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Ethnic tensions in Kenya

Kenyan violenceLast week we published the first of two articles published recently by Gerard Whelan SJ in Civiltà Cattolica: ‘Christian hope and the African city’. This week we publish the second, ‘Ethnicity and political tension in Kenya’ (April 2008). Gerry spent many years in Kenya before taking up his teaching post. In this article he assesses the role which ethnic tensions in Kenya since independence have played in the political turmoil of recent times.


This is my first year living in Rome and I come here after living twelve years in Kenya. Many people ask me about recent events in Kenya concerning the post election violence and ask me if I am surprised by it. I answer that, in an immediate sense, everybody has been surprised by this violence. However, those who know Kenya a little better have been aware that a variety of tensions have been brewing in Kenya for years without being addressed and so we are not completely surprised by recent developments.

One analysis I heard of the recent violence in Kenya spoke about it having three types of causes: ethnic tensions, economic inequality, and the recent behaviour of certain politicians; this analysis added that each of these factors interact with the others in a manner that is complex. In this article, I do not pretend to offer a comprehensive account of this process. What I do attempt is a discussion of the first of these mentioned cause: ethnic tensions. I suspect that this is the dimension of the Kenyan political tensions least understood outside Africa and I offer an historical perspective on these problems. In conclusion, I comment on the role of the Church in this situation and on how important it is for Kenya that the current power-sharing agreement between Pesident Mwai Kibaki and Mr. Raila Odinga should succeed.

First impressions of Kenya

For twelve years I worked in Nairobi at Hekima College, the all-Africa theologate of the Jesuits. Young Jesuits come to this college from most of the other Sub-Saharan African countries and their reactions upon coming to Kenya are interesting. Many are struck first of all by an enormous difference in wealth in the city. They observe the richest of shopping centres and residential areas and, near to Hemikima college, Kibera slum. Kibera is one of the slums with the densest populations of the world and, housing up to one million individuals, is the largest slum in Africa. Another striking experience for many non-Kenyan Africans is how immediately evident is the question of ethnic division in this country. They are often asked: “What tribe are you from?”, a question that would be considered the height of bad manners in their home countries.

One further experience I recall was my first trip to Kisumu, the second city of the country. There are seven provinces in Kenya which is about the size of France and Nyanza Province lies on the shores of the great Lake Victoria on the Western border. It is home to the Luo ethnic community whose traditional way of life is closely associated with fishing. This trip was made in the 1980’s and I was travelling on a public bus in the company of a friend who came from that area. For about an hour before we arrived at the city there was an evident deterioration of the quality of road on which we were travelling and we had an uncomfortable ride over many pot-holes. When we arrived at Kisumu my friend and I started walking along what seemed to be a main shopping street of the city. Then, still on street, the shops suddenly fell away and I found myself looking at what seemed like some kind of heavy industrial complex. This site continued for what seemed like 100 metres before the ordinary shopping street started up again. I was not completely surprised to witness an industrial site in the middle of what seemed like the main shopping district; I has witnessed this in other African cities. However, what did surprise me in this case was first that I seemed to be looking at an oil refinery and, secondly, it seemed to be in an advanced state of rust and decay and to be empty of people. I asked my friend about this. He smiled and said that he had to tell me a long story to explain this sight. We found a pleasant café to sit down in and he began to speak about Kenyan history as seen through the eyes of the Luo community.

The alienation of the Luo community

My friend explained that the Luo people were the second largest ethnic community at the time of independence which occurred in 1963. Together with the largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu they had struggled for independence from Britain in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The Kikuyu live mostly in Central Province and had actually been more involved in the independence struggle. The Kikuyu homeland surrounds Nairobi which as capital city was the centre of many of the protests. The Kikuyu had also suffered most from the expropriation of land by the colonial authorities who wanted to settle white commercial farmers on large tracts of land relatively near to the capital city. In the struggle that followed, a violent “Mau Mau” rebellion was ruthlessly put down by the British military in the 1950’s. Independence came to Kenya in 1963 and there was great joy amongst all ethnic communities as the Kikuyu leader Jomo Kenyatta became the first President. President Kenyatta was an anthropologist who had been educated in England but had then endured incarceration in English jails for his actions in favour of Kenyan independence. He seemed to be an ideal leader—one who was both educated into Western ways and had shared in the suffering of the Kenyan people.

