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Kenyan elections, a new opportunity?


With the confirmation of Uhuru Kenyatta as the fourth and youngest president by a Supreme Court ruling, dismissing Raila Odinga’s petition of revising the results, as well as with Odinga’s acceptance of the verdict, it seems that Kenya will have a (relatively) peaceful electoral process. The fears of widespread violence fade away slowly. Nevertheless, most of the reasons behind the riots that ended up with more than a thousand killed in 2007 have not vanished.

The violence erupting after the past 2007 elections in Kenya was a shock both inside and outside the country. The reputation of Kenya as a stable and peaceful country, in contrast with a troublesome Eastern Africa, was severely questioned. It also supposed a national trauma in the collective psyche of the Kenyans. No matter who you talked to, from illiterate farmers to government officials; in cities or villages; Muslim or Christian; Kalenjin, Kikuyu, Luo, Meru, Masai; nobody wanted to repeat what is widely considered as a national shame. Any Westerner coming to Kenya before the elections would hear several times a day how Kenyans strive for peace, and how such riots would never take place again.

The day of the election was in fact peaceful, except for one deadly attack in Mombasa perpetrated by a separatists group from the Coast Province. Hence, this episode shall not be considered electoral violence. The participation rate was high, the eyes of the international community upon them. If the will of the citizenship was not enough, hundreds of international observers were overseeing the process and a massive security deployment of almost 100,000 officers between police forces, the General Service Unit, private security guards and even natural park rangers especially trained for the occasion, ensured that no violent incidents would take place. This contingent was unevenly deployed, mainly concentrated in areas where clashes were expected, such as the slums in Kisumu and Nairobi, or the areas of Rift Valley and Central Province that saw most of the violence during the past elections. Meanwhile, rural areas such as Ugenya in the west of the country for instance, accounted less than 50 officers and 2 vehicles for 49,000 inhabitants during the elections day.

Happily, no clashes were registered and Kenyans cheered the day with optimism, although the tension during these days was not hard to perceive. The failure of the digital vote counting system only hours before releasing the results and the subsequent investigation of the electoral results by a special tribunal, the International Criminal Court warrants on some of the Kenyan leaders (including Kenyatta and Ruto), and the rumours about UN agencies withdrawing the country after using it as a base for decades for alleged ‘security reasons’, all cast ominous shadows on the political situation of the country. When Kenyatta was confirmed as president, after almost a month of tribunal deliberations on suspected electoral fraud, tensions arose again. At least ten citizens were killed and dozens more wounded on the following days in Kisumu and Siaya, allegedly in incidents related to the electoral outcome. Anyway, tragic as it is, it seems that for the moment there will be no generalized riots like the ones seen in 2007.

If violence is to erupt surrounding the results, there will be substantial differences between 2007 and 2013. The tribal factor is the first thing to be considered when looking at this issue. The main political parties in Kenya are configured along tribal lines, or coalitions of them, making Kenyan elections more of a tribal struggle rather that an ideological competition. For example: during a public event in Nyanza province, on education day, an Orange Democratic Movement’s (ODM) representative and also public worker was openly encouraging people to go to vote during the elections, arguing that this was the best chance the Luo community had had in years to reach power. Little was said about electoral programmes, government plans or even attacks to other candidates. The sole reason to vote was the tribe of the candidate.

The four largest tribes total up to 60% of Kenyan population: Kikuyu (22%), Kalenjin (12%), Luhyia (14%) and Luo (12%). Dynamics between them ought to be understood if an appropriate analysis of the elections and violence is to be made. Kikuyu constitute a majority, but not big enough to be dominant in the polls. They are also perceived by other tribes, especially Luo and Kalenjin, as trying to dominate the entire country. This view is backed by the relevant role that the Kikuyu have played in Kenya since its independence. Jomo Kenyatta, first president of the country, was a Kikuyu, as is his son Uhuru. Kikuyus have traditionally dominated big parts of the administration and economy, and have benefited from land grabbing in areas of Central and Rift Provinces, heavily populated by Kalenjin and other groups. Luos and Luhyas themselves are concentrated in the western part of the country, in Western and Nyanza provinces, where land grabbing was anecdotal and the presence of Kikuyu far less strong. The ties between these two communities are tight, to the extent that they refer to each other as ‘brother’ or ‘cousin’, despite the fact that Luos are Nilotic and Luhyias Bantu. Having this in mind, the first main difference between 2007 and 2013 can be pointed out: while in 2007, Kalenjin were in coalition with Luos under Raila Odinga’s ODM, this year Kalenjin (with William Ruto, as candidate for vice-presidency) and Kikuyu (with Kenyatta) run together against ODM, in fact a Luo-Luhyia coalition party that has been trying to rally support from other tribes to prevail in the polls.

