kenya’s political history of turmoil

If it happens in Africa it must just be the primal instinct based in tribalism. The mass media has been covering the situation in Kenya as a near exclusive tribal and ethnic conflict without accounting for the history of Kenya’s political turmoil and where ethnicity is put into a colonial context. The crisis in Kenya is not solely ethnic and tribal. It is a crisis based on democracy and fueled by past divisions created by British colonial rule.

What we have seen recently is a devolution of ‘democratic’ elections into ethnic conflict. The Presidential incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, was made President in previous elections as the opposition candidate was declared unable to run by the constitution. Moving into the most recent elections Kibaki did not have the majority support. However, in the end tallies of votes Kibaki came out ahead of the opposition candidate, Raila Odinga. Odinga was running with his Orange Democratic Movement behind him. European Union observers declared Kibaki’s second term as stolen when the national vote counts came back different than the district vote counts, putting Kibaki as the winner. What we then saw was a devolution of a ‘stable democracy’ in to “tribal” conflict. But, before we can even begin to grasp what this means in Kenya we have to examine and understand Kenya’s history of colonial violence and created ethnic tension.

In 1888, the British took over the area known as Kenya as part of the 1885 Berlin Conference that divided the land area of Africa between the major European powers. The Germans formerly controlled the land. The colony known as British East Africa remained uninvolved in World War I. By the twentieth century 30,000 white British settlers began establishing themselves in the fertile highlands growing coffee and tea and commanding unjust political and economic power in the country. The highlands had traditionally been home to the Kikuyu people, who were forced off of their land and had to then seek jobs on their own former land under the employ of white settler farmers for a meager wage of newly imposed British currency. This injustice set off the start of the Mau-Mau rebellion lead by the Kikuyu people and the Land and Army Freedom movement in 1952. The country was placed under martial-rule. The British Long Rifles, the Home Guard (Kenyan soldiers), and the British army backed by Winston Churchill‘s command came together strongly against the movement and killed 42% of the rebel fighters. The capture and execution of Dedan Kimathi in 1956, the Mau Mau leader, essentially ended the rebellion. The Kikuyu rebellion was destroyed. The British consciously divided the Kikuyu and Luo people for fear that they would be too strong of a unifying force against their colonial empire. The Kenyan elites were able to take power with the election of the Kikuyu elite, Jomo Kenyatta.

The first elections in Kenya were in 1957. To the dismay of the British, the election was won by Kenyatta backed by his Kenya African National Union (KANU) party instead of the ‘moderate’ Africans the British had hoped for, but this was their own product of favoring the Kikuyu. Upon Kenyatta’s death Daniel arap-Moi took power, stepping up from his Vice Presidential role. His succession to president was strongly opposed by the Kikuyu elite, known as the Kiambu Mafia. He held power in uncontested single-party elections from 1978 until 2002. Moi dismissed political opponents and consolidated his power. He put down Kikuyu coup attempts through execution of coup leaders. Moi was central in the perpetuating Kenyatta’s single-party state, reflected in the constitution. In his 2002 and 2007 election wins, Moi exploited the mixed ethnic composition of Kenya and with a divided opposition of smaller tribes – Moi won. Moi represented an ethnic minority, the Kalenjin, that kept the Kikuyu out of power for many years. I am not sure if we are to assume the role of Moi as Vice President to Kenyatta was to appease the ethnic minority, but the Kikuyu’s role as a benefiting elite was lost with Moi’s succession.

Kenya’s 36 million people are divided among more than 40 ethnic groups, each with its own identity, cultural traditions and practices, and separate language. The main groups are Kikuyu (22%), Luhya (14%), Luo (13%), Kalenjin (12%) and Kamba (11%), according to government figures. Now we see the colonial policy of “divide and conquer” lives on. The tradition of corruption in Kenyan politics continues and Kikuyu is pitted against the various ethnic groups. However, this is a created ethnic conflict in a country where ethnicity and politics are conjoined. Kenyatta was a Kikuyu elite created by the British colonialism, Moi was essentially a dictator for 30 years, and Kibaki undemocratically stole power and now for a second time. Instead of a conflict rooted in tribalism this conflict, “suggests that the undemocratic historical trajectory that Kenya has been moving along was launched at the inception of British colonial rule more than a century ago.” What is most surprising is not that there is now an ethnic conflict in Kenya, but that it did not happen sooner.

