Saturday, March 19, 2011


The ethnic conflict followed the immediate aftermath of the closely contested and disputed 2007 elections caused a great deal of consternation and demoralized Kenyans of all creed, race and ethnicity. This violence greatly besmirched Kenyan’s self perception and carefully crafted international profile as a peaceful and democratic nation (Chege, 2008; Klopp & Kamungi, 2008). The clashes resulted in the death of 1,300 and displacement of a further 290,000 (Chege, 2008). The violence took three basic forms: running battles between the state and those protesting against the elections outcome (where the incumbent president – Mwai Kibaki a Kikuyu - was adjudged to have fraudulently been declared winner of the election), this occurred mainly in the West of the country (Nyanza and Western province ) where the runner up – Raila Odinga a Luo – hails from; in the Rift Valley province, there was attempted ethnic cleansing of ethnic Kikuyu’s, by the native Kalenjin’s (who supported Raila and his Orange Democratic Movement- ODM party): “Ethnic militias with hundreds of warriors with hundreds of warriors loyal to ODM systematically sought out and killed Kikuyu, burning homes, businesses, and property and taking over their land.” (Klopp & Kamungi, 2008:12). The final category of violence involved reprisals against Luo and Kalenjin by the Kikuyu in Central Province and other areas where the Kikuyu are the majority (Chege, 2008)

Unfortunately the violence in 2007 was not Kenya’s first brush with ethnic conflict. Since the return of multi-party democracy in 1991 , there have been periodic election related ethnic clashes. In 1992 (first democratic elections) the violence was concentrated in the Rift Valley, home of the then president (Daniel Moi a Kalenjin ) and involved attempts to forcibly remove Kikuyu’s from the area, who were perceived to be supportive of the main opposition candidate Kenneth Matiba – a Kikuyu (Klopp, 2006; Ndegwa, 1997). The violence resulted in the death of between 700 and 1000 people and the displacement of around 250,000 (Oyugi, 2000:13). In 1997 there were clashes in the coast province whereby supporters of the ruling party attempted to cleanse the region of all non-natives (Luo and Kikuyu) whom they perceived to be loyal to the opposition candidates (Jaramogi Odinga – Luo and Mwai Kibaki), the resulting violence led to the death of hundreds and displacement of 100,000. In the aftermath of the closely contested 1997 elections, the then runner up (Mwai Kibaki) attempted a legal challenge to the official results, ethnic tensions again rose up in the Rift Valley, as supporters of president Moi took the legal challenge as an affront to the Kalenjin people in general (Lynch, 2006). The only distinct pattern that emerges from the foregoing is that the ethnic clashes appear to be connected to political tensions in the body politic, and especially during highly contested elections cycles.

The fact that ethnic tensions have only typically evidenced themselves during electoral contests there is general agreement in the literature that it is not ethnicity per se that is the cause of the conflict, but politicized ethnicity, wherein entrepreneurial and mendacious politicians exploit existing mistrust and feelings of marginalization to stoke ethnic tensions and conflict for political gain (Oyugi, 2000; Klopp, 2002; Ndegwa, 1997), as Aapengnuo (2010:2) notes: “Often it is the politicization of ethnicity…that stokes the attitudes of perceived injustice, lack of recognition and exclusion that are the source of conflict….People do not kill each other because of ethnic differences they kill each other when these differences are promoted as a barrier to advancement and opportunity.” In each of the violent election cycles there exist ample evidence for this sought of political machinations, may it be the 1991 rallies in the Rift Valley where leaders agitated for a return of their “ancestral” land from the “foreigner” Kikuyu (Klopp, 2002); or in 1997 when a prominent Kalenjin cabinet minister warned of dire consequences for Kikuyu in the Rift Valley if Kibaki continued with his electoral challenge (Klopp, 2002); or in 2007 where the elections were framed as a: “Kenya against the Kikuyu” or “41 tribes against the Kikuyu” (Chege, 2008), Politicians have long used ethnicity to mobilize votes and deliberately create divisions between the Kikuyu (who voted predominantly for Kibaki’s Party of Nation Unity - PNU) and the Luo and Kalenjin (who voted predominantly for Raila and his ODM). The ODM strategy was to cause fear over Kikuyu domination , while the PNU focused on disparaging stereotypes about Raila and his ability to lead.

