Cut across ethnic divide

It is class interests arising from the legacy of British rule that underlie Kenyan rivalries. Nick Rogers looks at the background to the current chaos

It is not often that a political story from Africa tops British news bulletins for the best part of a week, but the aftermath of Kenya’s December 27 presidential and parliamentary general election was one such rare example. No doubt the fact that Kenya’s nature reserves and beaches are a popular tourist destination and that Kenya is also of strategic importance to US and British interests in a sensitive region not very far from the military conflicts of the Middle East contributed to journalistic interest. But the sheer drama of the unfolding events was compelling.

Not until electoral commissioner Samuel Kivuiti on Sunday January 30 declared Mwai Kibaki to have won the presidential poll - followed by the cloak-and-dagger swearing in of Kibaki without the usual audience of eminent domestic and international dignitaries in attendance - did it become clear that Kenya was facing a monumental political crisis.

The election itself had seen little violence. Although in an ominous sign of events to come many electors with names beginning with ‘A’ or ‘O’, an indicator of challenger Raila Odinga’s Luo ethnic group, found their names missing from electoral registers. Those who persisted were eventually allowed to vote. Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) proceeded to a strong victory in the parliamentary elections, taking 99 of the 222 seats - its total has since risen to 105, since the largest party can appoint an additional six parliamentarians. The Party of National Unity of sitting president Kibaki won just 43 seats and saw 20 ministers defeated.

Over the next two days Raila Odinga built an impressive lead of nearly one million votes in the presidential count. Newspapers and TV stations in Kenya declared that only a miracle could save Kibaki. Then, as delays in the count increased suspicions and anxieties, the miracle duly occurred. A flood of votes from Central Province, the Kikuyu heartland of Kibaki - immediately surrounding the capital Nairobi - took Kibaki to within striking distance of Odinga. A day later, after the offices of the electoral commission had been cleared of all opposition politicians and the press, Kivuiti announced that Kibaki had won a narrow victory of a mere 230,000 votes.

The electoral fraud was blatant. International observers noted large discrepancies between the votes declared for Kibaki locally and those recorded in Nairobi as tens of thousands of votes per constituency in Central Province were added to Kibaki’s score. An initial US message of congratulation to Kibaki was withdrawn within a day or so. Other governments expressed misgivings from the start.

Kenya exploded. From the slums of Kisumu on Lake Victoria to those of Nairobi and Mombasa on the Indian Ocean the young and the poor rioted in protest at a result that had robbed them of the man in whom they had placed their hopes for narrowing Kenya’s dramatic social inequalities. “No Raila, no peace” was their watchword. Immediately the killing began. The first deaths and a substantial proportion of those which followed were at the hands of the police. A BBC reporter counted over 40 bodies with gunshot wounds in Kisumu’s morgue. Many had been shot in the back - all at the hands of the police or the feared colonial-era paramilitaries the General Service Unit.

Then the inter-ethnic violence began, with Kikuyus - seen as the bedrock of Kibaki’s political support - the principal target. In the slums Kikuyu shops were ransacked and Kikuyu residents forced to flee. In the Rift Valley Kikuyu smallholders were expelled from their land - elsewhere Kikuyus forced out farmers of the Kalenjin ethnic group. In one horrific incident in Eldoret Kikuyus seeking refuge in a church were massacred when the building was set alight and many of those trying to escape were hacked with machetes or thrown back into the flames. At least 30 died.

As soon as he was sworn in Kibaki declared a de facto state of emergency. Live broadcasts were banned. Any attempt by the opposition to hold rallies that might have provided an organised outlet for the generalised rage were banned and met with police and security forces using batons, water cannon and tear-gas and - out of the sight of journalist - live rounds.

Estimates of the number of deaths nationwide vary from 500 to 1,000. Perhaps 250,000 Kenyans have been displaced.


So what is the story behind Kenya’s political meltdown? Western observers have expressed dismay that “an island of stability” in a region that includes the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, Uganda (fighting a long-running insurgency by the Lords Resistance Army in the north of country), Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia could so easily descend into apparent civil war. The truth of the matter is that all of the ingredients of the last two weeks of political conflict in Kenya have been present to one degree or another since shortly after independence. Indeed they can be traced back to the political strategy Britain pursued as the country’s colonial master before 1963.

Without question Kenya - especially during the cold war - has long been presented as a bastion of capitalist rectitude. In January 1988, Margaret Thatcher said of president Daniel Arap Moi’s regime, that Kenya had “a strong and decisive leadership within a constitutional framework … where others have faltered, Kenya has continued to grow stronger and more prosperous. We admire your country’s peace and stability and policies which recognise the worth of individual effort and personal endeavour and an economy in which private ownership and private industry has been encouraged.”

