, sowing the seeds of ethnic violence. For Luo, Kibaki's actions rekindled anti-Kikuyu resentment by adding to a divisive ethnic narrative that had Kikuyu ‘behaving according to type’ and doing ‘just as Jomo Kenyatta had done to Oginga Odinga’.
Raila Odinga and his LDP stalwarts went on to form the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) to challenge the incumbent, Kibaki, and his re-branded Party of National Unity (PNU), now in coalition with Kenyatta’s KANU, in the 2007 election. William Ruto, who represented Kalenjin interests, also joined ODM to form what was essentially an anti-Kikuyu bloc.
ODM’s rhetoric prior to the election could be distilled as ‘Kenya against the Kikuyu’. The Kikuyu were depicted as synonymous with Kibaki and PNU, and were scapegoats for a myriad of social, political and economic ills that had plagued Kenyan society since independence.
The presidential vote was close, with Kibaki declared winner despite clear indications of voting irregularities and electoral fraud. The announcement triggered widespread civil conflict. Violence erupted in the Rift Valley, as Kalenjin militia attacked Kikuyu and anyone else suspected of supporting the ruling party. The ethnically heterogeneous Kibera slum in Nairobi also became a hotspot for Luo-Kikuyu violence.
The 2007-8 post-election violence resulted in over 1,100 deaths and 350,000 internally displaced persons. Elements within the Kalenjin, Luo, and Kikuyu political elite are thought to have mobilised these outbursts. Peace was ultimately restored when the parties signed a National Accord, paving the way for a power-sharing arrangement between Odinga and Kibaki.
The 2013 election was yet another ethnically polarised affair, though a largely peaceful one. In a realignment of Kenya's ethnic coalitions, Kenyatta and Ruto harnessed their respective Kikuyu and Kalenjin support bases and formed the Jubilee Alliance to challenge Odinga's Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD).
The Jubilee Alliance was, at first glance, a perplexing coalition given that Kenyatta and Ruto are accused of crimes against humanity for their respective roles in orchestrating violence against each other's ethnic groups in the 2007-8 election.
Having lost Kalenjin support, Odinga formed CORD as a broad coalition of ODM and several minor parties in an exercise of ethnic arithmetic. Odinga was able to obtain the support of Kamba, who had voted outside the two major ethnic blocs in the 2007 election, while retaining Luo and Luhya support.
Jubilee's marriage of convenience ultimately defeated CORD, resulting in Kenyatta's election to the presidency and William Ruto's election to the vice-presidency.
The most brazen feature of Kenya's history of ethnopolitical manipulation is the way in which ethnic alliances have been constantly reconfigured along lines that remain most politically expedient for leaders. The malleability of these allegiances have bordered on the absurd, such as the Kalenjin-Kikuyu alliance forged by current vice-President William Ruto and Uhuru Kenyatta merely one election cycle after the two groups were primary antagonists in the most violent episode of Kenya's independent history.
Given this tumultuous history, the most recent chapter of election drama should come as no surprise. Regrettably, the seeds are sown for further bouts of political violence.
Thomas Stubbs is a Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway. This article is based on material from his book chapter 'Ethnopolitics and the military in Kenya'.