Politics in Kenya is largely dominated by ethnic calculations and Kenyan’s see most government activity with an ethnic lens: “This simplification of political dynamics means that to many an anti-corruption crusade becomes an ethnic witch hunt; a policy to invest in marginal areas becomes an attempt to draw certain minorities into an ethnic coalition, whilst policies to invest in high capacity areas appear as food for the Kikuyu. In turn, for many, a lack of development and/or land is seen as being simply the result of marginalization of their ‘community,’ but other ‘tribes’ or members of a broader ethnic community.” (Lynch, 2006:61) Elections are therefore – it is argued - opportunities for ethnic elites to seek domination of state organs in order to assure development of their tribe (Lynch, 2006; Ndegwa, 1997; Steeves, 2006). This competition for state control heightens elite tensions as loss of power (or failure to gain it) is sense as a tremendous loss for the elites and the community: “Ethnic conflicts often emerge in multiethnic underdeveloped societies when the state is perceived to be dominated by a particular group or community within it, where communities feel threatened with marginalization or when no recourse for redressing grievances exists. Ethnic thinking and mobilization generally emerge from the resulting inequitable of resources and not from intrinsic hatred.” (Aapengnuo, 2010:2). Thus, ethnic mobilization is likely to thrive in situations of low interpersonal trust (fear of the others), little to know interethnic dialogue and when individuals feel marginalized, it is in this sought of environment that nefarious politicians can gin up ethnic tensions that boil up into outright violence.

Policy Responses to Ethnic Clashes:

The responses to the 1992 and 1997 ethnic clashes were ad hoc in nature, limited to commissions of inquiry that investigated the clashes and produced reports with recommendations, however, these reports were never released nor acted upon by the Moi or Kibaki governments (Oyugi, 2000; Chege, 2008). In the aftermath of the devastating 2007-2008 elections, with fears of state collapse rife and pressure from domestic and international parties; a power sharing formula was created, the agreement saw Kibaki maintain the presidency and Raila receive the newly created position of Prime Minister, the agreement also committed the parties to: constitutional, legal and institutional reform (creating a more equitable political system); land reform; resolving poverty, inequity and regional imbalances; dealing with unemployment, especially of the youth; a more transparent, and accountable government; and – and most important to the task at hand - consolidating national cohesion and unity. Implementation of the latter involved the creation of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, as well as passage of anti-discrimination laws.

National Cohesion and Integration Act 2008

This law was passed in December 2008, the law created the Commission which: “is to facilitate and promote equality of opportunity, good relations, harmony and peaceful co-existence between persons of the different ethnic communities of Kenya, and to advise the Government on all aspects thereof.” (NCI, 2008) by: Promoting the elimination of all forms of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity; Discouraging and prohibiting persons, institutions, political parties and associations from advocating or promoting discrimination or discriminatory practices on the grounds of ethnicity; Promoting tolerance, understanding and acceptance of diversity in all aspects of national life and encouraging full participation by all ethnic communities in the socio, cultural and political life of other communities; Promoting educational and training programs to create public awareness, support and advancement of peace and harmony among ethnic communities; promoting arbitration, conciliation, mediation as dispute resolution mechanisms; investigating claims of ethnic or racial discrimination; and identifying and analyzing factors inhibiting the attainment of harmonious relations between ethnic communities. (NCI, 2008)The Law also makes it a crime to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity in employment or other avenues of life and sets a quota for ethnic diversity in public entities (no more than 30% of one ethnicity).

The Act and the foregoing discussion trace the causes of the ethnic clashes to Kenyans feeling marginalized by the state; having little trust for the government and in fellow Kenyans and expecting rewards from their domination of state resources for the benefit of the community. Using data from the fourth round of the Afrobarometer Survey, I hope to investigate these causal variables further; do Kenyans indeed mistrust each other to such an extent that they would condone political violence? Do Kenyans feel that their communities are marginalized and does this translate into demands for prebends from their leaders?


