"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
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
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
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
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
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"