Who’s pushing ongoing violence in Kenya?

February 8, 2008

Lee Sustar reports on a renewed wave of killing spurred by the country's election crisis.

AS KENYAN politicians maneuvered in peace talks, the death toll topped 1,000 as the result of violence that followed Kenya's rigged elections in late December. At least 300,000 people more are living in refugee camps.

The latest wave of killings was reportedly carried out by members of the Kikuyu ethnic group, of which Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki is a member. Kikuyus had themselves been the victims of the initial violence carried out by members of the Luo ethnic group, which opposition leader Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) is a member of.

A key flashpoint in the fighting is the rich agricultural land of the Rift Valley, where better-off Kikuyus have in recent decades used their resources and political connections to purchase the best land. In the first wave of violence, thousands of Kikuyus were forced to flee after being attacked or threatened by machete-wielding young men from the Kalenjin ethnic group, which is the majority in the area.

State violence, however, is also a major factor in the death toll, as police use live ammunition to suppress protests by the ODM against election fraud.

South Africa's Mail & Guardian newspaper reported that the Munkgiki sect, a Kikuyu-based gang in the Nairobi slums, has infiltrated the Kenyan police in order to carry out political assassinations against opposition figures. One opposition member of parliament (MP) was shot dead by police officer in late January, soon after another opposition MP was shot.

THE VIOLENCE among Kenya's 40 ethnic groups took the Western media by surprise. But Western politicians had long called Kenya a democracy even though it was a police state dominated for more than two decades by Daniel arap Moi, who retired ahead of elections in 2002.

As long as the violence was limited to criminal gangs in the vast slums of Nairobi and the murderous police maintained "order," Kenya's backers in Washington and London were prepared to look the other way and use the country as a base for the West's economic, political and military domination of East Africa.

As the result of the election crisis, however, political violence is no longer the monopoly of the state as politicians line up with either Kibaki or Odinga, a socialist-turned-businessman who played the ethnic card himself during his election campaign.

No ethnic group dominates Kenya's population of 32 million. The Kikuyu is the largest group at 20 percent. The pattern therefore is for political rivals using ethnic alliances and rivalries to advance their agendas. Bitterness over Kenya's social inequality amid a booming economy has been channeled into ethnic violence.

As a result, hate literature is widely circulated, and radio stations broadcasting in local languages have also incited violence. Politicians in both camps are reportedly involved in spurring on the violence even as they enter negotiations brokered by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

"The Western media--especially the BBC--has sought to portray this as 'tribal violence,' neatly side-stepping the need to assess the political motives of who is behind the armed militia, who benefits from creating a climate of fear and distrust, and who are behind the distribution of the hate literature that is currently circulating from all sides," wrote Firoze Manji and Mukoma Wa Ngugi, editors of the Pambazuka Web site covering African politics.

"But these are not ethnic clashes. These are acts of violence that are perpetrated by those who, devoid of any political solution to the crisis, reach for the ethnic card. But it isn't all Kikuyus, or all Luos or all Kalenjins who have robbed others of their land or carried out massacres on each other. These crimes have been perpetrated by a minority who have reaped the fruits of land-grabbing."

A social justice activist living in Kenya made a similar point. "Most recently, the problems are between Kisiis and Kalenjins, because the police officer who shot the second MP was a Kisii," the activist said.

"The Kisiis are a smaller group, maybe 6 percent of the population, who hail from same province as Luos. There was already suspicion among some opposition supporters that the Kisiis were supporting Kibaki, but I think it's more accurate to say that they did not vote as a bloc.

"Like the Gikuyus, many Kisiis moved to Rift Valley and bought land, and have been regarded somewhat as outsiders. There had been attacks against Kisiis before this recent period, but they weren't widely reported. But, as with many of these more recent attacks, the ultimate motivation may have as much to do with land as electoral politics."

The negotiations pushed by the U.S. and Britain are aimed at ending the violence by brokering a deal between the elites, but not addressing the inequality and injustices that fuel the violence.

As Manji and Ngugi put it, "Kenya's history of uneven development in which half the country lives on less than a dollar a day has come to haunt the country."

Further Reading

From the archives