Five years on: identity and Kenya's post-election violence

As Kenyan citizens prepare to return to the polls in March this year, Valentina Baú looks at what made the Rift Valley one of the hotspots of the 2007/2008 violence. Although the country is calling for harmony during and after election time, ethnic tensions may be an obstacle to peace if not adequately understood and addressed.

Valentina Baú
18 January 2013
The 2007/ 2008 post-election violence

The 2007 Kenya presidential election saw a controversial contest for votes between President Mwai Kibaki, from the Party of National Unity (PNU), and the opposition leader from the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), Raila Odinga. On 27th December, Kibaki was announced to have won the presidential poll by a considerably small margin, with Odinga having already been successful in the parliamentary vote.

With the announcement of election results, widespread civil violence got under way. This manifested itself mostly in two different forms: the first was a general protest against the contentious outcome of the vote across the country, particularly in urban centres, where intense backlashes occurred between the police and the militia groups that had materialised as a demonstration of dissent. The second was a violence fought along ethnic lines, which took place mainly in the Rift Valley. Here, the Kalenjin youths – supporting the Luo candidate Odinga - turned against the Kikuyus, Kibaki’s tribesmen.

The wave of violence that hit the country took everyone by surprise, as Kenya had been seen until then as one of the most successful democracies in East Africa since its transition to a multi-party system in 2002. Along with neighbouring Tanzania, it was the only country in the region not to have experienced a civil conflict.

Yet the violence lasted from December 2007 to February 2008; over a thousand people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands became displaced. The end of the fighting was achieved thanks to the mediation of former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, who led the Kenyan Government towards a shared power agreement between the re-elected President Kibaki and the newly introduced figure of Prime Minster, found in Odinga.                            

Since the country reached independence, presidential power has spiralled up by way of a number of laws that have been regularly ratified to broaden the executive authority. The Kenyan Constitution was amended thirty two times between 1991 and 2008, with an additional modification implemented only two years ago. Through a report redacted in 2008 in the aftermath of the conflict, the Commission of Inquiry into the Post Election Violence (CIPEV) recognised that one of the consequences of these constitutional reforms is that citizens have come to distrust Government institutions, which are perceived as not being integral and autonomous. When one looks at the evolution of the Kenyan political landscape, it becomes less of a surprise that the 2007 elections were seen as biased and that members of the public chose to engage in a violent response.

The problem of land in the Rift Valley

The basis for the political conflict that was exacerbated through the 2007 elections was built on the land question, which became attached to the aspect of ethnic rivalry through both the settlement scheme elaborated during colonial times and the subsequent purchase programme at the moment Kenya turned into a post-colonial entity.

With the beginning of colonialism, long-lasting traditions of communal land ownership and access-for-all rights were disrupted. Colonisers decided that the land was owned only by those who were able to show the existence of legal evidence towards their property. Since this was not possible in the majority of cases, the new government seized approximately seven million acres of arable land and placed it under the control of Europeans for cultivation. These territories became known as white highlands, and all the indigenous populations that used to inhabit them were displaced to marginal reserves. Shortly afterwards, however, as shown in Kimenyi and Ndung'u's 2005 study, the overcrowding of such territories forced a large number of ethnic communities including Luo, Kisii, Luhya and Kikuyu to migrate to the white highlands of the Rift Valley to live as squatters who provided labour for the settlers.

The system set up by colonisers through the creation of the white highlands deprived most of the native population of rights over their land. At the same time, it led to an increased migration to those areas, which brought a drastic expansion of the Kikuyu settlement outside of their traditional territories of the Central province. In addition, establishing new land rights was hardly ever possible under the colonial rule. Hence, once independence was gained one of the main problems was that of addressing issues of private property. This proved to be such a complex matter that in order to accelerate the transfer of power, all Kenyan tribes withdrew their claims to have their precolonial land returned to them and left Europeans to sell this to willing buyers. Thus most migrants ended up settling down in areas other than their ancestral ones, particularly in the Rift Valley province, where the land was more apt for farming.

The Rift Valley is now home to a number of ethnic groups. The largest is that of the Kalenjin (approximately half of the population), who have formed a strong alliance with the Luyha and Luo; the second major tribe is the Kikuyu (over 19% of the population); Kisii and Masai form smaller groups. Here, the structure of inequalities in land ownership incessantly instigate the political tension that can turn into violent conflict. From the reconstruction of historical events illustrated above, it becomes clear how a strong inter-ethnic animosity has arisen between the Kalenjin – who, along with the Masai, hold territorial claims over the former white highlands of the Rift Valley as their ancestral land – and the Kikuyu, who migrated there in search of work and subsequently purchased some of those lands. As the CIPEV Report clarifies on page 31, this state of affairs ‘[…] has created the notion of “insiders”, who are native to a place and “outsiders” who have migrated there, a notion that has been tapped by aspiring politicians’.

