21 February 2013

Flash back to January 2008 (#5): Ethnic and Political Violence in Kenya

The election will be held just 11 days from now, on March 4th. The campaigns and subsequent wars-on-words are 'hotting up' (to use British English). Various opinion polls show the race to be too close to call between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta.

Just as last time, there's been a lot of voter education and encouragement for a 'free and fair election'. This will be the first election under Kenya's new constitution. There are numerous changes (like the addition of senator and governor). Voters will have six ballots to mark.

Pasted on temporary construction wall in Kakamega

Printed in all local newspapers

The latest - and rather surprising - news is that one of the two main contenders for the office of president - Uhuru Kenyatta - has decided not to participate in the second televised debate next Monday.

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The following is another in my series of 'flash back' blog updates after Kenya's last election in December, 2007. I originally posted this on January 29, 2007:

A compilation of excerpts from articles at BBC.com
It will give you a good overview of some of the history of what's going on in Kenya.

The ethnic and political violence in Kenya has renewed debate about whether multi-party democracy can be successful in an African context where ethnic loyalties are strong. If you ask almost any African this question the answer will be: "Yes, democracy can work... if only our leaders allowed it."

It would be naive in the extreme to discount ethnicity in any African election. The reality of life on the world's poorest continent is that most people live a marginal economic existence and rely enormously, for survival, on those nearest to them.

Rural villagers rely on each other, for example, to bring in the crop, or to share food in difficult times. Urban dwellers often organize themselves to provide common services like schools because their governments are either too poor or too incompetent to deliver.

In these circumstances the people nearest to you - whom you can trust - are first, family, and second, tribe. African politicians know this formula very well and many of them exploit it ruthlessly. "Vote for me," they say, "because I'm from your tribe and you can trust me."

The most dramatic recent illustration of this kind of manipulation was the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Hutus were persuaded by an extremist Hutu power bloc that all Tutsis were their enemies.

There are many other less catastrophic examples. Politics in Nigeria, for example, is a complex chessboard of ethnicity and religion. The presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006 divided the country along ethnic and linguistic lines. And even in a peaceful, democratic country like Ghana, it is clear that ethnic Ashantis, for example, tend to vote one way while ethnic Ewes tend to vote another.

But at the same time there is usually a further explanation - beyond ethnic group - for the way people vote or the way they react to situations like the current crisis in Kenya. That explanation is almost always rooted in money - or a lack of it - and the cynical search for power by politicians. It is no coincidence that the people who usually perpetrate "tribal violence" are unemployed young men.
In Ivory Coast in the late 1990s, for example, the campaign against northerners that was orchestrated by southern politicians - and which eventually led to a full-scale civil war - was spearheaded by youths, who were paid a daily rate for the job.

African intellectuals who concede there is a problem of tribalism on the continent - or, rather, a problem of the deliberate manipulation of tribal sentiment by selfish politicians - stress that there is also a rational solution.

Part of the solution, they say, is economic development. If there is growth in the economy there will be more education and less ignorance about fellow citizens of other tribes - and, of course, fewer unemployed thugs for politicians to "buy" for a few cents a day.
Another part of the solution, they say, is genuine democracy with genuinely independent law courts. People would have no need to rely on their tribe if they could rely on all their ballot papers being counted, and could expect honest judgments from courts.

Here, Africa can point to progress in recent decades. Fifty years ago, almost the entire continent was ruled by foreign colonial powers. Even just 20 years ago, most African countries were run by dictators or military juntas.

What's behind the violence in Kenya?
The immediate trigger has been the disputed election results. But ethnic tension, which has dogged Kenyan politics since independence in 1963, is widely believed to underlie much of the violence. With patronage and corruption still common, many Kenyans believe that if one of their relatives is in power, they will benefit directly, for example through a relative getting a civil service job.

The current tensions can be traced back to the 1990’s, when then President Moi was forced to introduce multi-party politics. Members of Moi's Kalenjin ethnic group (the dominant group in the Rift Valley Province) felt threatened by the move. The region has a history of land disputes. Some of those disputes were originally caused by what was coyly called European "settlement" - which created refugees hungry for land. More recently, Kenyan politicians have practiced more appropriately-named "land grabs" in parts of the country. It is therefore no coincidence that some of the worst violence has been in the Rift Valley area.

Raila, from the Luo community, has a fairly wide support base across ethnic groups and has portrayed himself as challenging Kenya's political establishment. He promised during his campaign to address the extreme income inequalities in the country.

Kibaki depends heavily on the votes of Kikuyus (the largest ethnic group in the country) but also has support from smaller communities.

Under Kibaki’s presidency the economy has been growing steadily, but most Kenyans have not yet felt the benefits of this. In the overcrowded slums around Nairobi, residents have to cope with violent gangs, no sewers (people use plastic bags as toilets and throw them out of the window), and intermittent electricity.

Kenya’s citizens are divided into 42 ethnic groups. The five largest groups make up almost ¾ of the population:
  • Kikuyu – 22%
  • Luhya – 14%
  • Luo – 13%
  • Kalenjin – 12%
  • Akamba – 11%

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