Kenya’s violence: Britain’s
By: David Zarembka,
Institue for Policy Studies,
15. Feb. 2008
IT'S HARD to fathom how a rigged election could produce such
violence as burning women and children alive in a church. But
that's what happened in the Kenya Assemblies of God Church in
Kiambaa, just outside the town of Eldoret in western Kenya.
Unfortunately, it didn't come as a surprise to me or others living
in the region.
Some brief historical background may help explain why Kenya has
seemed to suddenly erupt into ethnic violence after President Mwai
Kibaki was sworn into office following disputed elections. So far,
the Kenyan government has estimated that about 300 people have
died. But it's likely that this number is underreported and will
keep climbing. The post-election violence has pitted the Kikuyu
ethnic group, whose members support the incumbent Kibaki, against
the Luo, who are in the tribe of opposition presidential candidate
Raila Odinga, Luhya, Kalenjin and other ethnic groups.
British Rule, Kikuyu Functionaries
The genesis of the current situation has its origin in British
colonialism during the early 20th early. The nature of their
colonial model was total control from a strong center. While
proportionally few British people actually settled in Kenya, they
controlled large estates.
To run these estates and enjoy the comfortable life the British
desired, they needed lots of labor, the cheaper the better.
Therefore, the colonial government levied a tax on each adult male
that forced him to work six months per year just to pay the tax,
which was then used for the benefit of the settlers. The settlers
were harsh and cruel to their African laborers.
The "tribe" that was most affected by the British rule were the
Kikuyus, mainly because they lived on the fertile soil of a small
area on Mount Kenya. They were quickly forced off of their minimal
amount of land by the colonialists and consequently many of them
were forced onto the settlers' estates to work for them. The
Kikuyu are known for being very industrious, hard-working people
who early on saw the benefits of education.
Many of them became the low-level functionaries that any
government needs, including the British colonial authorities.
Mau Mau Rebellion
During World War II, many young Kenyan men were drafted into the
British army and served across the globe. Their eyes were opened
by what they saw and when they returned to Kenya after the war,
they found that they were given the same menial, low-paying
dead-end work. By the early 1950s, this dissatisfaction gave rise
to a protest movement called the "Mau Mau rebellion."
The Mau Mau movement was mostly among the Kikuyus and they forced
people to take an oath to oppose the British rule.
Perhaps 90 percent of the Kikuyu in Central Province on Mount
Kenya took the oath, willingly and unwillingly.
The remaining 10 percent were the loyalists who worked for the
British colonial government. Although Jomo Kenyatta, who later
became president, was originally jailed as a Mau Mau leader, they
soon realized that he was really a loyalist.
Additionally, his son, Peter Kenyatta, with Jomo Kenyatta's
blessing, was one of the leaders of the loyalists.
Kenyatta was soon separated from the other Mau Mau leaders.
The suppression of Mau Mau was extremely brutal. A larger
percentage of the Kikuyu population in Central Province died
during the suppression of Mau Mau in the 1950s than Rwandans
perished during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Torture was prevalent.
Women and children were put into concentration camps with little
food and medical care, and as a result a large number of them died.
No one should be under the illusion that the British were "better"
colonialists than the Germans or Belgians. The technique the
British used here was to deny everything with massive cover-ups
and much of this history is only now being uncovered.
During this same time, the British implemented land consolidation
in Central Province. The result was that the loyalists received
nice, large land holdings at the expense of the Mau Mau people who
were in jail.
When the Mau Mau rebels returned, they found that their land had
been reduced to only small fragments unable to support their
families. They were forced either to work for the Kikuyu loyalists
or to emigrate to other parts of Kenya which were not so heavily
populated--in particular, many Kikuyus went to the Rift Valley
Some of the most successful loyalists went into business, using
the dispossessed Kikuyu to do the labor that they now needed.
In particular, the Kikuyu often replaced Indian shopkeepers in
small towns and villages. Many more became the conductors and
drivers of the matatus (mini-buses) that dominate Kenya land
By now some of these individuals have built their businesses
substantially and have become tycoons.
The British, at the time of independence in 1963, handed the
control of government to their loyalist supporters.
The Kikuyu business tycoons and the Kikuyu political establishment
formed a strong bond during Jomo Kenyatta's presidency.
When Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin, took over the presidency on
Kenyatta's death, he quickly made a deal with the Kikuyu
establishment that he would not bother their businesses and they
agreed to let him on the Kenyan gravy train, which included
pervasive corruption and looting of government funds. (Kibaki, the
most recent president of Kenya was at one time part of both the
Kenyatta and Moi Governments).
No Moi Joy
When the Kenyan people, including the Kikuyu elite, tired of Moi,
they tried to replace him. In 1992 and 1997, Moi divided and
conquered the opposition. One of the techniques Moi used was to
promote violence in his homeland of Rift Valley.
In 1992, perhaps 1,000 Luo, Luhya, and Kikuyu were killed by the
Kalenjins and more than 100,000 became homeless. As happened under
British rule, Moi's regime closed the Rift Valley province to
everyone and little is known of the details.
When it was over, there was a huge cover-up, but the situation
remained very tense.
In 2002, Moi was now too old for another term and he selected
Kenyatta's son, Uhuru Kenyatta, to run for the presidency. The
opposition, this time united under Kibaki, soundly defeated Uhuru
Kenyatta. At this point Kibaki had the opportunity to bring all
Kenyans together as a real nation, but he soon dropped all the
non- Kikuyu who had helped him into office. A group of Kikuyu
politicians and businessmen became a controlling clique.
Orange Democratic Movement
In 2007, the others (members of the Luo, Luhya, and Kalenjin
tribes) who felt betrayed by Kibaki, joined together in the Orange
Democratic Movement (ODM) to oppose Kibaki.
Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, a former foreign minister and a member of
the Kamba tribe, stayed out of the coalition and formed his own
party called ODM-Kenya.
To summarize, since independence the Kikuyu have directly or
indirectly controlled the Government and dominated the Kenyan
business community. They have kept and promoted the centralized
system of government handed to them when British rule ended in
December 1963. Under this governing model, the president was
all-powerful, as he controlled the executive, legislative and
judicial branches of Government through a hybrid presidential and
The 2007 election campaign revolved around "devolvement" meaning
decentralizing. Naturally, Kibaki and the Kikuyu people opposed
this since it would mean giving up their power.
There are 80,000 matatu mini-buses on Kenyan roads, most of which
are owned and operated by Kikuyus. I spend a lot in matatus and
have ample time to analyze the business. The conductor rents the
vehicle with a driver for the day and keeps whatever is left over.
So the conductor has to push and push to make sure that he does
not actually lose money. The conductor therefore often tries to
increase the price of the ride, stuff more people into the vehicle,
and drive faster. This leads to amazing antagonism between the
conductor and the passengers. There is no customer service, just
The riders continually believe that they are being taken advantage
of and abused. This happens almost every time one gets into a
So, unfortunately, the current wave of violence is seen by many
Kenyans as payback time. It's amazing how only Kikuyu shops and
homes are being burned, leaving everyone else's intact. Those at
the bottom are taking it out on those whom they feel are on top.
They have no contact with the Kikuyu tycoons and politicians and
so they are taking the pent-up rage of 44 years of independence
out on the average Kikuyu in their community. The Kikuyu are then
retaliating by killing the other ethnic groups that happen to live
in their communities. This also explains why Kibaki (read the
Kikuyu elite) wished to stay in power by rigging the election.
Otherwise, they would be the losers.
At stake here is whether the status quo, with the Kikuyu on top,
will prevail or if the essential nature of the Kenyan government
will change so that everyone gets a fair share. (But if the latter
scenario takes root, it would remain to be seen whether the Kikuyu
would be allowed their fair share or be punished.)
Plenty of Tinder
Changing demographics can also help explain Kenya's predicament.
With the large population increase in recent decades, there are
Many of them have been educated to the secondary level or even
above, yet are left with few jobs and nothing to do, and therefore
alienated from Kenyan society. These are the shock troops of the
rioters and looters. They see no future so they can easily be
turned to violence.
Clearly there was plenty of tinder. The spark was the announcement
that Kibaki "won" what everyone in western Kenya, and the European
Union, considers a rigged election.
The youth waited until the result was announced on the radio and
then immediately attacked matatus (I saw the plumes of eight
burning matatus), Kikuyu shops and homes, and then the Kikuyu