Kenya: roots of crisis

About the author
Gérard Prunier is research professor at the University of Paris and an author.

Gérard Prunier is research professor at the University of Paris and director of the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa.

He is the author of The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (C Hurst, 1998), Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide (C Hurst, revised edition, 2007), and From Genocide to Continental War: The Congolese Conflict and the Crisis of Contemporary Africa

Also by Gérard Prunier in openDemocracy:

"Darfur's Sudan problem" (15 September 2006)

"The DR Congo's political opportunity" (14 March 2007)

"Chad, the CAR and Darfur: dynamics of conflict" (18 April 2007)

"Chad's tragedy" (7 September 2007)

"Sudan between war and peace" (1 November 2007)

"Khartoum's calculated fever" (5 December 2007) (C Hurst, 2006)

To many people in the world - and even to many Kenyans themselves itself - the violence which followed the elections in Kenya on 27 December 2007 has come as a surprise. Unfortunately, it shouldn't have. The combination of economic and ethno-political factors in Kenya had created an explosive mix which was just waiting for the right - or rather "wrong" - circumstances to explode. The 2002 elections had been a lucky near-miss; this time, the favourable configuration that operated then did not repeat itself.

Kenya's "democratic" politics

To understand the Kenyan crisis in the context of its national, regional and global situation, it is necessary to examine the regime which followed independence in 1963. Britain's withdrawal from the country had taken place amidst a considerable fear that the Mau Mau anti-colonial insurrection of 1952-1960 might impinge upon the politics of the new state and lead to further violence. Nothing of the sort happened - partly because of the elevation to the presidency of the leader of the nationalist movement Jomo Kenyatta, who once in power swerved from radical nationalism to conservative bourgeois politics.

Kenyatta was a Kikuyu (or Gikuyu) and the enigmatic Mau Mau movement had largely been a Kikuyu phenomenon (most of the 12,000 rebels or "suspects" killed by colonial forces in a brutal campaign were Kikuyu). This had caused the British wrongly to conclude that Kenyatta was the leader of the Mau Mau. But in any case, on becoming president Kenyatta - head of the Kenya African National Union (Kanu) in an effectively one-party state - embraced extreme tribalistic politics and packed the new "Kenyan" bourgeoisie he promoted with Kikuyu and members of related tribes such as the Embu and the Meru. At the time of his death in 1978 most of the country's wealth and power was in the hands of the organisation which grouped these three tribes: the Gikuyu-Embu-Meru Association (GEMA).

Kenya has forty-eight tribes, with three - the Kikuyu, the Luo and the Luhyia - together representing almost 65% of the population. Meanwhile, the GEMA tribes during Kenyatta's time (1963-78) composed perhaps 30% of Kenyans, almost all concentrated in the highlands of the central province. These figures meant that in order to square the ethno-political circle in Kenya, power-brokers had to forge deals between the three big groups and somehow relate to the shifting gaggle occupying the fourth corner.

In Kenyatta's time the deal was simple: the Kikuyu and their smaller relatives, after making an agreement with the minority tribes, ran everything. The Luo, who eventually tried to challenge this ordering, were forcefully marginalised as the prudent Luhyia looked on. After Kenyatta died in 1978, his vice-president Daniel arap Moi - who was from the Kalenjin minority tribe - inherited the mantle of power on the understanding that he would not upset the arrangement designed to keep the two other large tribes (and particularly the Luo) out of power.

But Daniel arap Moi proceeded to use his new status to cleverly divide his Kikuyu allies (amongst them the man who would be his successor as president, Mwai Kibaki), so as progressively to sideline them. By 1986, Moi had concentrated all the power - and most of its attendant economic benefits - into the hands of his Kalenjin tribe and of a handful of allies from minority groups (see Peter Kimani, "A past of power more than tribe in Kenya's turmoil", 2 January 2008).

But Kikuyu ascendancy had been reined in only, not destroyed. Under Jomo Kenyatta, the Kikuyu - claiming martyr status for their sufferings during the Mau-Mau "emergency", and relying on tacit government support - had spread beyond their traditional territorial homelands and "repossessed lands stolen by the whites" - even when these had previously belonged to other tribes. Thus Kikuyu "colonists" had fanned out all over Kenya, often creating strong rural antagonisms.

Kenyatta's successor, Daniel arap Moi, used a consummate juggler's skill to keep the ethno-political balance working in his favour. At the same time, the first two multi-party elections after other movements emerged to challenge Kanu (in 1992 and 1997) were occasions for carefully state-managed ethnic violence designed to achieve two objectives: keep the dangerous Kikuyu underfoot, and pit the Kalenjin's minority allies against each other in order better to control them.

