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Part one of Three

Historical and political dimensions

Recent political problems that threaten to tear Kenya apart require analysis that goes beyond ethnicity as portrayed in the media and current analyses that attempt to explain the situation. More correctly, emphasis and focus should be placed on the interpenetration of historical and current political developments whose origins can be traced in the early stages of state formation in Kenya. In 19th century the area that became Kenya could be described as stateless, but was made up of various nationalities (currently considered sub-nationalities if seen from the eye of British Historians and ethnographers). Some commentators have claimed that peoples' civility, and ethnicity was shaped by their subsistence farming or herding, or some mixture of both".

However what ethnographers and Eurocentric commentators ignore is that there was clear territorial ownership of space by each “nation” even though at times there were conflicts over pasture and adventurer expeditions into the regions occupied by other groups. In the late 19th century most of the people of Kenya resisted British conquest, and land grabbing when white settlements began in the fertile highlands of Rift Valley and central province. Administrative structures were designed and to-date, have been effectively used as part of state machinery to impose illegitimate authority on the people. Besides land, there were conflicts over forced “labour” (basically Africans and latter Indians) and hut tax. These conflicts led to the 1923 Devonshire White paper, which stated that ‘Kenya is an African country and the interest of the natives must be paramount’. The Africans especially the Kikuyu in Central province, Masaai and Kalenjin in the Rift Valley, lost much of their best land to the white settlers and the growing population meant increasing land hunger and discontent. A new land redistribution scheme was introduced under Lyttleton constitution of 1954 followed by other constitutional changes however these scheme did not adequately address the land question.

Nationalism in Kenya begun as early as 1922. Violence and armed struggle was led by the Mau Mau and by 1955, 13,000 Africans had lost their lives (see Anderson, 2007). In the early 1960s, Moi, Muliro and Ngala of KADU supported regionalism against Kenyatta, Odinga and Mboya and KANU's nationalism (associated with the centralised system). By 1960, two national parties were formed (what could be described as the first multi party era in Kenya). These two parties were already divided over the type of system that would serve the African interests. Alliance by leadings lights from various groups which made up KADU and KANU respectively, also played out in the struggles for release of those in detention and efforts to form the first government. The British were forced to retreat from Kenya and subsequently, release Jomo Kenyatta from detention at Kapenguria.

When Kenya gained “independence” from Britain in 1963, it inherited non-democratic institutions and cultures, which later fell into the hands of corrupted politicians and governments. This exemplifies the de-colonization programme that retained the colonial apparatuses of security forces and political repression in the post-colony (see Anderson, 1998) and compromise over the land question. Post-colonial “officials” lavished themselves with political and economic favours in a pattern that has extended into the post-post-colonial era (Moi who was a member of KADU and later KANU, Kibaki who was technocrat in KANU from 1963, Michuki the Internal Security Minister, Njenga Karume, the Defence Minister among others). This process has been captured by some analysts who have pointed out that these developments mirrors what was a distinctly colonial view of the rule of law, which saw the British leave behind legal systems that facilitated tyranny, oppression and poverty rather than open, accountable government(Elkins, 2007/8)

Ethnic composition and competitive politics

While national level political competition in Kenya is often misunderstood and shallowly interpreted in terms of a competition between the Kikuyu and the Luo, most commentators on Kenya’s politics do ignore the position and role of the Kalenjin, Luhya, Kamba, Kisii, Coastal peoples (Mijikenda), Swahili, Arabs, Indians and Europeans who live in large farms/ranches and important urban areas in Kenya. Each of these groups subsumes a number of smaller ethnic units that become relevant bases of social identity in more localized settings. The groups hardly mentioned are the Ogieks, and the Jemps who are the original occupants of some parts of present Rift valley but have since been displaced or evicted to create room for current occupants. What is however neglected in the debate about Kenyan politics is the reality that all groups have a stake in the running of the Kenyan polity, but due to systematic exclusion of some groups from the national leadership, competitive politics in Kenya is bound to have an ethnic dimension

When Kenya became a one-party state in 1969 Kenyatta ruled the country with a clique around him mainly from his ethnic Kikuyu, who eventually alienated other groups in Kenya from the political and economic order for his entire reign (1963-1978). Although Kenyatta did not instigate ethnic clashes, he targeted eminent persons from ethnic groups that he felt were a threat to his leadership. Many people were assassinated including Pio Gama Pinto (Kenyan Indian), JM Kariuki (Kikuyu) Tom Mboya, D.O Makasembo, Arwgings Kodhek (all Luo) Ronald Ngala (Mijikenda of Coast), Seroney (Kalenjin) among others. This was a strategy that Moi also adopted at the height of his reign when prominent persons were assassinated or died in mysterious circumstances. They include, Robert Ouko, Owiti Ongili, Otieno Ambala, Hezekiah Oyugi (all Luo) Bishop Kipsang Muge, (Kalenjin), Adungosi and Muliro (all Luhya,). Many students, journalists, lecturers, and politicians like Raila Odinga, Charles Rubia, Keneth Matiba, Martin Shikuku, among others were also detained and tortured. What is also missing in most analyses is the role of other communities during the struggle for independence, while the Mau Mau has been presented as the epicentre of everything around impendence struggle, but historical facts point to other contributions but because this ignorance has been presented as the truth, coupled with arrogance and superiority complex, Kenyan liberation history has been constantly distorted.