This was a country experiencing such strong and decisive leadership at the time of Thatcher’s visit that hundreds of political detainees languished in its jails, many of whom suffered brutal torture (the detainees included Raila Odinga, then in his sixth year of solitary confinement, who at the beginning of his detention was beaten and held naked in a cell filled to ankle height with water). A country in which scores of political opponents were killed. A country moreover which had periodically from the mid-60s onwards experienced mafia-like assassinations of political opponents and rival politicians.

A country blessed with a constitutional framework that banned all opposition parties; in which - in a throwback to colonial laws - meetings of more than five people required approval from the police or the presidential-appointed provincial governors. A country about to be permitted a general election in which voters publicly gathered in front of a portrait of the candidate they supported (rival candidates of the ruling Kenyan African National Union (Kanu) were allowed to compete against each other), leaving no record to be disputed of the votes counted by government-appointed officials.

A country so committed to personal endeavour and private ownership that its ruling politicians grew mysteriously wealthy, acquiring vast tracks of land and complex webs of business interests. A report commissioned by the Kenyan government in 2004 and then mothballed was recently leaked - it revealed that Moi’s family and cronies had stolen more than £1 billion of government money. His sons, Philip and Gideon - victims of the ODM’s parliamentary whitewash in Moi’s Kalenjin heartland - are reported to be worth respectively £384 million and £550 million.1

The explanation for the blind eye turned by Thatcher and her ilk to Kenya’s abuse of human rights is not hard to fathom. Kenya was a key ally in the west’s confrontation with the Soviet Union in Africa and beyond. Kenya maintained close ties with Israel and apartheid South Africa (and dictators such as Zaire’s Mobutu).

Not only were western economic interests (and those of the white settlers who remained in the country) safeguarded: Kenya provided diplomatic and strategic military support to the west. To this day Mombasa provides a friendly harbour for the US navy. Britain has maintained a military presence in Kenya since independence. Kenyan airports and communication facilities are at the disposal of the US and UK. Today the alleged threat of islamic extremism has replaced communism as the enemy that Kenya’s rulers have joined with the west in combating.

The collapse of the Soviet Union changed imperialist strategic thinking. Increasingly the victorious west recognised that kleptocratic dictators were not the safest insurance policy for its long-term economic and strategic interests. A society in which one family or a collective of friends and cronies uses the state as a tool to monopolise political and economic life will hardly serve as a guarantor of stable bourgeois rule and continued capital accumulation. Those sectors of the nascent bourgeoisie and struggling petty bourgeoisie that are aggrieved at their exclusion from the corridors of power and wealth are liable to initiate or support political challenges to the existing regime. This threatens to let loose the genie of mass mobilisation. That is an outcome that imperialist interests and the international bourgeoisie seek either to avoid or tightly constrain.

Hence when agitation began in Kenya in the early 1990s for multi-party politics it had the support of important international actors. Britain continued to be more supportive of Moi than most. The surprise for many Kenyans was the change in US attitudes, represented by ambassador Smith Hempstone. Appointed by George Bush senior, he was a journalist by profession, and worked closely with the leading individuals of the opposition, advising on tactics, helping some to escape abroad, supporting banned demonstrations and rallies, including the formation of a pressure group that would declare just nine members and thereby avoid the need for government registration. In this way the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (Ford) was established. After Kenyan balance of payments support and other aid flows were suspended for six months, the ban on opposition parties was lifted in December 1991.

But it was not just the perspective of international capitalism that had changed. As throughout much of the world, this period witnessed a political collapse of many left forces. Oginga Odinga, Raila’s father and Kenya’s first vice-president - who had been widely labelled a communist from the 1960s onwards, had seen his leftwing opposition party, the Kenyan Peoples Union, banned and subsequent political initiatives blocked and had suffered, along with his closest comrades and son, periods of detention and house arrest - explicitly acknowledged the quid pro quo for US support of limited moves towards democracy. In January 1992 at Ford’s first rally, once it was registered as a political party, he declared: “Ford supports a competitive market economy and economic liberalisation, and will dismantle parastatals and reduce government intervention in economic affairs.”2

Ethnic rivalry

If ambassador Hempstone’s vision was of a stable capitalist Kenya ruled by a homogeneous Kenyan bourgeoisie and political elite in close alliance with the hegemonic imperialist powers, it is a vision that is yet to be fulfilled. The political conflicts of the last two decades can be seen, from one perspective, as a struggle between rival factions of Kenya’s ruling class to gain control of the machinery of the state so as to defend and enhance their wealth - the use of state power as a form of primitive accumulation. That is the underlying motive force driving the ethnic divisions that continue to tear apart Kenyan society.