The Afrobarometer project was designed to assess attitudes toward democracy, governance, economic reform, quality of life and civil society in several African countries and to track the evolution of such attitudes over time. Kenya has been involved in three Afrobarometer surveys: 2003, 2005 and 2008. Of particular interest are questions within the survey dealing with Kenyan’s self perceptions on a number of fronts: ethnic v. national identity; trust in others; assessments of ethnic group’s condition (compared to other tribes); self identified party identification and leader preferences. Attempts are made to uncover some common themes in Kenyan’s self perception (and perceptions of other Kenyans) that would support some of the common explanatory variables of ethnic conflict, as well as provide insights into potential areas for policy intervention that would enhance communal relations and militate against eruption of ethnic conflict.

The 2008 Afrobarometer was conducted via face to face interviews of Kenyan Citizens aged 18 and older (voting age) between October 29th and November 17th 2008, approximately 10 months after the elections, 9 months after the violence and 7 months in to the coalition government, it was also conducted before the passage of the National Cohesion and Integration Act and would therefore serve as a good survey to test the assumptions under which the act was passed. The survey used a nationally representative random, clustered, stratified and multistage area probability survey. The sample size was 1,104 with a 78:22 rural-urban split, a geographic (provinces) spread approximating population trends and representative of the broader ethnic split in the country, and margin of error of +/- 3% at a 95% confidence level (Kerr, 2008)

Statistical and Policy Analysis:

To Afrobarometer survey asks Kenyan’s to consider how often or not their particular tribe is treated unfairly by the government, and to report their perceptions as: Never, Sometimes, Often or Always. This is a good question to gauge feelings of marginalization within certain communities, a cross tabulation of the results was done between this variable: “Ethnic Group Treated Unfairly” and the region (province) that the subject lived. What we find is that feelings of marginalization are felt most acutely in areas that are in the periphery: North Eastern and Coast provinces where respondents feel that their tribe is “Often or always” treated unfairly by the Government.

Table 1: Cross-tabulation of Treated unfairly and Region
Region Often or Always Sometimes Never
North Eastern 50% 31.3% 11.5%
Coast 41.7% 29.2% 21.9%
Eastern 35% 30.6% 21.3%
Western 28.9% 46.9% 20.3% —
Rift Valley 27.3% 42.8% 27.3%
Nyanza 26.3% 53.9% 17.1%
Nairobi 28.4% 43.2% 28.4%
Central 19.1% 33.3% 40.8%

If we consider regions/provinces to be proxies for ethnic groups (see footnote 2), we can gauge that indeed there do exist feelings of marginalization, especially amongst the Mijikenda of the coast, and Somali of the North Eastern province, these feelings of marginalization may be due a pattern of neglect by previous governments (Oyugi, 2000), as well as, a general lack of prominent community leaders in the national arena. All other regions show some marginalization (sometime), except the Kikuyu who have one of their sons in high office. However, in each regions (except central and Eastern – where the vice president hails from) there perceptions of government unfairness are broadly higher than government fairness, this fact should necessitate the development of a government system that is broadly equitable in hiring, service provision, economic planning and administration of justice, no tribe or regions should feel that the government is “sometimes” unfair to it, as Aapengnuo (2010:3) argues: “State institutions and structures that reflect ethnic diversity and respect minority rights, power-sharing and checks and balances reduce the perception of injustice and insecurity that facilitate ethnic mobilization.” Institutional, political and constitutional reforms (part of the broader power sharing arrangement) are necessary for the development of a more equitable and responsive governance system, one that is seen as fair to all.

Marginalization and Leadership Preference:

To investigate the proposition that Kenyans demand prebends from their leaders due to feelings of ethnic marginalization, a regression analysis was conducted to assess self described leader preferences (those who help their own community v. those who focus on the greater good of the country) and feelings of marginalization. It would be expected from the foregoing discussion and literature review that those who feel marginalized are likely to favor leaders who are more focused on developing their community against the national interest, leaders who: “Participate in the group’s preservation, especially in competition against other communities and against the national community – unless the state is controlled by fellow community members.” (Ndegwa, 1997: 602) Based on the regression analysis conducted political marginalization was significant r2= 0.13, F (3, 1100), p <0.001, though not necessarily strong, explaining only 13% of the variance in leadership preference.
From the above we could conclude that voters do indeed have a preference for leaders who they can extract prebends from and this can be partially explained as resulting from feelings of marginalization. However, this causal relationship is not necessarily a powerful explanatory variable, but it would to some extent validate the notion that Kenyans, who feel marginalized, would elect leaders focused on community rather than national goals. A self reporting bias (not wanting to seem tribal) could also influence this model, clearly lower levels of reporting tribal preferences could influence the level of that variable and thus, minimize the importance of marginalization as an explanatory variable.