Immediately with independence the Kenyatta government took a firmly capitalist and pro-Western line in the Cold-War politics of the time; some immediate results of this started to show themselves in impressive rates of economic growth. However, Kenyans in regions such as Nyanza Province began to feel that President Kenyatta was favouring his own Central Province in the distribution of the benefits of this growth. Luo leaders pointed out that even if during colonial times most land expropriation had occurred in the Central Province so also had most economic investment and development. Central Province now experienced economic advantages in terms of transport infrastructure, the presence of schools, and financial institutions that could assist agricultural development. Consequently Luo leaders, as well as those from other regions outside Central Province, had expected a kind of positive discrimination with regard to government investment in their areas. By this means, they felt, all regions of Kenya could be brought to operate on a “level playing field” regarding their ability to compete in the emerging capitalist economy.

By contrast with these expectations, the opposite is what happened. The Kenyatta government issued a famous “Instruction 12” that stated that Government investment should be concentrated on areas where return on investment could be expected to be greatest. Luos understood that such a decision invoked a capitalist dogma of the “trickle down effect” whereby economic growth in one area was supposed to spread eventually to others. However, given the pre-existing imbalances of the country they noted that return on investment would almost inevitably be greater in the already more developed Kikuyu areas. Consequently this decision expressed in “Instruction 12” appeared to Luos to be unfair and, they suspected, driven by ethno-centrism. It seemed to them that President Kenyatta was following a line of reasoning that asserted that because Kikuyus had been most central to the struggle for independence they should reap the primary rewards of it.

Now, in fact, while a disproportionate amount of government investment had been flowing to Kikuyu areas in the years immediately after independence it was nevertheless the case that a certain amount had been arriving in the Kisumu area. Signs of this included new roads and the beginning of the building of a major oil refinery. However, in 1969, towards the end of the time of building the oil refinery President Kenyatta made a public visit to Kisumu. The occasion was the opening of a new government hospital and a podium was set up near the centre of Kisumu. Here President Kenyatta , surrounded by political dignatories and by special armed body guards, began to make a speech. Some members of the crowd started heckling the President and stones were thrown. In response, police opened fire on the crowd and twelve people were killed. Major rioting ensued across Nyanza Province and the Luo political leader of the time, Oginga Odinga, was sent to jail accused of fomenting this.

The legend of that day in Luo circles includes the fact that President Kenyatta swore never to return to Kisumu and that there resulted a radical reduction of government expenditures in the region. Roads were allowed to deteriorate and construction on the nearly-completed refinery was halted in its tracks. The rusting refinery was left without use or demolition at the centre of the city as a reminder of what consequences follow when the people of Kisumu show disrespect to their national President.

Most readers will know that recent violence in Kenya included especially fighting between Luos and Kikuyus. Perhaps the worst affected place was Kibera slum just beside Hekima College and this was much in the news. Kibera is a place where migrants from Luo areas tend to gravitate toward when they migrate to Nairobi and so the form a significant part of the population of that slum. Most readers will also know that the Kikuyu President Mwai Kibaki was returned to power after what international observers called a “deeply flawed election”. Many international observers believe that the rightfully elected president was the leader of the opposition, Mr. Raila Odinga. Raila Odinga is of the Luo ethnic community, he is member of parliament for Nairobi from an area that includes Kibera. He is also the son of Oginga Odinga mentioned above as the political leader of the Luo people during the 1969 troubles.

Coalition governments

To understand the achievement of Raila Odinga in the recent elections it is necessary appreciate what a remarkable coalition he put together; to understand this one needs to know something of the demographics of Kenya’s ethnic landscape as well as the nature of recent constitutional changes in Kenya. We spoke of the Luo as being the second largest ethnic group at the time of national independence but this needs to be qualified: their numbers are still far fewer than those of the Kikuyu. The Kikuyu community comprises about 22% of the national population, the Luo only about 13%. Furthermore, the Kikuyu have close affinities with two other ethnic groups nearby, the Meru and the Embu. These groups tend to act together politically and together their numbers total more than 30% of the national population. One more ethnic group with ties of language and physical proximity to the Kikuyu are the Kamba people. Often enough this community also will collaborate politically with the voters of Central Province and this brings together a voting block of over 40% of the electoral register.

