Turmoil in Kenya: Tribal Conflict?

a disclaimer: PEMBAspeaks on a lot of different topics. Sometimes we’re ‘experts’, sometimes we’re little better than hacks.  I wanted to share my understanding of the current political crisis in Kenya – it has been in the news (NPR, anyway) and I am not always comfortable with how the conflict is being framed.  I’m not a political scientist, but I’ve spent almost a year in Kenya, and in a previous life I was something of an East African studies scholar.  I think this issue requires more attention, and a better explanation.  Here’s my attempt:

Today, Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent president and controversial victor in last month’s elections, finally met with the opposition leader and alleged runner-up, Raila Odinga, in talks mediated by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The dispute stems from allegations of rampant voter fraud during the December 27th presidential contest. The lead up to the elections was relatively peaceful, and voter turn-out was upwards of 70%. As the counts came in, we saw key regions curiously swing towards the incumbent Kibaki, turnout in regions favoring Kibaki topping 115%, and even the use of armed police to commandeer ballot counting as the vote came down to the wire. An immediate, private swearing-in of Kibaki after his government announced victory attempted to defuse calls of corruption and fraud. International observers raised serious concerns about the legitimacy of the contest, especially as parliamentary elections resulted in huge gains for Odinga’s opposition party. 

Election fraud and widespread government corruption is not a rarity in sub-Saharan Africa. And despite Kenya’s relative political and economic stability since independence in the early 60s, Kenya is considered to have among the most corrupt governments in the world. The truly shocking aspect of this election contest is not so much the illegitimacy at the polls, but the violence that has erupted across the country as a result. Amid charges of ethnic cleansing, at least 650 people have been killed – included several dozen burned alive while seeking refuge in a church – and over a quarter of a million displaced by the violence. To many of us hearing the news reports, many of these attacks are disturbingly reminiscent of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.
But isn’t Kenya supposed to be above this, you ask? If Kenya can descend into tribal clashes, what does that foretell for stability in the rest of Africa? We hear these questions posed in daily news updates. But we need to ask a more important question first: what do we mean by “tribe”? And: why do we call it ethnic conflict in the Balkans, but it tribalism in Africa? One may argue these are semantics and essentially mean the same thing, but I argue this is fundamental in framing our understanding of African politics. Put simply (and lacking all the requisite complexity), tribe is a colonial artifact, as are many of the political realities in contemporary Africa. Certainly there are ethnic groups – Kikuyu (Kibaki’s ‘tribe’), Luo (Odinga’s ‘tribe’), Kalenjin, Samburu, Meru, etc. – and certainly there has been historic conflict between ethnic groups. But the British colonial strategy deliberately played ethic groups off of each other – divide and rule. “Tribal” identity cards were required at times, and the Kikuyu in particular benefited from favorable economic, political, and education benefits (until the fear of a Kikuyu ascendency became manifest). Geographic political divisions are colonial constructs too, and postcolonial national identities can be difficult to achieve.  
So where does this leave us? Well, we need to conceptualize this conflict as an ethnic division, akin to Bosnians, Serbs, et al., and understand that the Luo in particular have had several major political disappointments at the hands of Kikuyu politicians: Raila Odinga’s father was imprisoned by Jomo Kenyatta (the nation’s first president) after the once-political-allies had a very public falling out, Tom Mboya (a prominent political force in pre- and postcolonial Kenya) was assassinated raising questions about the role of Kenyatta and the Kikuyu political elite, and now Raila Odinga and his opposition party appears to have been disenfranchised at the hands of Kibaki’s government. In summary, Kikuyu (thanks in part to a colonial legacy) make up the majority of the political elite in Kenya, and like many in this position around the world, benefit illegally from their positions of power and are loath to step down. Does this justify the violence? Absolutely not. We should condemn it as we condemn ethnic conflict in Europe, and sectarian violence in Iraq. But by casting African conflicts as “tribal,” we essentialize the conflict, and make it an almost inevitable aspect of being African. Such semantics matter; the global community needs to recognize African governments as the-same-as Western governments, and hold them to the same standards rather than accepting their failures as something tribal.
But what does the average Kenyan want? They yearn for an end to corruption, transparency, and good-governance. Kibaki won his first term on an anti-corruption platform, but these dreams were largely unrealized. Many disenfranchised voters have taken to the streets to lodge their complain with the government and to demand democratic rule – truly admirable. Tragically, some of these protests have evolved into violence against neighbors. The majority of the population lives in poverty, which history tells us can lead to desperation and contribute to violence. Whatever role, if any, Kibaki and Odinga are playing in fueling this violence – they need to calm their supporters, though this does not mean Odinga needs to revoke his demand for a fair election (Washington has called for a power-sharing deal between the two). If the election was rigged, the Kenyan people deserve better. They have demanded a real democracy, and they should have one, but achieved by diplomacy, civil disobedience, and non-violence. Hopefully today’s meeting marks the first step towards ending the violence and holding legitimate elections.

2 responses to “Turmoil in Kenya: Tribal Conflict?

  1. Little known fact: Pete speaks Swahili!

  2. For the record, I was overly optimistic:
    NY Times