Surprisingly, CNN acknowledged the roots of Kenya’s ethnic political troubles. Neither candidate in Kenya’s elections really represented the people or true democracy. Odinga’s (Luo) Orange Democratic Movement was supported by Luhya and he promised to appoint a Luhya deputy if elected. Kibaki’s government has had troubles and scandals dealing with corruption and graft since beginning in 2002. The BBC also gives a more accurate account of the conflict in Kenya. They suggest that the headlines talking of tribalism should better read: “Tribal differences in Kenya, normally accepted peacefully, are exploited by politicians hungry for power who can manipulate poverty-stricken population.” But no one wants to read that. The main stream media has decided to final cover Africa as a front page story only because it provides a striking headline. As Kikuyu flee, the news wants to make Kenya out to be another Rwanda, but I wouldn’t venture so far to say that it has become that terrible. This sentiment of violence influences writers at every level. One student writer can only focus on the violence in her article.

The US has condemned the violence in Kenya. “We condemn the violence that occurred in Kenya as its citizens await these election results, and call on all Kenyans to remain calm while the vote tabulation process is concluded,” State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in a statement. The US would like to say how terrible it is that Kenyans have been denied democracy. However, I am not sure how we can claim to know democracy. Just as Kenyans, we too have never known real democracy in this two-party system full of government control and corruption. My swahili professor is from western Kenya, he is a Luo. The other day I asked him if his family was safe. He said they were, they had fled soon enough to miss the violence. I asked him about the history of ethnic favoring in Kenya and he said that it all started with Kenyatta. While this all goes on – colonial legacies of ethnic tension, stolen democracy, and a fear of continued turmoil, the US presidential primaries plug along. We as US citizens can only dream of democracy. While Obama, with Kenyan descent, gains popularity and primaries his family in Kenya watches. Will there be democracy gained anywhere? Will stolen votes bring conflict in the US too or maybe we do not have a knowledgeable enough electorate to protest.

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4 Comments

  1. Excellent article. You put everything into its historical/political context…something mainstream media fails to do time and time again. One thing you may want to consider adding is a little more clarification on this:”The British consciously divided the Kikuyu and Luo people for fear that they would be too strong of a unifying force against their colonial empire.”How did the British do this? Did the British government physically separate the two groups of people into two living areas, granting more resources to one over the other? Did the British government disadvantage one group by socially constructing either the Kikuyu or the Luo as the “other,” or subordinate race (think of the Hutus and the Tutsis, one was considered a more beautiful race than the other, think of the United States and white and blacks, one skin color has a premium over the other)? Did such a social construction significantly affect the standard of living for the disadvantaged group (think of what is produced by structural racism in the US- job discrimination, higher incarceration rates of a certain group, keeping one group less educated than the other…)?Saying the British government favored one group over the other to divide and conquer is all well and good, but I think you’d be ten times more convincing if you elaborated on the social-historical aspect of dividing the people of Kenya into various ethnic groups.

  2. well said but i have to disagree with you. The british rule doesn’t have anything to do with why kenyan communities don’t get along, it’s pure human nature. Even before the british were known in kenya, communities fought each other over trade routes and hunting grounds and so it continues today. Talk about moving forward.

  3. Thanks for the comment Duncan. The point that you make is one that I have heard often repeated in regards to ethnic tensions and politics in Kenya. You are correct in your statement that, “Even before the british were known in kenya, communities fought each other over trade routes and hunting grounds.” However, the current extent of violence surrounding politics and ethnic groups in Kenya cannot merely be summed up by saying that people have been fighting over land and resources for a long time. That is a statement that can be attached to any current or past society. The Kenyan context with British involvement cannot be ignored as the root cause of what the media and experts called “tribalism” as related to the most recent elections in Kenya.

  4. I want to say thank you such a lot of for that job you have made in witnrig this piece of witnrig. I am hoping the same effective job from you down the road too.

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