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Focus on tribalism in Kenya

Tribalism in Kenya is responsible for underdevelopment, corruption, the rigging of elections and violence. What can its background tell us about the future risks of Kenyan tribalism, and how to put an end to it?

Tribalism in Kenya is not a historical inevitability.  It cannot be traced to ancient hatreds or warfare from cultures clashing over the ages. In fact, the major opposing groups, the westerners ( Luo, Luhya, Kalenjin, Kisii)  of western Kenya and the GEMA (Kikuyu, Embu and Meru people) from the Mount Kenya area, had little contact with one another before the coming of the colonialists. Accordingly, Kenya’s tribalism is a relatively new phenomenon. It is a product of modern times arising from colonialism, urbanization and the political culture that sprung up in independent Kenya.

Before the coming of the colonialists Kenyan tribes lived in their own distinct areas with their own cultures, i.e. language, customs, myths of origin etc. The communities lived free from each other, save for some conflict over water and pasture for livestock.

When the British came, they brought with them the principle of divide and rule. They magnified differences amongst the various communities/ tribes, instigating clashes whereby each community distrusted and fought the other.   This served as the breeding ground for negative tribal stereotypes which then became embedded in popular belief. The Kikuyu for example were given the impression that the fish-eating Luo’s were lazy, uncircumcised and unreliable while the Luhya’s were made to view the GEMA communities as schemers, liars, untrustworthy, arrogant and so forth.

This situation of suspicion persisted till the time when independence was realized in 1963, at which point tribal suspicions shot up as the two major parties KADU (Kenya African Democratic Union) and KANU (Kenya African National Union) began squabbling over power. KANU was a party largely dominated by two tribes, the Kikuyu and the Luo.  KADU on the other hand was a coalition of all the other small Kenyan tribes that feared being dominated by the Kikiyu/Luo alliance under KANU. 

KADU insisted on “majimbo”- a federal system of governance tbat they argued twas the only way to protect the smaller tribes from domination by the majority tribes (Kikuyu and Luo).  However, KANU carried the day and federalism was discarded, in its place, Kenya adopted the unitary system of governance.

The unity between the Luo’s and the Kikuyu’s was short lived, since immediately Mzee Jomo Kenyatta (a Kikuyu) became president his administration started favouring the Kikuyu people. This favouritism manifested itself in greater government expenditures for social infrastructure in Kikuyu areas, corruption benefits to fellow tribesmen, privileged access to government and parastatal jobs. The Luo on the other hand, despite holding the vice presidency, were largely discriminated against, their complaints only eliciting intimidation and even assassinations in return.

Under the Mzee Jomo Kenyatta government, it was common to have many underqualified staff from the Kikuyu community placed in positions of higher authority than the qualified ones from other tribes. This led to the final falling out with government as the vice president Oginga (a Luo), was eventually pushed out of government and detained.  The tribal rift was widened and solidified when a Luo minister who had remained in government was assassinated; Mr.Tom Mboya’s assassination was blamed on highly placed Kikuyu personalities.  This was seen as an assault on the Luo by the Kikuyu, and since then Kenyan politics has essentially pitted Kikuyu against Luos, with each side attempting to attract other tribal groups to its side. 

The consequences of tribalism

Tribalism in Kenya is indeed a major stumbling block to democracy as well as socio-economic development. It persists since it provides an avenue via which state goodies and favours trickle down from those in power to their tribesmen. Therefore, loyalty to tribe is given ever greater relevance than loyalty to the country.

Tribalism is responsible for a lot of ills such as underdevelopment, corruption, rigging of elections and violence/civil war. There is also no meritocracy as people are given jobs based on tribe regardless of having low qualifications. Hence the inefficient use of available skills. The exploitation of natural resources also takes a tribal angle, with resources in some areas being ignored or being under utilized. Bad governance and lack of accountability is also linked to tribalism as people will never question a government run by their tribesmen: even if it makes mistakes they remain supportive of it firmly and blindly.The reverse is also true. This means that even if a government does well it will receive daily unnecessary criticism from the tribes not in the ruling party.   

Tribalism is thus used to withhold or provide preferential services and resources.

Thanks to tribalism, citizens are now questioning the call for Peace, Love and Unity. They ask for whom is this unity, peace for whom? For whose benefit?   Rival tribes?  Tribal clashes/ethic violence is a common occurrence in Kenya as in most African countries such as Rwanda, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe etc.  There is animosity, distrust and hatred amongst various tribes so that even intermarriages among some tribes are strongly discouraged by the older conservative generation as well as the rural folk.       

The Luhya for example have a proverb which says “elisimba lifwitsanga mulikobi lya lyasie’’ meaning that a mongoose dies on behalf of another mongoose. For example if a snake bites you, you kill any or all other snakes that you come across – you don’t sit back and look for the exact one that bit you. In a tribal context,  if  I am harmed by a Kikuyu, then whichever Kikuyu I meet has to pay the price. This has the capacity to heighten tribal conflicts.

Tribalism has infiltrated politics and with the advent of multiparty politics, there arose lots of tribal parties. For example FORD K is associated with the Luhya, DP - Kikuyu, FORD PEOPLE - Kisii, SPK – coastal Kenya (mijikenda), NDP/LDP - Luo, KANU/UDM - Kalenjin, SDP – Kamba and so on. Voting in Kenya whether parliamentary, civic or presidential is nowadays done purely along tribal lines as each tribe believes that it is its time to “eat” (time to enjoy political power and resources). 