The struggles for political ascendancy begun immediately after the postcolonial government were formed. While the first cabinet was quite representative of the face of Kenya, soon ideological difference, impact of cold war and betrayal on key issues cropped in, thus dividing the original personalities in the independence struggle; the Mau Mau veterans were sidelined and politics of exclusion and elimination begun with earnest, sometimes combined with assassinations. Electoral politics never took shape in a democratic sense since Kenyatta who ruled mainly through the provincial administration, outside the KANU framework, rendered the party system that could have rallied the people around issues and programmes meaningless. Fears of ethnic ascendancies, power-hungry ethnic political elites, undemocratic processes and institution, which are all hallmarks of today's Kenya, begun to play out; a confirmation of the undemocratic historical trajectory that Kenya has been moving along. The 2007 election fiasco has exposed the deliberate stoking of ethnic tension by power-hungry elites, feeble democratic traditions and institutions in Kenya, one that threatens to consume it if not adequately addressed.

Electoral politics

Electoral politics in Kenya can also be understood best by looking at the role of the process and institutions charged with overseeing such a process. The electoral system in Kenya is based on constituencies whose boundaries are congruent with the boundaries of tribal areas. These boundaries have been used to manipulate democratic outcomes. The constituencies are represented by a member of parliament and a number of local authority representatives at ward, town and urban council levels. Their election takes place at the same time as that of presidential and parliamentary ones. The boundaries are determined by the electoral commission if there is evidence that populations have outgrown the current demarcations. This decision is however made by the electoral commission without consulting the local communities and in most cases at the directive of the president. The president without parliamentary approval appoints the Commission. However the problem with numbers in Kenyan politics is that they are never correct or close to truth. This originates from history of manipulation of constituency population numbers during the single party era, but also lack of regular census and update of births and deaths records. It is therefore not surprising to see “ghost names” in voter registers (not deleted even after a whole five year preparation and multibillion investment in the process) or to see number of registered voters increase during presidential vote tallying contrary to the actual number at constituency level or previous attempt to create extra constituencies in the incumbent friendly regions in order to meet the 25% constitutional requirement for presidential eligibility.

But the problem with the electoral process did not start in recent years; the political competition that followed immediately after independence gave birth to the mechanisations, manipulation of the institutions responsible for electoral process and the blatant rape of the constitution to suit those in power. This begun with the erosion of the party system, when immediately after independence in 1963, the political alliances begun to fall apart with KADU joining KANU and internal struggles within KANU leading to the formation of KPU. Although the fall out between Kenyatta and Odinga has been described as ideological, the actual cause was the feeling that Kenyatta had betrayed his colleagues and the entire nation on three crucial promises at independence, namely eradication of poverty, illiteracy and disease. Kenyatta betrayed this cause by allocating huge parcels of land left by white settlers to himself and cronies, including large tracts in the present Rift Valley province.

Upon Kenyatta’s death in 1978, Daniel arap Moi, a member of the Kalenjin, assumed power in 1978. During his 24 year reign, Moi exploited the Kenyan diversity and politicised ethnicity to levels where he could instigate clashes in districts and provinces with mixed groups, a practice he perfected in the 90’s in order to discredit the onset of multiparty democracy in Kenya. Politically motivated ethnic clashes were used to disrupt and displace populations and groups that supported the opposition (mainly the Kikuyu in Rift Valley, Luo in the slums of Nairobi and Mombasa). He also used divide and rule tactics, pitting on group against another and at times bought politician through patronage in order to have more support in parliament. These tactics ensured that that the opposition lost the elections of 1992 and 1997. It was not until 2002, when his constitutional terms in office expired that he had no options, but also due to the unity of the opposition through NARC (Rainbow coalition of Kijana Wamalwa FORD- Kenya, Raila Odinga of LDP, Charity Ngilu and Kibaki of NAK/DP) got together and managed to defeated Moi’s preferred choice of successor, Uhuru Kenyatta (the son of Jomo Kenyatta). Moi was voted out of office in 2002, and Kibaki became president.

Anger against Kibaki’s leadership is real and genuine and it stems from the fact that Kibaki was elected on a platform of reform, in the sphere of constitutional change, end to corruption, tribalism and establishment of an equitable system that could uplift the living conditions of all Kenyans regardless of their ethnicity and other background factors. Kibaki’s failure to grasp these genuine concerns, self imprisonment from reasoning and lack of desire to leave a legacy in Kenya, caused a great anger in the majority of Kenyans whose hopes had been dashed by Kibaki’s conduct, corruption and arrogance of people around him. For instance People’s disgust with Kibaki’s regime was expressed at the 2005 referendum in which the Wako Draft (a diluted version of the Boma’s draft, which was a constitutional product of a people led process) was defeated. Seven provinces made up of diverse ethnic groups voted for “NO” while the Yes vote was only represented by central province. This outcome reflected the wishes of the majority and cannot be seen as a vote against the Kikuyu since the vote was for a devolved system or a unitary system. But then, one cannot lose sight to the ethnic dimension the vote took during the campaigns, when people of central province were told to vote for “Yes” because it meant protecting “their presidency”. This anger and frustration was captured in the 2007 elections in which Kibaki lost his close allies from his own backyard (central province) and high profile lieutenants from other regions who were rejected at grassroots level. The 2007 elections also saw a new trend of ethnic alliances, which were formed for political expediency, even though hidden behind critical issues. Some groups could however identify with each other in terms of political and economic marginalisation than others, thus the divide the has been reflected in the post ethic conflict even if some analysis attempt to reduce it to the work of political leaders as the ones behind the ethnic divide. In the current situation, old wounds have been revived but the degree of suffering under previous regimes differ from group to group, while frustration also exists within the groups themselves, whereby, Kalenjin rejected their own, in Moi and his sons, while the Kikuyu rejected the cabal that have surrounded Kibaki since 2002. The same was witnessed in Nyanza where Luo and Kisii Nyanza voted out MPs that they thought did not deserve another parliamentary mandate.

* Antony Otieno Ong’ayo is a researcher at the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam.

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