Understanding Tribalism in Kenya
Recent rioting, score settling, ethnic cleansing and other tribally motivated violence in Kenya was sparked in the aftermath of the December 27, 2007 presidential election when incumbent president Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, flat out stole the election. Opponent Raila Odinga, a Luo, had led in all polls and by early counts seemed to be almost a million votes ahead as tallies came in. When that reality struck, Kibaki and his “Kikuyu mafia” inner circle simply had the results changed to assure a second term. They were probably prepared to do this all along and probably correctly assessed they could get away with it. So far, they have succeeded, but not without turmoil.
It is not genocide
First, despite the horrific video clips of mobs and police running amuck, it is important to understand that what is happening in Kenya is not genocide. The situation is not analogous to what transpired in Rwanda or to what is ongoing in Darfur. In Kenya there is no government policy of extermination of an ethnic group. There are no government backed armed militias. There is no official propaganda machine egging murder on. In short, tribal violence in Kenya is not genocide; nor have killings occurred on a truly massive scale.
It is also important to point out that tribalism in Kenya is not atavistic. It does not arise from ancient hatreds or warfare from cultures clashing over the eons. In fact, the two opposing groups, the Luo of western Kenya from the shores of Lake Victoria and the Kikuyu from central Kenya surrounding Mt. Kenya, had little contact with one another until the 20th century. Accordingly, Kenya’s tribalism is a relatively new phenomenon. It is a product of modern times arising from colonialism, urbanization, the population explosion and independent Kenya’s political culture. Yet, however induced, the tension and the hatred are very real and quite damaging.
Traditionally in Kenya, tribes lived in their own distinct areas with their own cultures, i.e. language, customs, myths of origin, etc. People interacted from time to time with neighboring tribes with some sporatic clashing over cattle or land, but given the space available in lightly populated east Africa, what long term animosities that there were grew up between the nomadic cattle keepers – the Masai – and their sedentary neighbors – the Kikuyu and Kamba. The Luo and Kikuyu were separated by miles of inhospitable Masai and Nandi land. With the coming of Europeans, being Kenya’s largest groups as well as chiefly farmers, the Luo and the Kikuyu accepted outside ways, especially Christianity and education (the two often went hand-in-hand). Individuals from these tribes were at the forefront of early politics. Many moved from home areas to work on European farms or to the towns and cities. Thus the ethnic mix of present day Kenya began.
British rule in the colony was founded on the principle of divide and conquer. British administrators accentuated differences and sought to play groups off against each other. So from the beginning of multi-tribal life, seeds of discontent were sewn. Mau Mau compounded such distinctions when the British recruited Luo and other tribesmen into “loyalist” forces to combat Kikuyu nationalism. Negative tribal stereotypes became embedded in popular belief. Lazy, uncircumcised, fish-eating Luos contrasted with clever, cheating, arrogant Kikuyus. And so forth.
With the achievement of independence in 1963, the spoils of government accrued to the victors. First President Jomo Kenyatta rode multi-tribal support to office, but his regime reverted both to the reality and to the perception of favoritism towards the Kikuyu. This manifested itself in greater government expenditures for social infrastructure in Kikuyu areas, corruption benefits to insiders, privileged access to governmental and parastatal jobs. Such favoritism for one group was coupled with blatant discrimination against the other, including intimidation of opponents and even assassinations. Politics since has essentially pitted Kikuyu against Luos, with each side attempting to attract other tribal groups to its banners. This political struggle continued even while Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin, was president. Even though Kalenjins emerged as new contenders in the graft game, divide and rule tribalism remained the basis for politics wherein Luo and Kikuyu leaders vied for prominence either inside Moi’s camp or in opposition to him.
During the last half of the last century as Kenya’s economy grew and its population expanded, there was more movement of people, especially Kikuyu tribesmen into Rift Valley Province in search of land at the expense of Masai and Kalenjin groups. Also, Kikuyus were becoming Kenya’s small traders and as such establishing themselves in cities, towns and villages throughout the country. As is true with Jews and Koreans in American ghettos, Kikuyu traders were resented by the local population that viewed them as exploitative. Such resentment was reinforced by national politics when patronage jobs, contracts, secondary and university school slots, etc. went to Kikuyus at the expense of other tribes. Consequently, Kikuyu economic success (humble as it might be) was seen as due to unfair factors. Thus, the ethnic pot boiled over onto both national and local fires.
Even though Luos and Kikuyus reluctantly joined forces to oust President Moi in 2002, the coalition between Kibaki and Odinga quickly dissolved, essentially because Kibaki reneged on the power sharing terms. It was back to winner take all, divide and rule. In 2007 the election was more clearly cast as tribal, Kikuyu and affiliates versus Luo and allies. Election issues of change, economic and social policies got subsumed into tribalism. It was time, Odinga supporters argued, to rotate the presidency; time to try to improve a system that was not performing. This theme struck a chord among voters who rallied to Raila’s banner. Entrenched Kikuyu interests in the presidency, in the administration, in the courts, in the military and in the private sector opposed dissolution of the status quo. So far, they have shown the power to prevail.
The outburst of violence in the wake of the stolen election has to be seen as the eruption of frustrations due to that egregious act; the arrogance of which underscored the stereotypical conviction of Kikuyu pride. The wave of anti-Kikuyu emotion expressed the pain of democracy usurped. Sadly, Kikuyu people became easy targets, blamed as a group for the actions of the Kibaki clique. Rioting also expresses itself in anti-government actions, challenges to the police and the disruption of civil order. As in any such mob scene, those engaged in violence while espousing political motives, quickly moved to acts of personal vengeance, destruction, looting and crime. Sadly, as elsewhere in Africa, Kenya has an abundance of unemployed bored young men who are willing participants in violence. Once they have the taste for this odd sort of adventure, it is difficult to restrain them. Now, it will be hard to avoid the emergence of rival tribal militias.
What can be done?
I fear the social fabric of Kenya has been irreparably torn. The clock cannot be turned back. Ethnic cleansing has occurred. Kikuyu have been driven out of some areas, Luos and Luhyas from others. Loss of relatives, friends, livelihoods, homes and opportunities will only entrench hatred in the hearts of victims. Slowly, of course, life will return to more peaceful patterns, but there will be a consolidation of tribal enclaves, greater separatism and sensitivity to tribal slights. Rioters will fade away and/or be beaten into submission by the police. A grievous price will have been paid, most perniciously in terms of people’s faith in each other, but also in terms of the economic system and in politics. The venom of tribalism will poison the society for years to come.
Both Kenyans and outside friends, including the U.S., seek modalities to defuse the immediate crisis. The first espoused option is to encourage the formation of a government of national unity including both Kibaki and Odinga. Essentially this asks the winner Odinga to be magnanimous in victory and to concede defeat to the man who cheated him out of his win. Second is to re-do the election. Neither looks especially promising. If there is no progress of this sort, donors and friends of Kenya will likely keep the government at arm’s length. This will have consequences in terms of bilateral relations, aid budgets and Kenya's prestige in the international community. Shunning Kenya will undoubtedly impact adversely on tourism. Kibaki’s team, however, is probably prepared to sit tight, weather the storm, grant a concession here or there, but otherwise to wield power as before. However, none of the possible resolutions or next moves can diminish the fact that tribalism is loose in the land and that Kenyans are worse off for it.