By the time of the 2002 election, however, the system had run its course: foreign donors were alienated, President Moi (having ruled for twenty-four years) was getting old, and a "democratic" opposition was gaining momentum. But if everybody agreed on the principle of ridding Kenya of its Kalenjin-based authoritarian state, the question of who and what would be the replacement remained open.

Moi had a brainwave: he thought that the best way for him to maintain his influence over politics after leaving the presidency would be to pick as the governing party candidate Kenyatta's own son, Uhuru. This artful move, Moi calculated, would rally the Kikuyu behind a prestigious but empty symbol (Uhuru was not overly bright and his name spoke louder than his personality). But the stratagem backfired completely and the opposition united behind the veteran Kikuyu politician, Mwai Kibaki, thus creating a unique situation in which both leading candidates were Kikuyu.

In other ways, however, they were very different: one embodied the ghost of yesterday's near-dictatorship while the other was seen as offering the hope of a democratic opening. This contrast felicitously de-ethnicised the election, turning it into a contest between the old and the new. At the time Raila Odinga, the leading Luo politician, tirelessly campaigned for Kibaki and deployed his tribal followers behind a man who - albeit a Kikuyu and a Kikuyu with a past - was seen as the candidate for change. The economic stagnation of previous years meant that many of the expectations that were invested in Kibaki were of an economic nature: Kibaki, it was hoped, would restart the economy and then proceed to share out its benefits more equally.

The Kibaki administration

Mwai Kibaki was elected president in December 2002 with over 62% of the vote. The country's foreign backers were only too quick to salute the polls as "a triumph for democracy". In a way they were right - the polls had been free and fair, and the candidate for change had been elected. But in another way this was a hasty form of wishful thinking because the ostensible "de-tribalisation" of the election had been due more to a series of fortuitous coincidences than to a real decline in the appeal of ethnic politics.

The key words in the campaign, however, had been "hope" and "change", and to some extent the new Kibaki administration managed to deliver the goods. The economy did pick up and Kenya witnessed a spectacular economic recovery, largely based on Keynesian economic recipes and helped by a favourable international environment.

This can be illustrated by the annual rate of growth in 2002-07, which reveals a gradual improvement from -1.6 % in 2002 to 2.6% by 2004, 3.4 in 2005, and an estimated 5.5% in 2007. But this was only one side of the economic coin. Social inequalities also increased; the fruits of economic growth went disproportionately to the already well-off (and, among those, to the Kikuyu well-off); and corruption reached new heights, matching some of the excesses of the Moi years. When John Githongo, the man appointed by President Kibaki to fight corruption, blew the whistle in January 2005, he had to flee to Britain in fear of his life (see Michael Holman, "Kenya: chaos and responsibility", 3 January 2007). Githongo is himself a Kikuyu, and his denunciation of a massive series of financial scandals in which hundreds of millions of dollars had vanished was seen as a betrayal of his tribe as well as of the government he served.

Moreover, the security situation in Kenya deteriorated steadily in these years, with the ordinary people bearing the brunt of a triple process:

* a growing wave of routine crime in urban areas

* rival agrarian claims leading to pitched battles between ethnic groups fighting for land, particularly around Mount Elgon and in Kisii

* a running feud between the police and the Mungiki sect, which left over 120 people dead in May-November 2007 alone.

Mungiki is a bizarre cross between pre-Christian Kikuyu neo-traditionalism and an extortionist gang. The sect ran protection rackets on the matatu (collective taxi) routes, helping it to prosper among the poorest urban neighbourhoods and among the landless-peasant squatters in central province; it also has a tradition of hiring its muscle-boys to political candidates during election campaigns. In 2002, the Mungiki had backed the losing Uhuru Kenyatta camp. This cost it dearly in terms of political clout, and it had desperately tried to recover the lost ground by intensifying its terroristic hold on the slum population and on the matatu owners.

The accumulating result of these various processes was a feeling of deep dissatisfaction - not so much with President Kibaki as a person but with his entourage, with his robbing cronies, and with his incapacity to sympathise and do something about the plight of poor Kenyans (made all the more shocking by the level of economic growth the country was enjoying). Raila Odinga, the candidate of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), was then able to capitalise on that frustration in a way that fused various types of motivation:

* ethnic (the Kikuyu have grabbed everything and all the other tribes have lost)

* political (Kibaki betrayed his promise for change)

* social (crime and violence are out of control)

* economic (what is the point of economic growth when it does not bring any benefits to the ordinary citizen).