In there analysis of voter pronouncements, versus voting intentions Kimenyi and Romero (2008) found that though Kenyans way consider themselves non-ethnic voters, they perceive other Kenyans to be ethnic voters, therefore, they vote along ethnic lines as a defense mechanism against the “others.” Using the Afrobarometer survey, we can approximate this finding by conducting a cross tabulation between voting preferences (party of choice) and tribal/ethnic group.

Cross Tabulation: Party of Choice v. Tribe
Tribe PNU ODM ODM-K Other N/A

Kikuyu 44% 3.4% 1.0% 0.6% 51%
Luo .7% 83.7% 0.7% 0.9% 14%
Luhya 3.7% 52.9% 0% 4.4% 39%
Kisii 9.1% 54.5% 1.5% 6% 28.8%
Kalenjin 2.3% 72.7% 0.8% 2.3% 21.9%
Maasai 19.1% 61.9% 0% 0% 19%
Kamba 9.5% 6.0% 58.6% 2.7% 23.3%
Embu 44.4% 11.1% 0% 0% 44.4%
Meru 61.8% 7.3% 5.5% 2.1% 23.3%
Mijikenda 12.5% 46.9% 3.1% 18.5% 19.0%

As can be seen for the table above, tribal groups largely support party’s that are led by members of their own party (footnote 9). Broadly speaking Kenya’s electoral landscape and voting patterns are primarily ethnic based, a conclusion arrived at by Bratton and Kimenyi (2008:14) in a similar analysis of voting trends in Kenya: “Although Kenyans resist defining themselves in ethnic terms, their actions in making electoral choices shows a country where voting patterns hew largely to ethnic lines.” The reluctance of voters to vote for individuals outside there own tribe would seem to prove Kimenyi and Romero’s assertion that voters exercise there rights in a very defensive manner, they do not trust those of other parties who may have better policies, but focus on ethnicity, assuming that other Kenyans will do the same. This lack of interpersonal trust is a major hindrance to the development of a post-ethnic democracy.

Interpersonal Trust and Voluntary Organizations:

Interpersonal trust or trust in other people, has been adjudged to be an important micro foundation to the development of a strong democracy (Hellsten, 2008), as does the participation in voluntary organizations: “Membership in voluntary associations and extensive and diverse discussion networks lead to higher levels of political tolerance, reinforce participatory norms, encourage cooperation, and promote interpersonal trust…which in turn sustains social networks, cooperation and facilitates the transmission of democratic values and political information.” (Anderson and Paskeviciute, 2008:784; see also Hellsten, 2008:161) On both interpersonal trust and participation in voluntary organizations, Kenyans have faltered. Only 44% of Kenyans report being actively involved in voluntary associations, this problem is particularly acute in urban areas (some of the most diverse areas in Kenya), where 63.3% of respondents do not participate in voluntary associations. Participation in Rural areas is marginally higher, with a 44.3% participation rate. Considering the importance of diverse interactions in the transmission of democratic ideals, the low participation in voluntary organizations, it would seem, would be an area prime for policy intervention. Encouraging Kenyans to be involved in activities of common interest, outside, their immediate social circle would seem a worthy course of action. Attention should be paid to the setting, as what would work in the rural areas (cultural exchanges, music festivals) may not work in the urban areas where individuals may not be fully attuned or interested in being attuned to there traditions back home, here potential events would include sports events, trade associations and professional organizations.

