News 2008


"Tribal Violence" And "Ethnic Cleansing" In Kenya?

February 15th, 2008 by Joe Gandelman

This is a Guest Voice column by Alan Boswell, an American college student who has been studying in Kenya since August 2007.

What"s Really Happening In Kenya

by Alan Boswell

"Tribal violence"? "Ethnic cleansing"? These words have been splashing in the international headlines recently as Kenya's flawed presidential election in late December has opened up its suppressed undercurrents of inequality and tribal politics for all the world to see.

For the West, these types of headlines are startling and seem radiated from a different world, a different age. If these phrases don't end up resurrecting age-old philosophical questions on human nature, then they tend to just lend to the further dismissal of the entire "dark continent" by the rest.

However, such quick off-handedness is unfortunate.

In Kenya, these headlines are misleading, and its recent events are neither inexplicably inhuman nor are they really fundamentally tribal in nature. Instead, its quick drop into instability was a political fall caused by a complexity of economic, social, and historical factors intertwining into the tangled mess the world is currently watching.

Historically, contemporary ethnic communities in Kenya (and similarly in much of Africa) are as much a creation of their colonial masters (in Kenya's case, the British) as any pre-colonial ethnic identity. Through a divide-and-rule strategy that attempted to pre-empt broad dissent, the British firmly separated Kenya into different tribes, cementing what was previously often much more ambiguous and shifting social constructions.

The British policies of separation instead of unification created tribal animosities in the battle over scarce economic resources and political privileges, purposely stunting any nationalist sentiment from forming and threatening its rule. For instance, national associations and political parties were not allowed; instead, only intra-tribal groups could organize and lobby their colonial rulers.

Today, these colonial policies are all too evident in the post-colonial Kenyan state and have taken on new dimensions since independence. In a country where governance and rule have operated largely on a patron-client system, these tribal groups (clients) rally behind their political leaders (patrons) in the expectation of receiving a larger piece of the pie in proportion with greater political power. This demon of tribal politics has proven tough to kill.

In short, the current animosities stem from frustrations of economic inequalities and political back-handedness, not from any pre-colonial, age-old hostilities between tribes.

But how, though, in a nation as developed and civilized as Kenya"which was considered a beacon for the rest of the region until now" could all this "barbarism" break out?

In large part, Kenya is country which has been failed by its leaders. Underneath its guise of national unity, issues of inequality, regional underdevelopment, ethnic favoritism, corruption, and greed have been long covered over and left unresolved, and, even worse, have been exploited by the political leadership for personal gain and power time and time again.

In the 2002 elections, a coalition of broad ethnic support was created to knock out Daniel arap Moi's dictatorial party, KANU. In part because of Raila Odinga"s ceaseless campaigning, Mwai Kibaki won. After Kibaki refused to follow the coalition agreement and create a prime minister spot for Raila Odinga, the coalition fell apart. In the 2007 election, in contrast to 2002 when the two main candidates hailed from the same tribe, the campaigning took on major tribal overtones, with Odinga building an ethnic coalition to challenge Kibaki and his Kikuyu tribe, the most populous of the Kenyan ethnic communities but one which has historically held disproportionate political and economic power.

When Kibaki won/stole re-election against Odinga in December amidst wide vote-rigging (from both sides), the underlying tensions left officially unaddressed for so long broke out. Leaders gave only mild and sporadic condemnations of violence as unemployed and largely forgotten youth living in the slums took their frustration out against Kibaki"s Kikuyu tribesmen, with recent backlash violence from the Kikuyu.

Some of the violence is not new. The Rift Valley, where the chaos has been most widespread, has long been a spot of unrest as then President Moi used tribal violence over deep-felt land issues in 1992 to try to hang on to power. In fact, the Rift Valley violence has little to do with the recent election but instead with the unaddressed issues of land and inequality and might have occurred anyway. Elsewhere, though, unrest has been more spontaneous and much less organized, especially in the urban slum areas where too many feel they have too little to lose. This time around, the political elites" unashamed corruption and unfair play was a poorly mis-calculated risk, the factors all too ripe for the eruption which followed.

Ethnic identities are fluid, with each generation re-defining itself according to the community's present socio-economic position and concerns. Those who have long felt shafted and who saw their long-hoped-for and, this time, expected victory snatched away have unfortunately taken up the universal last-resort tactic"violence.

But there is hope.

With Kofi Annan"s mediation talks underway, the two sides are officially in negotiations and have pledged not only to address the immediate political crisis, but also the underlying economic and structural issues behind much of the tension. The two sides have left their hardline positions as Annan is pushing for a quick political settlement consisting of a grand coalition government.

Although much space still separates the two sides, for the first time since the elections Kenyans are once again, though very cautiously, optimistic"even if such optimism is hard to believe for a world which thinks it is watching just another "African" tragedy.