The British vigorously manipulated tribal divisions to maintain their rule. Attempts by Africans to form national political organisations were repeatedly suppressed. One ethnic group was played off against the other. None more so than during the struggle by the Kikuyu - culminating in the so-call Mau-Mau rebellion - against the expropriation of the land by white settlers and the system of economic and social apartheid that was imposed throughout Kenya.

Even in the run-up to independence the colonial authorities and white settlers attempted to manipulate the concerns of minority groups at the alliance of Kikuyu and Luo (represented by Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga) that was at the heart of the struggle against colonialism. The cry of majimbo was raised - a call for a form of federalism, in which a central government would barely have existed. Local white settlers saw this as a solution to the rising tide of African nationalism across east and central African. Politicians such as Moi rallied to this vision.

The tragedy of Kenya since independence has been the failure to overcome this inheritance of ethnic division. Both Kenyatta and Moi openly and explicitly punished communities of politicians who opposed them, warning that those who voted for these politicians could expect little in the way of government spending or development. On the other hand, funds would flow to those constituencies, regions and ethnic groups who provided solid support for the ruling politicians.

Consequently, Kisumu, capital of Nyanza and overwhelming Luo, has paid for the Luos’ obstinate support for the Odingas with persistent economic decline. By contrast, Eldoret - feted by Moi as the Kalenjin capital - is graced with one of the best hospitals in Kenya, a university, an ‘international’ airport, and armaments and textile factories; and it is the terminus for the oil pipeline from Mombasa. In this way many ordinary, impoverished Kenyans buy into the notion that ethnically based political power is the route to riches (and the ambitions of the political elite of their own ethnic group). As a result Kenyan politics is as riven by issues of ethnicity as any in Africa.

Politicians are seen primarily as representatives of their ethnic group. Since no group forms a dominant majority - the Kikuyu are the largest, comprising some 22% of the population, while the Luo, Luhya and Kalenjin account for between 11% and 14% - Kenyan politics consists of a constant forming and reforming of extremely unstable political coalitions both within and between parties.

Throughout the 1990s opposition politics fragmented - especially in the run-up to elections - as no leading politician was prepared to concede their personal ambition for the presidency. Moi survived both the 1992 and 1997 elections with minority support in Kenya’s first-past-the-post presidential elections - and a healthy dose of vote-rigging to ensure he met the requirement of 25% support in five of Kenya’s eight provinces.

In the 1990s Moi’s henchmen also orchestrated the kind of ethnic pogroms against Kikuyus in the Rift Valley that have been seen again in recent weeks. Hundreds died. Thousands were evicted. The intention was to punish those groups who refused to support Moi and to create Kanu zones, which could be relied upon to deliver the electoral goods. William Ruto, a leading ODM spokesperson who helped to deliver the Rift Valley to Raila Odinga, was leader of the Kanu youth movement during this period. There must be a strong suspicion that the murderous networks - known as the Kalenjin Warriors - that did Moi’s dirty work then have been revived.

Once the presidency is seized, the powers of patronage and preferment open up all kinds of possibilities for restructuring the political landscape. The most bizarre alliances are struck. In 1998 Raila Odinga took his National Democratic Party into alliance with Moi’s Kanu - at a time when the rest of the opposition was seeking to challenge the legitimacy of Moi’s presidential victory. Odinga voted with his former jailer to defeat a confidence motion that might otherwise have passed. Serving in the cabinet as minister for energy, he negotiated a merger to create ‘New Kanu’, taking on the general secretaryship of the party. Months before the 2002 election he split, along with many of the figures who helped him to maximise his vote in last month’s presidential elections.

The opposition at last decided to cooperate. Odinga formed a Liberal Democratic Party (that was affiliated to the Liberal International) and joined with the rest of the opposition to form the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc), backing the presidential bid of Mwai Kibaki. Kibaki had been in government for almost 30 years under both Kenyatta and Moi, serving for many years as finance minister and also as vice-president. As leader of government business in 1982 Kibaki pushed the constitutional change that made Kanu the only legal party through three sittings of parliament and a parliamentary committee in a mere hour and 45 minutes.

The change from a de facto one-party state to a constitutional one-party state was precipitated by Oginga Odinga’s attempt to launch a Kenya Africa Socialist Alliance. Kibaki formed his own opposition party - the Democratic Party - in 1992 after the constitutional change he had originally sponsored was revoked.