This is a determinant factor for several reasons: the composition of the parts in conflict, the motivation, intensity and type of violence expected, and its possible geographical distribution. For instance, the worst incidents of 2007 elections took place mainly in Rift Valley, Central Province and the big cities of Kisumu, Nakuru and Nairobi. It is in these areas where Kikuyu and Kalenjin populations, then adversaries, were more in contact. In opposition, the identified hotspots during the current elections are Western and Nyanza Provinces, Luhya and Luo strongholds respectively, and also in the cities of Nairobi and Kisumu, in which different tribes live in big numbers and often concentrated in specific areas or even slums. Also the motivation of the violence and its intensity is directly related to the tribal factor, as previously mentioned. Killings of Kikuyu and Kalenjin in 2007 had a very strong socio-economic component, underpinned by a history of land grabbing and perceived economic dominance of one group; the elections were merely a trigger or a short-term cause. During those months, although incidents became widespread along the country, the Luo-Luhyia areas suffered milder levels of disorder (mainly lootings) while Rift Valley witnessed massive bloodshed and exodus of thousands. Another reason for expecting lower levels of violence during 2013 is that the rivalry between the Kikuyu-Kalenjin on one side and Luo-Luhya on the other is more based on competition over political influence in distant Nairobi, rather than more immediate and aching issues such as land or economy.

The consequences of the tribal struggle have not been tackled yet. Five years later, there are still IDP (internally displaced persons) camps hosting thousands of Kenyans. People living in such camps do so in very poor conditions. Government has been slow and rather ineffective in prompting the return of these people to their houses. In addition, these settlements sometimes cause resentment in the host populations, adding more pressure to the situation. But the return of the IDPs is hard, since their houses and lands have been occupied or destroyed, and they are not always willing to return or welcome to their original homes. Kenyan Government and the new Constitution have contemplated measures to facilitate such return, but their implementation has barely taken place.

Land reform, a capital issue if future violence and economic stagnancy are to be avoided, is on the law and the new Constitution, but not on the ground. Previous land law was inherited from British ruling, and favoured certain behaviours and an agricultural model that is in the genesis of a big deal of tribal and ethnic tensions in Kenya, to the extent that changing it became a priority after 2007. Nonetheless, the new land law is not coming to place for a number of reasons, being widespread corruption and personal interests of influential people one of them. But also more practical issues hamper the progress of the new law: for instance, lack of accessible information on the procedures to legally claim land, illiteracy and lack of resources of big numbers of people theoretically entitled to claim land, inefficiency of the administration and a degree of uncertainty about what is next, only to mention a few. The fact that in 2013 the episodes of violence were anecdotal can be misleading in the sense that Kenya will not get rid of the threat of electoral violence until it completes its land reform, among other things. Land reform and the IDP issue have created their own sets of tensions that are being tackled by NGOs, faith-based organizations and civil society, but the final responsibility is on the Government, and definitive solutions still seem to be far away.

Another factor that has helped to mitigate the risk of violent incidents is the new Constitution and the political and electoral reforms following 2007. The traditional Provinces, associated with tribal strongholds, have been substituted by smaller counties, partially breaking down the tribal blocks. In addition, a new bicameral model grants geographic representation of counties. Especial youth and women representatives are to be added to the Parliament and Senate elected members, and a previous phase of nominations two months before of the elections was held. The presidential figure has also seen its previously considerable power relatively diminished and balanced by a Prime Minister. All these measures have dispersed in time and space the concentration of power, reducing the all-or-nothing perception and opening spaces for better representation and partial political gains that have successfully defused part of the traditional electoral tension.

Fortunately, riots and violence have not taken place. This does not mean that the underlying causes are solved, but it is rather the result of short term electoral tactics from the main actors in play. The tribal factor is the main political cleavage in Kenya, and it is naïve to think that it will stop being so in the next few years. Said so, this should not be an inconvenient if the relations between the large tribes are channelled through peaceful ways. The brief analysis shown above demonstrates that tribal differences are not enough to trigger a country-scale wave of violence. A history of perceived grievances and injustice, combined with ineffective and sometimes even predatory leadership and political system allow the observer a better understanding of the tragic events of 2007.

Steps to tackle these root problems are being taken, but they are not as fast and efficient as they should. Sadly, a national shock was needed to prompt a reaction, which nevertheless has inspired a big deal of optimism inside the country, just like a rather misguided scepticism outside. Kenya is also facing other political, economic, social and security problems that need at least the same level of attention than the elections, which can be the cause of similar or bigger disasters than 2007 elections if they remain ignored.

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