A portrait of Raila Odinga, Prime Minister of Kenya from 2008 to 2013
Beginning with the establishment of the East Africa Protectorate in 1895 and ending with the formation of the Republic of Kenya in 1964, the British Empire’s near 70-year reign over Kenyan territory left an indelible mark on Kenyan political institutions. Although the present day government of Kenya functions as a republic with separation of powers and a democratic electoral process, colonial legacies such as socio-cultural divisions between ethnic groups and the persistence of outdated economic and agrarian methods still pose serious obstacles to the country’s further development.
One such obstacle is the lack of credibility and stability in the Kenyan electoral process. Although national elections have taken place since pre-independence, beginning in 1920, there has been a long history of protesting the validity of results. In 1924, Indian expatriates boycotted all electoral processes on the grounds that they had been denied legislative representation equal to that of Europeans. Local populations, for their part, did not secure suffrage rights until 1957, only after significant protest. Most recently, in 2007, the presidential election descended into turmoil with violent backlash against the results at all levels of politics, leaving over a thousand people dead, hundreds of thousands displaced, and an entire nation reeling in the aftermath.
With the 2017 Kenyan presidential elections looming on the near horizon, it is important to understand the factors that led to violence in 2007 in order to prevent a similar chain of events in 2017.
One causal factor was the fact that political elites mobilized citizens along ethnic lines. The incumbent candidate, President Mwai Kibaki, commanded the wide support of the Kikuyu – the largest ethnic group in Kenya, which accounts for 22 percent of the total population – and also led a vast coalition of smaller political groups, most of which were Kikuyu controlled. His opponent, Raila Odinga, the leader of the powerful Orange Democratic Movement, appealed to elements of the Luo and Kalenjin tribes, which account for 13 percent and 12 percent of the total population, respectively. Political division between the Kikuyu and the Luo/Kalenjin played up the importance of inter-tribal differences such as material inequality, which, when combined with the candidates’ militant rhetoric, caused political conflict to quickly spill over into ethnic tension.
When the electoral commission formally declared Mwai Kibaki president of Kenya on December 30, 2007, Raila Odinga and the Orange Democratic Movement raised the accusation of vote count fraud. This move proved to be devastating – hundreds of Luo and Kalenjin tribes around the country rioted and directed violence at primarily Kikuyu areas. Many Luo and Kalenjin groups were quick to pin such fraud on Kikuyu groups seeking to preserve their status and power by allegedly rigging the election. The near-instantaneous response in the political sphere spilled over into the ethnic sphere, with an increase in inter-tribal tensions driven and compounded by historical grievances independent of the election, such as differential access to land and other benefits. Throughout the weeks to follow, the Luo and Kalenjin backlash only intensified, prompting a similar response from the Kikuyu.
As the conflict progressed, several instances of rampant and systematic violence further suggested that the cause was not just an isolated political scuffle, but rather a socially constructed sense of “otherness” between ethnic groups. Only two days after the initial accusation of election fraud, a mob of angry protesters massacred 30 Kikuyu women and children while they were taking refuge in a church in the city of Eldoret. This prompted a Kikuyu militia to retaliate shortly after by actively seeking Luos and Kalenjins as targets of violence. Ultimately, these inter-tribal hostilities can be understood in the context of British colonialism – the British favored Kikuyus as more “respectable” locals whereas they treated Luos and Kalenjins as a “primitive” other. Over the years the cumulative effects of such discrimination have resulted in deep social, economic, and political inequalities, which have not only reified the ethnic divide, but also fostered historical resentment and a lack of understanding between groups. What began as a political issue, therefore, quickly became an opportunity to express deep-seated ethnic grievances.
The second major causal factor for violence during the 2007 elections was that elite-level discourse, particularly that between Kibaki and Odinga, as well as the head of the Orange Democratic Movement branch party, Kalonzo Musyoka, prevented an effective policy response from the government and inflamed already present violence and tensions. Unleashed by Odinga’s initial accusation of vote count fraud a day after the official announcement of Kibaki’s presidency, elite-level discourse was marked by a stubborn distrust and refusal to compromise, all of which spilled over into widespread turmoil.
During a million-person rally in support of Odinga’s presidency on January 3, Odinga reiterated his claim that the electoral commission had committed vote count fraud in calling the presidential election, and that the only remedy was the total resignation of President Kibaki. Odinga’s provocative statements were understood as a call to action by his supporters, who immediately directed protest not only at political institutions, but also at their fellow citizens. Similarly, on January 24, Kibaki publicly refused to compromise and insisted on his fair victory, leading Luo/Kalenjin groups to lash out further with another wave of violent protest, particularly in the city of Nakuru. Though it is difficult to hold political elites accountable for actions taken by their supporters, the fact that Kibaki and Odinga failed to explicitly disavow the ensuing backlash, especially in light of an already violent history of electoral contestation, implicates them in promoting, if not initiating, violence.
What began as a political issue became an opportunity to express deep-seated ethnic grievances.
Furthermore, beyond mobilizing various voter bases to action, elite discourse divided the government and prevented an effective emergency response to the violence. Given the failure of multiple mediation efforts initiated by outside parties, internal splits between Kibaki, Odinga, and Musyoka, as well as their respective allies, resulted in a lack of consensus in deploying government resources to manage protest. As a result, brutal police suppressions of the million-person rally on January 3 and of protests on February 2 led to injuries and even deaths of civilians. More importantly, there was no effective government effort to mediate between the Kikuyu Mungiki militia and factions of Kalenjin and Luo protesters, who continued to perpetuate violence for the next one and a half months.
Ultimately, the aftermath of the 2007 elections had an immense impact on Kenya as a nation. Not only were an estimated 1,500 people killed, but also around 300,000 people were displaced from their homes, amongst the countless more who were injured or suffered economic harm. Kenyan society collectively suffered in the wake of such tragedy. Not only did it take years for any semblance of ethnic reconciliation to occur, but the country’s political and social institutions suffered a major loss in legitimacy as well. As for the economy, Kenya’s production and tourist industries all plummeted, as the turmoil simply dried up both supply and demand.
While the elections in 2013 were peaceful relative to those in 2007, with little to no incident during the intra-party transition to President Uhuru Kenyatta, the Kenyan government should nevertheless stay alert. An increased international news presence and the recency of violence in people’s minds might have dampened the causal factors of violence in 2013, but the problem is by no means resolved. With the resurgence of accusations of government fraud and a lack of credibility in the electoral process, alongside the emergence of a fiercer and more aggressive opposition (the “Firimbi Movement”) and a renewed terrorist threat from al-Shabaab, all indicators point to potential conflict in 2017. In response, both the government and the citizenry must draw lessons from the experience of 2007 to play their part in preserving the future collective safety and integrity of the nation.
Tony Zhou is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, majoring in Economics and Philosophy and minoring in International Relations.
Image Attribution: “Raila Odinga” by Charis Tsevis, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0