In 2002 Raila Odinga’s tireless campaigning is credited with the scale of Kibaki’s victory over Uhuru Kenyatta of Kanu - after a car accident Kibaki spent much of the campaign with his leg in plaster. For the first time in Kenya political history, the ruling party had been defeated in a national election.

Dissension soon surfaced within the Narc government. Odinga’s LDP had been promised half the seats in the cabinet and Odinga an executive prime minister’s post that was to be created through a quick change to the constitution. Kibaki reneged on both promises. Key posts were soon monopolised by what came to be called the Mount Kenya mafia. Having been increasingly marginalised by the Moi regime, the Kikuyu elite were not about to dilute their power base. Raila Odinga stayed in the government as roads and transport minister.

The split came in 2005, when Odinga and other dissident members of Narc successfully campaigned against constitutional proposals that Kibaki’s supporters had amended in parliament to strengthen the powers of the presidency. They campaigned in the referendum under the symbol of the orange - winning an overwhelming 57% to 43% victory. When Kibaki expelled them from government, they formed the Orange Democratic Movement.

Corruption scandals continuously dogged the Kibaki government. The Goldenberg case in the 1990s, in which government subsidies were paid for the export of non-existent gold and diamonds, had lifted the lid of corruption under the Moi regime. The failure to pursue the case had exposed how easy it was to buy off many opposition politicians. Kibaki, elected on an anti-corruption platform, faced one exposure after another. Anglo-Leasing, involving excessive payments for the printing of passports, mirrored the Goldenberg case. John Githongo, who had been put in charge of fighting corruption, sought refuge in Britain alleging his life was in danger.

By the time the campaign for the 2007 election was underway, Kibaki found himself opposed by the leading campaigner of his 2002 campaign, Odinga. The leader of the opposition during the last parliament, Uhuru Kenyatta, had joined with Kibaki in the PNU, and Moi addressed rallies in support of Kibaki. On the other hand some of the leading figures of Moi’s regime had joined with Odinga in the ODM. Others, such as James Orengo and Anyang’ Nyong’o, who had split with Odinga over his alliance with Kanu or earlier manoeuvrings, were back in the fold. The kaleidoscope of Kenya’s politics had turned again.

The future

Raila Odinga has shown a keen sense of political acumen over the last decade in putting together his winning political coalition. The NDP, with which he fought the 1997 election, garnered solely Luo votes. His problem is that Kenyan political history demonstrates that no coalition is stable. And that opposition coalitions are the least stable of all. If Kibaki retains the presidency, he will be able to tempt away sufficient opposition politicians with offers of jobs and favours of one sort or another to construct a parliamentary majority. Already Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, who was originally part of the ODM but insisted on launching his own presidential bid, has accepted appointment as vice-president and added his 16 ODM Kenya MPs to those of Kibaki’s PNU.

The January 16 parliamentary vote for speaker - won by the ODM by a margin of just 105 to 101 votes - although slim, is highly significant. For the time being it means that the opposition will be able to set the political agenda in parliament. Recent attempts at international mediation, for which the ODM called off a series of rallies, have failed. Kibaki appears determined to sit out the international criticism and domestic dissension (protected as he is by Kenya’s security forces) in the expectation that his presidency will become accepted as a fait accompli.

However, the focus of political attention is set to return to the streets, as the ODM has called for rallies in cities and towns across Kenya. Two questions are posed. First, will the ODM be able to mobilise sufficient numbers and act in a sufficiently concerted way to break through police line or to cause a breakdown in police discipline? Second, will the ODM be able to prevent the kind of inter-ethnic violence that erupted in the days after the inauguration of Kibaki?

What would an Odinga presidency offer? In 1976 he named his son Fidel Castro Odinga. Five years ago he was a Liberal. In this campaign Odinga has presented himself as a social democrat, committed to social justice, but endorsing the ‘third way’ of European social democracy: “Basically, this means promoting the private sector, but at the same time ensuring social justice through fair distribution of wealth.”3 He has committed himself to the privatisation of the remaining state companies.

An Odinga presidency, then, would offer very little to Kenya’s workers and poor. A redistribution that keeps the private sector happy will have an extremely light touch. Furthermore, Odinga will probably only become president on the basis of strong external pressure to make it happen. He will have to spend a good deal of time assuring his international benefactors that the radical reputation he enjoys in some quarters is unjustified.