As the electoral campaign neared its climax in December 2007, the ODM opposition enjoyed a widespread lead in opinion polls and seemed ready to sweep Kibaki's Party of National Unity (PNU) out of power.

The December 2007 election

The election on 27 December 2007 was both a parliamentary and a presidential one. At the legislative level, 2,548 candidates from 108 parties were vying for 210 seats; at the presidential level, three candidates - the incumbent Mwai Kibaki , ODM leader Raila Odinga and former foreign minister Kalonzo Musyoka (who had split from the ODM) - were competing.

Everybody (including himself) knew that Kalonzo Musyoka had no chance of winning and that he was simply angling for the position of a strategic post-election ally who could sell his support to a probable minority victor in need of additional backing. Kalonzo Musyoka is a Kamba, and the Kamba - although closely related to the Kikuyu - had chosen the British camp during the Mau Mau emergency. This gives them a hybrid status in the Kenyan ethno-political landscape, in which they hold the capacity to swing either with the Kikuyu or against them.

The polls were a messy business for a number of reasons. The voters' rolls had been poorly updated or at times not updated at all. Some dead people were still on the rolls and electors who had changed residence had not been properly struck off in one place and re-registered at their new address. The rules governing the help which could be given to illiterate voters (up to 80% of the electoral body in some remote constituencies) were poorly enforced. Foreign and national observers were not always given free access to the polling stations, and later to the ballots.

But all in all, the parliamentary segment of the election proceeded smoothly. The definitive results have not at the time of writing been officially posted, but a provisional tally (based on 181 out of 210 seats) is possible. Twenty-two parties won seats, although only four can be considered as "serious" (the eighteen others have between one and three MPs, sharing twenty-eight seats between them): :

* Raila Odinga's ODM, which won ninety-two seats

* Mwai Kibaki's PNU, which won thirty-four seats

* Kalonzo Musyoka's splinter ODM-K, which won sixteen seats

* Uhuru Kenyatta's Kanu, which won eleven seats.

The results speak for themselves: with 45% of the MPs, the opposition has a clear majority over the incumbent administration .

This is what makes the results of the presidential election definitely suspect. Kenya's electoral commission (ECK) declared on 30 December that Kibaki had garnered 4,584,721 votes against 4,352,993 for his rival Raila Odinga, and immediately proceeded to inaugurate the incumbent president as the winner. This tight margin (little more than 230,000 votes, about 2.5% of those cast) is very fragile in view of the following facts.

In seventy-two of the constituencies, the figures on the ballot forms signed by the ECK returning officers and the agents of the candidates differ from the figures released by the national counting centre. At Ole Kalou constituency, for example, local ECK figures gave Mwai Kibaki 72,000 and Raila Odinga 5,000 out of 102,000 registered votes. But by the time the figures for that same constituency were released at the central level, Kibaki's winning tally had jumped to 100,980 votes (i.e. 99% of the registered voters).

The pattern was repeated elsewhere. In Elmolo constituency, Kibaki was said by local ECK officials to have won by 50,145 votes, which then translated itself into 75,261 votes at the national level. In Kieni the discrepancy was between 54,337 (local level) and 72,054 (national tally). In various other constituencies (Lari, Kandara, Kerugoya) thousands more had "voted" in the presidential election than in the legislative one, even though the two ballots had been held concurrently .

All this points to a limited but widespread form of rigging which would not have had such catastrophic consequences had not the race been so closely contested. (After all, if several constituencies have probable rigging levels of 10,000-30,000 votes, there is no way a victory by 230,000 votes be considered solid.) On 1 January, Samuel Kivuitu - the respected chairman of the ECK - admitted : "I don't know who won the election and I won't know till I see the original records, which I can't for now until the courts authorise it".

It seems that what happened was that the Mwai Kibaki vote was artificially inflated rather than that Raila Odinga's vote was tampered with. The evidence seems clear: even if gerrymandering had distorted the legislative vote vis-à-vis the presidential one (during the Moi years, the "enemy" Kikuyu constituencies had seen their demographic weight systematically eroded in this way), how could the pro-ODM trend at the parliamentary level turn itself into a contradictory support for the anti-ODM president? The possibility of such a split-personality vote is remote, as it requires that almost all those voting for minority parties would also have voted for Kibaki.

