Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS: Kenya’s Problem Goes Beyond Ethnicity and Elections

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Analysis by Najum Mushtaq

NAIROBI, Jan 28 2008 (IPS) - There is more to Kenya’s post-election violence than a bungled vote count and so-called tribal rivalries. As protests degenerate into organised ethnic violence in Rift Valley towns and countryside, the root-cause of the unrest lies elsewhere.

"We must tackle the fundamental issues underlying the disturbances – like equitable distribution of resources – or else we will be back here again after three or four years," former U.N. chief Kofi Annan told journalists in Nairobi’s Serena Hotel Sunday, after talking to survivors of the violence which has claimed over 1,000 lives and displaced some 250,000 people since the December election.

Though Annan’s mediation to initiate a structured dialogue between President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga is making progress – Kibaki and Odinga shook one another’s hands last week and vowed to continue a dialogue to resolve the crisis – the wave of violence has taken on its own dynamics.

Even if Kibaki, a Kikuyu, and Odinga, a Luo, were to make peace and reach a power-sharing deal down the line, the chronic economic and political root- causes of the tribal violence would not go away.

"Its characterisation as a tribal enmity is simplistic – access to land, housing, and water are the real issues that appear in the guise of ethnicity and are triggered by political disputes," said a Danish aid worker who was part of an emergency assessment team in the Rift Valley. "There is an unmistakable class dimension to the turmoil in Kenyan society," the aid worker said, wishing to remain anonymous.

"Only one category of people had come out to protest against the electoral irregularities: the poorest of the poor, the jobless, and the landless. People from only one class are seen to be committing violence and registering resentment against poll cheating," says Millicent Ogutu, who works at a Nairobi-based media company.


In Nairobi, the only sites of trouble throughout the post-election spree of violence have been the slums of Kibera, Mathare, and other shantytowns. This pattern is visible also in other troubled regions, such as Kisumu in Odinga’s home province of Nyanza, and in the Rift Valley towns of Eldoret, Molo, Nakuru, and Naivasha.

Following conciliatory speeches made in the presence of Annan by Kibaki and Odinga outside Harambee House, the president’s office, Ogutu and others IPS talked to expressed scepticism that any long-term solution to Kenya’s gaping economic disparity, tribe-based cronyism, and corruption would be reached.

"Have you seen any middle-class person of any tribe shouting slogans against either Odinga or Kibaki?" asked Raphael Karanja, a radio journalist. "It is only the people who had a misplaced faith in the power of the ballot, and who genuinely believed that their vote can lead to a change of guard and better economic policies that might alleviate their basic problems of land, housing, and drinking water that have risen up in protest."

Most of the protestors – in Nairobi’s slums and other places – belong to the Luo and Klenjin tribes while the majority of victims of the recent violence have been the Kikuyus. But beneath these simplistic tribal battle-lines lie the historic patterns of uneven resource distribution in Kenya.

The biggest issue is that of land. "The state had showed a blatant bias in favour of one tribe at the expense of the rest at the time of independence when the land left behind by the British was to be distributed among the local people," says an economics professor at the University of Nairobi, who wishes to remain anonymous, as he is a government employee. Kikuyus bought much of the land in Kenya – even in non-Kikuyu regions – as they dominated the first administration of Jumo Kenyatta and were given preferential treatment in the award of loans for buying land.

"That resulted in Kikuyu families holding land in the midst of other tribes, especially in the fertile Rift Valley, the main region of turmoil in every wave of electoral violence that Kenya has seen since a multiparty system was introduced in 1992," the professor explained.

The Dec. 2007 elections were not the first perceived to be rigged. They were not the first to lead to post-electoral violence. Similar spurts of tribal violence – mainly anti-Kikuyu – also took place in the run-up to the 1992 elections and, on a much larger scale, during and after the 1997 elections.

Another big issue is that of housing and water in the localities where the poorest people live. The issue is directly related to corruption. "The gap between the few rich and the majority poor has widened so greatly over the last decade that even if a common Kenyan is able to raise resources and wants to build a proper house, he finds bureaucratic hurdles at every step which cannot be overcome without extra money for corrupt officials," says Ogutu.

There are no middle class neighbourhoods in Nairobi. There are either slums, or posh, rich localities.

"Under [President Daniel arap] Moi’s and Kibaki’s governments, the rich have gotten super rich and adopted a culture of conspicuous consumption with big cars and bigger houses. On the other hand, the poor have been further impoverished and conspicuously so. The middle class has shrunk, with the very few moving up but most of them barely surviving the slide down into the economic and social abyss," says the professor. The violence that has taken on tribal characteristics is in fact rooted in the widening class divisions between the rich and poor of the country.

The poor thought that democracy and elections would help them influence government policy. Odinga raised expectations by campaigning as the people’s candidate and a champion of the poor. He received votes across tribal divides.

"After the peaceful transition of power in 2002, most Kenyans actually had faith that they can bring about another change through their vote. Hence, the large turnout and the peaceful December elections," says Ogutu. "That faith is irreparably dented. Raila shaking hands with Kibaki is cosmetic and, at best, a momentary and tenuous truce. It won’t change a thing for them. They’ll be back on the street sooner or later."

 
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