Kenya's Politicized Ethnic Landscape

This coming March, Kenya’s 2-term President, Mwai Kibaki, will step down and Kenyans will vote on a brand new leader for their young (20-year old) multiparty democracy.  With the recent killings in Tana River Delta, both Kenyans and Kenyan political analysts are fearful that this is a sign of the potential violence to come ahead of elections.

The next five days of posts will be dedicated into looking at Kenya’s political history, the origins of its politicized ethnic landscape, a glimpse into the upcoming presidential election, how aid/development can help depoliticize ethnicity, and looking into the future of Kenyan politics. Today’s post is the first in a five-part series. 

Brief Political History
Ethnic Composition of Kenya
Image via BBC
Kenya, since it gained its independence from United Kingdom in 1963, has had a checkered political history, often marred by violence and ethnic politics. In pre-colonial times, ethnic identities were not a cause of violence because ethnic identity was often considered negotiable, flexible, and constantly transforming.

Under British rule, in order to impose the colonial view of ‘tribal Africa’1, colonial officers often calcified differences among Kenya’s more than 40 ethnic groups so as to prevent them from uniting to overthrow British rule. After colonialism, as a result of this emphasis on ethnicity, control in politics was therefore “heavily reliant on local ethnic big men”2 to secure benefits for their community, thus beginning the trend of ethnically-based national politics. And yes, I am blaming colonialism for this one.

Kenya’s first President, Jomo Kenyatta, ruled from 1964-1978 and was from Kenya’s largest and richest ethnic group, the Kikuyu (22% of the total population).

After Kenyatta came President Daniel arap Moi from the Kalenjin ethnic group (12% of the total population) and who led from 1978 to 2002. Moi used ethnic division, similar to the British colonists, in order to retain power. After Moi’s single-party rule ended and a multiparty system introduced, the role of ethnic identity in Kenya’s politics has only intensified, which reached its height in 2008 after the last presidential election which resulted in 1,500 deaths and 300,000 displacements.
2008 Post-Election Violence
Image via Radio Netherlands Worldwide

Political Landscape
Power in Kenya’s government is highly centralized in the executive branch – “The president appoints high court judges and electoral commissioners, has the power to dissolve parliament, and controls the federal budget” - creating a winner-takes-all-mentality.

Since it would be nearly impossible to win a majority of votes based on a politician’s ethnic constituency alone (since none make up more than 50% of the population), political candidates need to work to win some cross-ethnic support. 

Another tactic used is creating political and ethnic coalitions to serve as a bulwark against opposition parties. For example, the “Kenyan African National Union (KANU) and the Kenyan African Democratic Union (KADU) were, from their formation in 1960, fragile coalitions of ethnic communities, brought together initially by two conflicting logics of an independent Kenyan state”.3

These alliances are evident even in the upcoming 2013 Kenyan election, particularly evident in the G7 alliance, which I will discuss in more detail later this week. According to research, the political interests and attitudes of Kenya’s elite affect the perceptions of the members of their own ethnic group; therefore, if the main politician for a certain ethnic group says to vote against the constitution referendum, then their constituency is likely to do so – if the candidate says to vote for a certain candidate that is part of an alliance in order to stop an opposition candidate, then the constituency will do so.
Prime Minister Odinga (Left) and President Kibaki (Right)
Image via DW News

Saliency of Ethnicity
As I explained earlier, the ethnic diversity in pre-colonial Kenya did not equate violence. In fact, today nearly 3/4ths of Kenyans prefer to identify as ‘Kenyan’ rather than of their ethnic group according to an Afrobarometer survey done in 2003 and most call for non-ethnically aligned leaders4 that will foster a greater sense of nationalism. Yet ethnicity remains central to national and local politics  for many reasons (see tomorrow's post), regardless of the widespread desire to take ethnicity out of the equation.

For example, earlier this year, nationalist Kenyans who held a political rally in Nairobi ended up being chased by tear gas-firing police. Their crime: telling fellow Kenyans that they weren’t obliged to vote along ethnic lines.

One has to wonder, if so many Kenyans want to move past politicized ethnicity, then why do they continue to vote along ethnic lines? Why does the trend of voting along ethnic lines or along alliance lines continue despite the desire to create a more nationalistic political scene? Tomorrow’s post will examine two of the reasons that ethnic politics persists: economic inequality and land control.

1 Gabrielle Lynch, “Negotiating Ethnicity: Identity Politics in Contemporary Kenya,” Review of African Political Economy, 33, no. 107 (2006): 49.
2 Ibid., 60.
3 Ibid., 62.
4 Ibid., 60.


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