The bloody aftermath

The results of this manipulation have been disastrous. Almost as soon as the ECK hastily proclaimed Kibaki to be the winner, both the Nairobi slums and the western province exploded - the violence of the slum-dwellers reflecting their social frustration and the westerners' arson-cum-machete attacks stemming from their hatred of the Kikuyu "colonists". The political violence should thus be seen as both tribal and socio-economic; because, even if far from all Kikuyu are rich beneficiaries of the regime, many rich beneficiaries of the regime are Kikuyu. Such a situation recalls - especially for the Luo - the frustrations of the 1960s and 1970s.

Also in openDemocracy on Kenyan politics:

Peter Kimani, "Goodbye, Mr Big Man!" (9 January 2003)

Wanyama Masinde, "Kenya's fruitless referendum" (21 November 2005)

Charles Onyango-Obbo, "Kenya after Mwai Kibaki" (20 February 2006)

Peter Kimani, "Kenya's voices of discontent" (26 March 2007)

Peter Kimani, "A past of power more than tribe in Kenya's turmoil" (2 January 2008)

Michael Holman, "Kenya: chaos and responsibility" (3 January 2008)
The vote itself was primarily anti-establishment rather than crudely anti-Kikuyu, however: only six members of the cabinet survived the landslide, and many of the victims - including vice-president Moody Awori, planning minister Henry Obwocha, roads minister Simeon Nyachae, and tourism minister Moses Dzoro - were not Kikuyu. Even the few Luo or other westerners who were also PNU members lost their seats. Several Moi administration survivors - such as former minister Nicholas Biwott or Moi's own son Gideon Moi - were also axed, often by nearly unknown candidates who took their seats with ease. This is one reason why the minority parties won so many seats: incumbency was a distinct liability and voters appeared ready to elect anybody who seemed ready to promote change.

It is when that trend towards long-awaited change appeared about to be blocked once more by the man who had already betrayed it after 2002 that violence exploded. The configuration of two relationships - Luo-Kikuyu, and Kikuyu with power - meant in the circumstances that it could not but be anti-Kikuyu. At the time of writing there have been at least 600 "official" deaths (as registered in hospitals and by other reliable sources); but this total is almost certainly an underestimate, especially if information from all the isolated rural areas where old scores are being settled were available.

While Luo have slaughtered Kikuyu settlers in their midst in the west, Mungiki thugs have rallied to the tribe and have been busy killing Luo in the Nairobi slums, hoping to ingratiate themselves with the big bosses of Kiambu, Nyeri and Murang'a. There are already as many as 250,000 internally-displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees (into Uganda). Factories are idle, many roads are closed, and food and humanitarian crises loom. In Uganda, Rwanda and the eastern DR Congo, the interruption of fuel supplies coming from Mombasa is threatening transport. Even Tanzania is beginning to feel the economic aftershocks of the disturbances. By a conservative estimate, the Kenyan economy is losing $30 million a day and the loss for the whole region - though anybody's guess - must be far greater.

On 2 January 2008, President Kibaki announced that he was "ready to have a dialogue with the concerned parties". This was a good start but, once more, the 76-year-old president seemed to be a prisoner of his past (and, perhaps, of his entourage). He stalled Desmond Tutu on the bishop's arrival from South Africa in the effort to mediate (in contrast to Raila Odinga, who had immediately met Tutu); and when on 3 January attorney-general Amos Wako announced the creation of three committees designed to find a solution to the crisis (on peace and reconciliation, on the media aspects of the situation and on legal affairs), they were packed with burned-out politicians like Simeon Nyachae, Njenga Karume or George Saitoti, most of whom had just lost their seats in the election.

On 7 January, it is reported that Kibaki has invited Ghana's president, John Kufuor, to re-engage in the mediation effort that was proposed as the violence first escalated; and that he has offered to create a government of national unity with the opposition which (an official statement says) "would not only unite Kenyans but would also help in the healing and reconciliation process".

It is an artful departure from the boast of his precipitous acceptance speech of 30 December, when President Kibaki had declared: "Fellow Kenyans, you have given us a vote of confidence in the values and principles...that we began five years ago. You have chosen the leaders you wish to serve you during the next five years".

In the circumstances, the claim was neither truthful nor realistic. It is unclear whether Mwai Kibaki's latest manoeuvres represent a genuine shift of position or a tactical adjustment to desperate conditions. In any case, the creation of a government of national unity is now the sole, albeit painful compromise available if Kenya's violence is to be contained and some sort of progress beyond this nightmare made. After that, a just and truthful reckoning with what has happened in Kenya must be attempted.