17 February 2016

Kenya: Ethnicity and Elections in Kenya

analysis

The culture of violence and authoritarianism before, during, and after elections seems to characterise Kenya's elections since the return of multiparty politics in 1992. Two weeks after the announcement of the election date - now set for 8 August 2017 - violence broke out between Maasai and Kipsigis at Olposimoru in Narok County last Christmas. More than 200 homes were torched and over 2,000 people displaced.

Two weeks later, on 9 January, another ethnic clash exploded on the Nandi-Kisumu border, leaving at least five people dead. Hundreds of others were displaced and several houses were set on fire.

The Nandi region commissioner, Mathenge Thuku, and a section of local politicians traded accusations with their Western Kenya regional commissioner, Francis Mutie, after he alleged that local leaders, including politicians from Nandi, had "organised" the border clashes.

Mutie alleged that public officers had 'organised' youth from Nandi to attack their Kisumu counterparts. These claims were refuted by Nandi leaders, who maintained that the border has experienced several clashes over the years "due to cattle rustling and stock theft practices".

Pattern of violence

But whether the clashes were political or resulted from cattle rustling, they are all indicative of a pattern of violence that continues to plague the country during every election period. Locals in the recent skirmishes said they were politically motivated to "flash out" certain communities in the two areas.

Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery and National Cohesion and Integration Commission Chairman Francis ole Kaparo have both warned politicians against hate speech and incitement.

Observers partly blame the violence on pre-election pacts, in which leading presidential candidates mobilise voters along ethnic lines to form coalitions. With the return of multiparty politics, polls have been contested along ethnic lines.

Ethnic fault lines

Ethnic fault lines run deep because the country is divided into five large groups that constitute 68 percent of the population: the Kikuyu and related groups (21 percent), the Luhya (14 percent), the Kalenjin (13 percent), the Kamba (10 percent) and the Luo (10 percent).

This arrangement polarises elections, making violence between the members of rival ethnic groups almost inevitable.

Land issues

Politicians wage emotive campaigns around issues such as land, which has a weighty and sticky historical tag, as well as other historical injustices to whip up tribal emotions for support.

Grievances over land ownership in Kenya date back to colonial times and to the post-independence period. Unequal access to property rights, coupled with allegations of mismanagement and illegal allocation of public land, have led to long-running disputes.

From large tracts of farmland and pastures in the Rift Valley to the packed slums of Nairobi, these issues are a particular focus of tensions during election periods.

Waki Commission

After months of deadly bloodshed in 2007/08, the Waki Commission, set up to investigate the causes of the violence, reported that one of the major factors was the failure of past administrations to address land disputes and other historical injustices.

The failure to reform land laws remains an obstacle to containing inter-communal strife. Whenever election approaches, there are always fears that unresolved disputes over ownership and boundaries could lead to a resurgence in violence.

All Jomo Kenyatta's fault?

According to an article: "Tribe and patronage in Kenya: did Jomo Kenyatta set us up?" published by The Star on 5 February, anti-corruption czar John Githongo, wrote that Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's founding president, "essentially incorporated the African administrative collaborators of the colonial regime into his post-independence one and set about coming up with a methodology to reserve the choicest parts of the land the settlers had appropriated for the new political elite".

The Rift Valley being the only region in the country with high potential land that had a reasonably low population density, Githongo argued that it then became the "safety valve of Kenyan politics, absorbing the many, particularly the Gikuyu landless from the so-called White Highlands".

Daniel Moi, who took over from Kenyatta, used the presidency as an opportunity for his own tribal aggrandizement - critically necessary to maintain his political base of support- whilst carefully managing the ambitions of Kikuyu elites whose failure to receive their expected share would have jeopardised his grip on power.

The general elections in 1992 and 1997 were marred by brutal violence between ethnic groups. Subsequently, this became a common way to resolve political competition. With little or no attention to addressing the aftermath and the state's apparent failure to protect communities and resolve disputes, communities led by their political kingpins then became emboldened and viewed violent action as the only means to defend themselves and resolve inter-community competition for resources.

Lack of accountability

As witnessed in the 2007/08 post-election violence, which undoubtedly remains the country's worst violence in post-independence political history, this was a buildup of the unresolved pre-poll violence of 1992 and 1997.

Lack of national accountability against perpetrators of post-election violence means the country is likely to always remain susceptible to interethnic strife.

Brown is the pseudonym of a Kenyan reporter.

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