Cross Tabulation Participation in Voluntary Organizations and Rural/Urban
Area Don’t Participate Participate

Urban 63.3% 36.7%
Rural 55.7% 44.3%

Increased interactions would probably aid in increasing interpersonal trust. Looking at the variable: “trust other Kenyans” in the 2008 Afrobarometer, there is a general distrust of people outside the immediate social circle (family, people you know), with 55.3% of Kenyans reporting trusting other Kenyans only a little or not at all. The 2008 Afrobarometer did not distinguish between other tribesmen and other tribes, however, data from the 2005 survey does and this provides us a window into the difference between trust levels of tribesmen versus other Kenyans:

Trust 2005 Tribesmen 2005
Other Tribes 2008 Other Kenyans
A little/ Not at All 50.9% 67.4% 55.3%
Somewhat/ A lot 48.5% 30.5% 42.8%
No Answer 0.6% 2.1% 1.9%

Considering the highly contested elections and ethnic tensions that followed, it would be reasonable to assume that a similar (may be even more pronounced) difference would have been observed between trust of tribesmen and other Kenyans, had the same question in the 2008 survey. However, it is clear that Kenyan’s broadly do not trust fellow Kenyans outside their immediate social sphere, this lack of trust leaves Kenyans open to the machinations of unscrupulous politicians who exploit this lack of trust for political gains. Hellsten (2008:161) argues that: “the ultimate test of public trust is when we also trust the people ‘we do not know,’ and move from informal and personal relations to the formal and impartial functioning of the state institutions.” (See also Easterly 2001)

Efforts to deal with ethnic conflict must focus intently on the generation of opportunities for the exchange views between people of different backgrounds, these increased contacts should lead to the production of generalized trust, tolerance and a host of other civic values (Anderson & Paskeviciute, 2006) Encouraging Kenyans to develop and engage in community organizations oriented towards issues of common interest, should result in the development of a more trusting populace and voting public who would eschew defensive ethnic voting and focus more on issue or policy voting; minimizing opportunities for politicians to instill ethnic fear and innuendo (Bratton & Kimenyi, 2008).

Political Institutions and Ethnic Mobilization:

The foregoing analysis has necessarily focused on the individual level variables that dominate the environment within which politics is played in Kenya, and that could be (and have been) politicized by politicians to the detriment of the country. However, it should be noted that mobilization along ethnic lines is more likely in a non-democratic or newly democratic states where political institutions and practices have not achieved equilibrium conditions of democratic stability and citizens have not been habituated to democratic behavior (Anderson & Paskeviciute, 2006; Easterly, 2001). The fact that Kenya’s engagement has been very brief is a source of some comfort, understanding that these institutions and behaviors are likely to develop over the long haul, we can take some solace in the thought things will get better. However, there is a great need to develop state institutions and practices that are impartial and responsive to all Kenyans, and accommodative of competing demands (Anderson & Paskeviciute, 2006; Ndegwa, 1997; Chege, 2008).

The recent passage of a new constitution (August 2010), that envisions a devolved form of government, with regional assemblies and executives (semi-federal system) should allow for closer contact between government and the people, eliminating feelings of marginalization and powerlessness, this system will allow for smaller arena of political practice in which local concerns can be addressed and for national representation and concerns at the center, this system provides for the institutional mechanisms at the national level to moderate elites attempts to mobilize ethnically, as control of the center will no longer be necessary to foster development of the community.

Policy Alternatives:

Militating against ethnic conflict and preventing future eruptions of violence involves a variety of policy interventions, the areas laid out in the power sharing agreement (Policy Responses to Ethnic Clashes section) provided a starting point for the development of a new institutional, legal, constitutional and economic dispensation in Kenya. To effectively deal with the issue a holistic approach must be taken, which includes fully accounting for and punishing those involved in the post-elections violence, these efforts should end the impunity of ethnic baiters. The creation of the Truth and Justice Commission to deal with other past human rights violations is a step toward providing healing for those affected by violence in the past (electoral or otherwise), publishing and a thorough review (which has yet to happen) of the post 1992 and 1997 commission reports and recommendations is also necessary for a full and open accounting of the past. Other reforms have included the enactment and enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, as well as, an active and enabled National Cohesion Commission to investigate claims of discrimination and mitigate tribal tensions. Recent attempts by the Commission to investigate and prosecute politicians caught using discriminatory language (bordering on hate speech) have been laudable.