Where Odinga could make a difference is in terms of reducing corruption and nepotism, and in streamlining state structures - he seems to have made some headway in this direction in his two ministries. No allegations of corruption have been made against him. His personal wealth comes from the successful engineering company which he set up with his father and which has helped fund more than one of his political campaigns. A more efficient bourgeois state would be an achievement of sorts.

Yet it is Odinga’s reputation as a fighter for social justice that has won him high levels of support among Kenya’s poor (at least among the poor of some ethnic groups). Many will interpret his platform not only in terms of redistribution from rich to poor, but as a redistribution to the regions and ethnic groups who have done less well from Kenya’s post-independence dispensation.

In this lies many dangers. Odinga himself and many of his colleagues in the ODM have raised again the slogan of majimbo. They say that it simply means devolution. But to many ears the word has ethnic connotations that raise the spectre of an ethnically-based redistribution of resources. The Kikuyu correctly fear that their alleged hegemony in Kenya is the target. Some Luos in Kibera and som Kalenjin in the Rift Valley no doubt think they have begun to take the attainment of “social justice” into their own hands by directly seizing Kikuyu property - either the contents of the pathetic shacks that pass for shops in the slums or the tiny shambas (farms) that barely provide a living for the women and children while the man of the household works in the city.

It is a huge mistake to see the Kikuyu collectively as the beneficiaries of either Kenyatta’s or Kibaki’s rule. During the emergency of the 1950s the majority of the Kikuyu male population was detained. Kikuyu women and children were imprisoned in emergency villages in which conditions were little better than the concentration camps in which the men found themselves. Thousands of Kikuyu died or were killed - some recent estimates for Kikuyu deaths are over 100,000.4 Those Kikuyu who collaborated with the British were formed into home guards. By the end of the conflict the collaborators were left with the bulk of Kikuyu land. No restitution was ever made and today a large proportion of wealthy Kikuyu have a home guard background. Poor Kikuyus struggle to see any advantage they have over poor Luos or poor Kalenjin.

If the 'Kalenjin Warriors' are rearing their heads again or if Raila Odinga’s Luo 'Taliban', as his activists are called, are in any way responsible for organising the attacks on Kikuyus (the massive Nairobi slum of Kibera is part of Odinga’s Lang’ata constituency), then the Kikuyu 'Mungiki' - part religious cult, part Mau-Mau-inspired political militia, part gangster outfit and with a fearsome reputation for violence - is no doubt preparing to take revenge.

In Kenya’s past similar situations have arisen. The round-up of Kikuyu during ‘the emergency’ left very few Kikuyu in the capital. In 1954 Ambrose Ofafa, a Luo Nairobi councillor, was assassinated by presumed Mau-Mau fighters. He was accused of collaborating with colonialists by taking over shops previously occupied by Kikuyu tenants. The British urged Luos to join the home guard in order to seek revenge on the Kikuyu. Oginga Odinga travelled between Kisumu and Nairobi, speaking at rallies to oppose the British plans. Instead of the home guard he proposed a fundraising scheme for an Ofafa Memorial Hall in Kisumu.5 Today, as in the 1950s, a political movement that effectively excludes the Kikuyu is storing up trouble for the future.

Missing from the current political mix is an independent working class alternative that could cut across Kenya’s ethnic division and point the finger at the social divisions that really matter - between rich and poor, between capitalists and workers, between a self-enriching political elite and the impoverished masses they manipulate and exploit.

Elsewhere in Africa significant political change - even if workers are not the ultimate beneficiaries - is often initiated by a confident trade union movement. Kenya’s Confederation of Trade Unions (Cotu) is cowered by years of subjection to one-party rule. Nairobi’s May Day rally consists of a succession of floats that appear to be advertising Kenya’s leading companies rather than promoting the benefits of workers’ collective solidarity. It is followed by speeches from Kenya’s leading politicians, with only Cotu’s general secretary attempting to articulate the workers’ perspective. A revitalised trade union movement is crucial.

From the 1960s through to the 80s socialist and Marxist discourse was an important component of the opposition to Kenyatta and Moi. The way in which Kenya’s very partial democratisation was achieved and the subsequent behaviour of politicians has squeezed the space available to this kind of politics. However, recent events demonstrate once more that the revival of a class-based politics is a vital necessity for Kenya’s future.


1. ‘The looting of Kenya’ The Guardian August 31 2007.

2. BA Badejo Raila Odinga: an enigma in Kenyan politics Lagos 2006, p162.

3. Interview, www.raila2007.com/cms2/index.php?id=72.

4. See C Elkins Britain’s gulag: the brutal end of empire in Kenya London 2005.

5. O Odinga Not yet Uhuru Nairobi 1967, p132.