In the political sphere, ‘leaders’ appeal to people of their own tribes when they want support, they also use their tribes as leverage when they bargain for positions and favours in government.

Heightened tribalism in the country has compromised the church and rendered the religious fraternity unable to offer guidance on matters of national relevance. The church is no longer trusted to be a neutral arbiter.  Various churches are allied with specific parties, for example the Presbyterian Church (PCEA) openly endorsed President Kibaki’s candidature in 2007 and urged all its followers to vote for him.

Tribalism has been to blame for government sponsored assassinations as well as other political assassinations such as that of Tom Mboya, Robert Ouko,  Othiambo Mbai and recently Hon. Melitus  Mugabe Were from the Banyala community who was assassinated three weeks after winning the Embakasi parliamentary seat (in a Kikuyu dominated area).

The previous government was fond of fuelling tribal division. It was in the habit of creating and naming rural districts with tribal names, so that the residents got to feel that the area was strictly theirs and outsiders ought to be evicted. For example Meru District for Merus, Kisii for the Kisiis, Teso District for the Tesos,  Kuria for the Kurias,  Suba for the Suba people and even Taita District for the Taita tribesmen.  This divide and rule tactic was used during election times so that 'outsiders' would be evicted if they chose to vote in a different manner.  For example the natives of Kisii district would feel justified to evict non Kisii people residing in 'their' district. 

The 2007 post election violence in Kenya is largely attributed to tribalism, due to the fact that in Kenya elections are simply a matter of life and death. The fate of entire communities is on the line. Raila Odinga (a luo) took advantage of this situation and ganged up the other 41 tribes against the Kikuyu led government of Mwai Kibaki.  He mobilized political heavy weights from most of the other tribes and formed the ODM (Orange Democratic Movement).   

The Kikuyu dominated PNU (Party of National Unity) was therefore faced with a tough challenge, even though the Kikuyu tribe is the most populous in the country. ODM was too strong.

Thus the election was never based on issues, ideologies or principles. Rather it was an avenue of voting out the Kikuyus, a showdown between the Kikuyu- led PNU versus a coalition of Kenyan tribes under the ODM umbrella.

Violence inevitably broke out when it became clear that the election had been stolen/rigged. People from president Kibaki’s tribe were hunted down, attacked and evicted all over the country, as other citizens could just not imagine being out in the cold, jobless and with zero infrastructural development in their areas for another five years. 

The way forward

There is no point in addressing the ills bedevilling Kenya while ignoring the actual causes, since the major cause of tribalism in Kenya (and in Africa as a whole) today is the competition and confrontation over power and resources. There must be a clear formula of sharing of power and resources via constitutional arrangements. This will ensure that there is no more skewed distribution of state resources. At that point each tribe/community might be fairly represented.

It would also be best if power was completely devolved to regional governments – a federal type of government is the only sure way to protect small tribes from those who would wish to exploit and subjugate them. The other option would be to moot an arrangement that caters for the rotations of key posts between tribes. So far, federalism seems the better option since historically Kenyan communities have lived apart.

It is also necessary to enforce strict laws that regulate discriminatory practices in the provision of public service.

Tolerance is obviously a major requirement if Kenyans are to be united in diversity, so that citizens learn to accept and accommodate customs and practices that are different from theirs.  For example I am Luhya.  I therefore love Luhya, I was nurtured as one and it is the thing I best understand how to be. However I don’t disrespect or disregard any other group even though I see some things differently from them and would prefer some different things from theirs. God created me a Luhya and intends to keep me so. But I make a point of respecting other people’s cultures, even those who circumcise girls and even those who practice wife inheritance. 

Tribalism is a retrogressive practice, as some citizens do like demeaning others and belittling others by disrespecting and making fun of other people’s cultures and customs.

Dehumanizing other people or simply considering them inferior is unacceptable and can degenerate into fistfights. Some of my native (Luhya) foodstuffs/vegatables such as Lisutsa, Lisaka, Murere,Likhubi are considered to be mere weeds in other parts of Kenya. Unity in diversity can only be achieved if tolerance is practiced. 

We must help citizens to learn, understand and even just get a glimpse into the cultures of other Kenyans, since this alone will wipe out myths, generalizations as well as misconceptions, skewed and limited information about other tribes/cultures.

Building bridges across different cultures is necessary since, when standing inside our own conceptual schemes, we are blind to the possibilities of other ways of thinking, seeing, understanding, and interpreting the world.

It would also help if international donor agencies such as the World Bank would peg all development aid to conditions such as success in instituting constitutional changes and other appropriate anti-tribal violence measures. This is vital since it is only with the eradication of tribalism that real and sustainable development can be achieved.

If tribalism is to be successfully combated then meritocracy has to be fully embraced in both the civil service as well as the private/corporate sector. It is only the most qualified people who should be considered for job placements,. The hiring process ought to be transparent, interviews done and only the best candidates considered.

When the issue of tribalism is adequately addressed, the main cause of the conflicts will have been defused and in time governance should improve, corruption should decrease, skilled citizens will return home, investment will be encouraged, developments will occur and living standards will most likely improve. Most importantly tribal violence will be eradicated in the country.

About the author

Alan Masakhalia is a 30 year old Kenyan currently working as Lead Consultant at Alarnies Development Consultants in Nairobi.

He is a seasoned political scientist currently serving as Country Representative of Democracy International Germany.

He has written several papers for Democracy International on African political issues in Kenya, Uganda, Sudan and Tanzania.


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