Politics of Land and Money in Kenya

As yesterday's post illustrated, Kenyan politics has had a significant ethnic component, but why is that? If so many Kenyans want to move past ethnic politics, then why does it persist?

Today’s post is the second installment of these week’s series on the history of Kenyan politics, the upcoming election, and the potential impetuses for political change. Today I focus what continues to make politics in Kenya focused on ethnicity: economic inequality and land control.

Economic Inequality
One of the many reasons that politics is so contentious in Kenya is that there is great economic inequality across the country. In fact, Kenya ranks among the world’s worst in terms of economic inequality – ranking 143 of 187 countries in the Human Development Index.

With control of the state comes the opportunity to benefit one’s own ethnic group, which is one of the reasons why so many Kenyans vote along ethnic lines. The Kikuyu are the most populous and most wealthy Kenyans, and both Kenya’s first President, Jomo Kenyatta, and Kenya’s current President, Mwai Kibaki were/are Kikuyu.

Kenya’s Income Inequality
Click to Enlarge
In general, the top 10% of Kenyan households have 45% of the nation’s total income, while the bottom 10% hold around 1.6% - the inequality is evident. Nairobi, Rift Valley, and Nyanza are ranked as the most economiclly unequal provinces of the country. The major ethnic groups of those provinces happen to be the largest ethnic groups of the country and therefore the most politically powerful: Kikuyu, Luo, and Kalenjin (together comprising over 35% of the nation’s total ethnic makeup). The relatively more equal provinces include the sparsely populated North Eastern Province which is predominantly Somali, who constitute only 2% of Kenya’s ethnic composition.

With this in mind, who can really blame people for voting on politicians of their own ethnic group? In a sense, it’s an act of self-preservation. And really, politics in the U.S. is no different.

Some argue that Moi’s single-party state was beneficial for Kenya, despite all of its flaws, because it eliminated ethnic politics and prevented “tribal chaos”, but now that the country has a multiparty state, they can’t go back to a one-party state for fear of international backlash. Although this view is a bit extreme and Moi’s regime was definitely not free of ethnic politics, it does highlight the fact that most average Kenyans want to do whatever they can to ensure politics is free of ethnic animosity.

One way to ease politics of its ethnic component would be to increase economic inequality across all provinces and all ethnic groups in Kenya. The way to do this is through economic growth and development projects.

However, the caveat with economic growth is that it does not ensure increased prosperity across ethnic lines. If politicians are corrupt, they can easily divert funds to profit a select few – likely those in their inner circle and certain ethnic group elite.

If corruption is tackled and politicians are held more accountable by their constituencies, then perhaps economic growth might begin to benefit those to whom it matters the most. But growth needs to occur alongside anti-corruption campaigns.

The other solution is development projects such as infrastructure construction. This I will discuss in further detail later this week.

The Politics of Land
Another reason so many Kenyans vote along ethnic lines is because of the issue to land. Land ownership and control is “the most explosive tribal animosity” in Kenya. Kenya’s population has exploded, creating land and resource competition in an area that used to be sparsely populated. At the beginning of the 20th century there were merely 1 million people living in what is now Kenyan territory, which grew to 8 million in 1963, and to over 40 million today.
Kenya’s population density makes it evident why control over land is so contentious
Created via World Bank Data

After white farmers left after independence, the fight for land intensified, most notably among the Kikuyu and Kalenjin in the Rift Valley, the place where most politically-infused ethnic violence erupts, such as in 2008.

With the majority of Kenya being rural, many believe that instead of being one ‘nation’, Kenya is in fact comprised of many ‘Nations’ who should have control over certain territory and resources of their ‘ancestral lands’.1 This is where ethnicity becomes highly politicized and contentious. If politicians run for a political office, like president, then people of that candidate’s tribe are likely to vote for him in hope that he will secure their territory and resources for them, and therefore securing their source of income and livelihood.

Violent land disputes were recently in the news when over 50 were killed in the Tana River clash, which some are now accusing was incited by politics. The Kenyan newspaper, The Sunday Nation, recently ran a piece on the violence in the Tana River Delta. It explained the political element in this seemingly apolitical land dispute:

The Pokomo generally control Tana River politics, so an influx of pastoralists in a Pokomo stronghold in an election year may be worrying for some leaders as the herders might just swing the vote in favour of an Orma candidate. Take Garsen constituency, for instance. it is now teeming with pastoralists from all over the county. If they register and vote there, they could very well determine who the area's next leaders will be.

If an influx of pastoralists of a different ethnic group register to vote in an area traditionally controlled politically by another ethnic group, then land disputes might easily swing in favor of the opposition group; therefore, it is evident why such outbreaks of violence occur.

However, as newer generations move from rural areas to urban centers, the saliency of the issue of land and by proxy, ethnicity, might begin to lessen. Now that the average voter age is 35, the change might be coming sooner than anticipated – a good sign for Kenyans sick of politics run on ethnic lines.

If the issues of inequality in land are solved, then many argue that the issues of inequality in political representation will also be solved. It is also noted that the centralized nature of the executive branch grows with the importance of the land issue since politics depends on the mobilization of numbers - and in order to mobilize populations, many politicians depend on their own ethnic group for guaranteed support. Therefore, the issue of political representation and the salience of ethnicity in politics will not be solved until land issues are solved once and for all and until, in my opinion, the executive branch becomes less centralized.

What has been done since the 2007 election in terms of political progress for Kenya? Who is running for election in the upcoming 2013 election? Will the tides of ethnic politics begin to shift in favor of more nationalistic politics in the near future? Check back the rest of the week for the final segments of this series on Kenya’s ethnic politics for some insights.

1 Gabrielle Lynch, “Negotiating Ethnicity: Identity Politics in Contemporary Kenya,” Review of African Political Economy, 33, no. 107 (2006): 55. 


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