By contrast with this the Luo do not have the same affinities with other ethnic groups; they are not a Bantu-speaking people but rather a Nilotic-speaking group who migrated into Kenya from Sudan and Uganda not many centuries before the advent of the British. Furthermore, while there is one other Kenyan ethnic community, the Luhya, that is about the same in number as the Luo, most of the many other ethnic communities are much smaller in number. Clearly, then, the voting block around Central Province constitutes a formidable political force in the country.

Next, we need to note that Kenya is new to multi-party democracy. During the time of the Cold War both the capitalist West and the communist East were happy to support one-party states as a single president could make a clear decision about which block his country was going ally itself with. There was also an argument made at the time that one-party states were necessary in the early years of state-building in these countries so as to build up a culture of national unity and to downplay the strength of ethnic loyalties (a key point here, of course, was that the President needed to be perceived as standing above ethnic particularism. One could speculate that a key difference between African states today is between those who succeeded in building a sense of national unity in those decades and those that did not). With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the international community started putting pressure on African states to give up the one-party state and to embrace multi-party democracy.

In 1992 President of Kenya Daniel Arap Moi bowed to international pressure and changed the country’s constitution to allow for multi-party elections. However, he continued in power for ten years. International observers that the elections held were unfair in various ways and one of the methods of President Moi seemed to be to foment ethnic clashes before elections and so make it more difficult for any coalition to form that might oppose his party. However, in 2002 President Moi was prohibited by the constitution from standing again for election and his chosen successor was promptly defeated in the polls. The era of coalition politics had begun in Kenya. The current President Mwai Kibaki led the new coalition government. Being a Kikuyu he was able to rely on the solid support of the voters of Central Province and was then able to win support from a selection of other voters from ethnic groups based in other provinces. Raila Odinga formed part of this coalition of Mwai Kibaki and his support played a key role in helping Kibaki defeat President Moi. Odinga became a minister in the new government but tensions began to raise. After three years years Odinga departed from the government complaining that in his decision-making Kibaki was favouring a “kitchen cabinet” of rich Kikuyu politicians and businessmen.

What was remarkable in the two years before the recent election is the manner in which Raila Odinga succeeding in in persuading the majority of Kenyans that this criticism of the Kibaki government were justified. The election results of 2008 show a remarkable phenomenon. The core group of Central Province supporters of Kibaki remained solid in their voting for him but in every other province of the country a massive majority voted for a new coalition, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) founded by Raila Odinga.

International observers of the election comment on how results seemed to have been falsified in a simple and blatant manner. The national electoral commission seems simply to have delayed the announcement of the results from Central Province until they could count all the votes in the country registered for the opponent of President Kibaki. Then they simply announced a figure from Central Province that gave Kibaki a narrow but clear victory. Unfortunately for the commission, the returning officers in a number of local voting stations had already announced their results in the presence of international observers. These results were then contradicted by the national announcement which at times gave a 30% boost to Kibaki in the claimed results from those same voting stations.

We can now understand something of the chagrin experienced by members the coalition of Raila Odinga. Members of the ODM coalition felt that a remarkable achievement in coalition forming was being stolen from them. Similarly, one can sympathise with members of the Luo community who had felt that a set of historic wrongs were about to be righted.

The land issue in colonial times

Now, those how have tried to follow the events as they unfolded in Kenya will have noted that the violence seemed to take on a life of its own and to spread to issues that had little to do with Luo/Kikuyu differences over election results. After about a week of this first kind of violence another pattern emerged in the Rift Valley Province where members of the Kalenjin ethnic community began something that appeared like a process of ethnic clensing of settlers from a wide variety of other ethnic groups in this area. This needs some explaining.