The aforementioned efforts have been laudable attempts at developing a framework for future ethnic relations (constitutional reform; International Criminal Court; Truth and Justice Commission; National Cohesion and Integration Commission; and Power-sharing), however, concerted and better coordinated efforts are required: “though laws are important to anchor strategies aimed at achieving a cohesive and united society, they are not a panacea.” (Dialogue, 2009:19)

Policy Recommendations:

The statistical analysis showed that interpersonal trust is in short supply, as is participation in voluntary associations, a concerted effort by the Cohesion Commission to popularize activities that foster communal interaction is imperative. As earlier noted these efforts should consider the rural/urban make up of the community and develop appropriate strategies and events to encourage greater participation.

Attempts at the leadership level (president and prime minster) to change the ethnic calculus of politics in Kenya are also necessary. Development of a more issues/ ideology oriented politics shall be crucial to transforming the current ethnic voting into policy voting (Bratton & Kimenyi, 2008). Only a firm reorientation of politics in Kenya can save us from the specter of future ethnic violence.

Most important is the development of a public myth or common story linking all Kenyan’s together, a national motto akin to America’s E Pluribus Unum an ethic that cherishes and welcomes diversity, and eschews divisiveness, and concerted effort to foster national cohesion (Aapengnuo, 2010; Oyugi, 2000; Hellsten, 2008).

Any effort at reforming the Kenyan system will require continued and sustained efforts, political will and popular support of reforms must come before personal and ethnic calculations. It is imperative for the leaders of Kenya to set a positive example for the rest of the country, it is indeed, elite competition that brought the nation to the verge of collapse, the elites must therefore take the mantle of leadership and lead the nation to a post-ethnic politics.


Ethnic conflict is a complicated phenomenon, one that is not amenable to parsimonious causal logic, though this article finds a link between politicized ethnicity and ethnic conflict, there exists a great deal of intervening variables that may not have been considered. However, from the Kenyan experience it is clear that violent ethnic conflict is related to tensions in the body politic, at least, highly contested electoral contests. This conflict occurs in an environment dominated by feelings of marginalization and mistrust of government and other people, conditions that can be exploited by unscrupulous politicians. Combating politicized ethnicity shall take legal, institutional and cultural reforms, with the goal of developing a politico-legal and social environment that eschews ethnic mobilization a post-ethnic world, where Kenyans acknowledge and celebrate their diversity, while not using that diversity as a wedge.


Anderson, C & Paskeviciute (2006): “How Ethnic and Linguistic Heterogeneity Influnce the Prospects for Civil Society: A Comparative Study of Citizenship Behavior.” The Journal of Politics, 68(4).

Bratton, M and Kimenyi, M (2008): “Voting in Kenya: Putting Ethnicity in Perspective” Afrobarometer Working Paper No. 95

Chege, M (2008): “Kenya: Back from the Brink?” Journal of Democracy, 19(4)

Easterly, W (2001): “Can Institutions Resolve Ethnic Conflict?” Economic Development and Cultural Change, 49(4).

Hellsten, S (2008): “Failing States and Ailing Leadership in African Politics in the Era of Globalization: Libertarian Communitarianism and the Kenyan Experience.” Journal of Global Ethics 4(2)

Kenya National Dialogue and Reconciliation Monitoring Project – Dialogue – (2009): “Agenda Item 4: Long-Standing Issues and Solutions.”

Kerr, N (2008): “Codebook: Round 4 Afrobarometer Survey in Kenya”

Kimenyi, M and Romero, R (2008): “Tribalism as a Minimax-Regret Strategy: Evidence From Voting in the 2007 Kenyan Elections.” Afrobarometer Working Paper No. 103

Klopp, J (2002): “Can Moral Ethnicity Trump Political Tribalism? The Struggle for Land and Nation in Kenya.” African Studies 61(2)

Klopp, J and Kamungi, P (2008): “Violence and Elections: Will Kenya Collapse?” World Policy Journal Winter 2008

Lynch, G (2006): “Negotiating Ethnicity: Identity Politics in Contemporary Kenya” Review of African Political Economy 33(107)

Ndegwa, S (1997): “Citizenship and Ethnicity: An Examination of Two Transition Moments in Kenyan Politics.” The American Political Science Review 91(3)

Oyugi, W (2000): “Politicized Ethnic Conflict in Kenya: A Periodic Phenomenon.”

Steeves, J (2006): “Presidential Succession in Kenya: The Transition from Moi to Kibaki” Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 44(2)


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