Reflecting on the issue of identity

According to some analysts, contemporary armed conflicts are more frequently being fought along ethnic, religious, and regional lines, and no longer follow ideological or class affiliations. However, in his book Building Peace: sustainable reconciliation in divided societies, Lederach highlights how control and domination are elements whose dynamics are set in motion by underlying forces such as class and ideology: it is these forces that the leaders from conflicting sides seek to manipulate to enhance their positions. The uncertainties that characterise sub-group identities are used and reinforced by leaders as a means to strengthen their own position, as well as the group’s internal structure which in itself supports their claims to leadership.

In later work, Lederach indicates identity and relationship as the two main causes of social conflict. Identity can be regarded as the dynamic through which we relate to others and whose definition changes constantly. This process, which can be found within individuals’ narratives but also in their relationships with other beings, is concerned with the protection of a sense of self and the survival of the group and it influences the orientation of a conflict.

Yet the issue of identity is not easy to locate within the wider landscape comprising the roots of the violence. Travelling through Kenya's Rift Valley conducting research for my PhD, in both informal conversations and interviews with my informants, I have frequently been under the impression that the issue of identity only arises from the problem of land and the related matter of stereotypes, and is not, in most cases, an underlying matter. I felt that identity was an issue used to justify claims over a fertile land rather than an authentic assertion of community belonging.

The CIPEV report offers an interesting view:

In discussions of post-election violence, many Kalenjins argue that it is a product of longstanding anger over land distribution following independence. They argue that land was alienated by the colonial government and then unfairly parcelled out to the Kikuyus and other groups whom they view as outsiders. […] Others […] dismiss this explanation pointing out that individuals from different groups lived side by side for many years until the advent of multi party democracy when violence was used to kill and displace opposition party voters to keep them from voting. Hence, [it is argued] that even though the promise of getting land from those who were displaced was used to entice youth into violence, the desire for political power and not land hunger was the causal factor.


This final statement is key to understanding the real situation of the Rift Valley and to seeking ways to address it. By assessing carefully the underlying causes, many of what have been defined as ethnic conflicts can be recognised to be mostly social, political and economic conflicts between groups who choose to identify themselves and their adversaries along ethnic lines.

In other words, what appear to be at times unsolvable ethnic clashes are in fact fights that are only remotely related to expressions of ethnic identity. At the same time, disputes that are more connected to ethnicity and its manifestations are more easily solvable through the achievement of a mutually acceptable way forward, especially when ethnic survival is recognised not to be at stake.

In Kenya, the element of identity – particularly in its ethnic dimension – begins to play a key role when other significant inequalities are present within a society, including control over land and access to political opportunities. As Branch and Cheeseman also highlight in their 2009 work on state failure and the Kenyan experience, the unnatural amplification of the importance of ethnicity is typically a consequence of decisions taken in institutional and political contexts, and it is rarely the cause of the discord. Roberts explains this concept clearly in her analysis of the Kenyan conflict:

 Political parties in Kenya typically fall under tribal lines, valuing ethnicity above political ideology and policy. This is due to the perception that the party offers the best hope for one within the tribe to assumer power and then share resources with tribal members. The result of this view has historically been tribalism or prejudice across tribes, and favouritism within the tribe.

Kenya today

The delicate issue of land that still dominates the co-existence of different tribes in the Valley finds its origins in dynamics of exclusion that took shape from the policies enforced by both the colonial and post-colonial systems. Following the violence that erupted after the last presidential elections, CIPEV, again, has recognised that:

 There is a land issue which needs to be addressed, particularly in parts of the country which are not ethnically homogenous. Even now, this mentality and the fear that accompanies it have led to a type of quasi residential apartheid as Kenyans move into more ethnically homogenous areas even within urban centres and towns.


As Kenya's general elections draw closer, it is important to be aware of the causes of tension that still characterise the area. In a November editorial on the Daily Nation, Managing Editor Mutuma Mathiu asked an important question: how will the country be able to conduct poll debates without any tribal reference? The journalist reminded the readers that ‘each of the big parties has a core of voters made up of one big tribe’; he also made the crucial statement that, presently, ‘the fundamental unit of mobilisation is not an issue agenda, it is [still] the tribe’.

Some have been urging citizens to shun tribal alliances and vote for the candidate they trust, regardless of their ethnic belonging. The one sparking most controversy at the moment, is the Jubilee Alliance formed by Deputy Prime Minster Uhuru Kenyatta and Eldoret North MP William Ruto; the coalition would this time bring together, at least on the outside, Kikuyu and Kelenjin, representing a critical and at the same time delicate tool in the Rift Valley. Yet, both politicians have been indicted by the International Criminal Court at The Hague for crimes against humanity during the post-election violence, and some argue that this apparent union will simply be their route to impunity.

While tribal dynamics will keep playing a big role in the country’s state of affairs, a claim for identity should not be seen as a justification for violence. If most Kenyans still abide by the idea that the endorsement of certain leaders will result in some form of personal benefits linked to their tribal identity, conflict is likely to re-occur in the Valley. Yet, ethnic tensions can be eased if willing politicians are able to address the root causes and put Kenya’s unity at the top of their agenda.

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