Between the Central Province and the provinces of Western Kenya lies the long and narrow Rift Valley Province. This is a dry area of great natural beauty and was traditionally inhabited by pastoralist peoples. While being traditionally used by pastoralist peoples, it is not as dry as some other provinces in Kenya and can, in fact, be put to agricultural use, especially when modern methods of irrigation are used. The traditional pastoralists of the area include a fairly large number of distinct ethnic groups but one relatively large family of ethnic communities have an umbrella name of Kalenjin. All these pastoralist peoples are proud of their culture and before colonial times were successful warriors who were well able to gain control of the rift valley as well as a number of other planes on the nearby plateau. They forced other ethnic communities to stay in more hilly areas where they developed skills in agriculture.

With the coming of British, the pastoralist peoples demonstrated much resistance to adopting the ways of European culture. By contrast, the Kikuyu living on the slopes of Mount Kenya demonstrated themselves as highly interested in Western formal education and adaptable to the entrepreneurial ways of modern capitalism. As we have mentioned above, independence found the Kikuyu community in a position of leadership in the country. Our next step is to understand a little of the land law that they inherited from the British.

The British colonial administration had divided the land of Kenya into two major categories: reserve land and government land. In the areas of reserve land, the administration recognized the communal rights of certain ethnic communities to possession of the land on which they had traditionally lived. However, “government land” was any area that was likely to be valuable for the government for creating public utilities or for settling white farmers. Huge swathes of the best agricultural land were designated government land. Indigenious Africans could be removed from these areas at will. When land was distributed to white farmers it became the private property of that farmer and “freehold” land rights were protected by the courts; so, in a sense, there were now three categories of land ownership in colonial times, reserve land, government land and privately owned land. It should be noted that the British administration was relatively restrained in the amount of trust land it allocated to private owners. Thus at time of independence there remained large tracts of government land that was still lived on by traditional inhabitants but which could be allocated with ease by the government to new, private, owners.

The land issue since Kenyan independence

Now, when the Kenyatta government came to power in the newly independent Kenya they did not change the land law. Thus the new government found that it had vast tracts of much of the best land in the country at its disposal. The allocating of government land became a major instrument of patronage for political loyalty with ministers and prominent businessmen receiving large tracts. Throughout the Kenyatta era, needless to say, those receiving these gifts of land were usually prominent members of the Kikuyu community, not least President Kenyatta’s own family.

In this manner significant proportion of all the arable land in Central Province was allocated to large farmers who were supporters of the government. At the same time there was rapid population growth in Kenya and the government found that large numbers of small farmers were seeking land. The government decided to try to solve this problem by organizing major re-settlement schemes for small farmers in sparsely populated areas outside Central Province that had good land. Above all, such lands existed in Rift Valley Province which lies immediately to the West of Central Province. A sizable majority of settlers in these new farming areas were Kikuyu, but significant numbers of members of ethnic communities from the other side of the rift valley, including Luo and Luhya, also migrated into these areas.

From the point of view of the settlers, and of the national economy, these resettlement schemes were usually a success. However, there was an increasing resentment amongst the pastoralist peoples of the Rift Valley who considered these areas to be their own. Hardship was experienced especially in drought years when pastoralists would herd their herds and flocks towards areas where supplies of water were secure. On such occasions they would often find water holes fenced off with barbed wire and their flocks would die.

This story goes through some more twists and turns. In 1978 President Kenyatta died and a successor to him was chosen from one of the Kalenjin communities. President Danial Arap Moi was a compromise candidate from within the single ruling party in which tensions between Kikuyu and Luo were already evident. President Moi was careful to support the needs of his own ethnic community and the presence in Rift Valley of large centres of small farmers from ethnic communities originating outside the province became a sticking point. Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s land clashes occurred where mostly Kalenjin raiders started clearing non Kalenjin farmers off their land. The worst of these occurred in the Rift Valley in 1992 when 1,500 people were killed. Evidence, produced even my commissions of enquiry initiated by the Kenyan government has implicated the government in these acts. No action was taken against perpetrators.

Our story now returns to the recent elections of December 2007.  Leaders of the Kalenjin community allied themselves with the coalition set up by Raila Odinga and shared in the anger with what appeared to them like a theft of the election. However, in the violent protests that followed attention quickly turned away from government institutions and a round attacks began that appeared to outsiders as another example of the kind of ethnic clensing that had already been witnessed in recent decades.


At this point we might add a comment on land ownership in cities and the existence of slums. While President Danial Arap Moi was carefull to attend to the needs of his home Rift Valley he was less concerned for other areas. There was an attempted coup in 1982 after which he felt insecure in his political position and used massive land allocations to powerful individuals to secure it. In the context of Kenya’s rapidly expanding population this had the effect of pushing people off the land and into the slums of Kenya’s cities. This gives Kenyan cities a profile that is evident today. Kenya has a higher per capita income than many other Africa countries but also has a wider gap in the distribution of wealth than nearly all of them. In fact, Kenya is the fourth most unequal country in the world in terms of wealth distribution. In the last decade measures of corruption have also placed Kenya in a worse position than most of its African neighbours and, predictably, Kenyan rates of economic growth have also lagged behind. In the cities of Kenya the economic inequality is starkly evident in architecture of the rich and poor areas. There is a satellite photograph of Nairobi available on the internet that highlights a remarkable phenomenon. Within the city limits, there is an equal area occupied by the slums, where up to 3 million people live, and a series of about six golf courses. In these slums an awareness of economic inequality combines with ethnic resentments to produce a potent mix.

A genie out of the bottle?

A number of commentators on recent violence in Kenya have expressed the fear that a kind of “genie was let out of the bottle” when violent protests began against election irregularities in January of this year. In some respects tensions in Kenya have been waiting to explode and some fear that it will be difficult to control them now that they have begun to do so.

In this situation, we can ask what role have the Churches been playing and what role might they yet play? Alas, the news here has not been as positive as one would hope. Such is the depth of historic and communal resentment in the country that it has not been clear to the population in general that religious leaders were doing other than voicing the concerns and attitudes of their own ethnic communities. In this respect I quote from an article written by the current Rector of Hekima College, Fr. Emmanual Orobator:

The complexity of the present crisis . . . reveals the precarious role of religion and religious leaders in Africa’s politics. So emotionally powerful and polarizing are the issues that a perception of one’s neutrality, even as a religious leader, is not guaranteed. A few high-profile religious leaders have been discredited on account of their perceived political biases—a charge levelled against them by their own ethnically divided congregations. The ability of religious leaders to establish themselves as viable alternative agents and facilitators of peace in a time of crisis remains limited. (Emanual Orobator SJ, America March 10, 2008).


This article has attempted only a partial explanation of the complex problems of Kenya today. In my introduction, I mentioned how the causes of this situation include a complex interaction between issues of ethnicity, economic inequality, and the ambitions of certain politicians. This reflection has above all sought to offer a historical perspective on the ethnic dimension of current tensions. It has touched on issues of economic inequality but has left many issues untouched including the political and economic events of the last few years. One could note for example that that there were a number of achievements made by the government of President Kibaki 2002-2007: a reasonably impressive level of economic growth was attained and a serious increase in investment occurred for formerly marginal areas such as Nyanza Province, home of the Luo community.

In concluding this article one can perhaps note, simply, how important it is that the peace agreement reached between President Mwai Kibaki and Mr. Raila Odinga should succeed. We have not spoken about the details of this agreement, but it does seem to propose a genuine sharing of power that has a historic significance in Kenya. We can hope that this will be a first step toward addressing some historic grievances in the country and building a new and reconciled state where solidarity and a sense of the common good prevails. One notes with concern that, at time of writing, this peace agreement still seems to be a fragile affair.

Trying to be optimistic, one can recall that Kenya has only recently emerged from being a one-party state and is new to the business of coalition building and a genuine transfer of power at election time. We can note also that given the demographic make up of Kenya there may always be a tendency for voters of the Central Province to form the nucleus of one potential coalition government and then voters of all the other provinces to tend to ally together to form an alternative, viable, coalition. Let us hope that we are only witnessing the growing pains in Kenya of a process of maturing into a multi-party democracy. One insight arising from this article may also be that the road ahead will necessarily be difficult. Historic grievances have accumulated and remained unaddressed in Kenya for a long time. No one ethnic community or set of political leaders is entirely responsible for this and there will be need for good-will to be shown on all sides for a genuine healing to occur. In a sense, a new patriotism needs to emerge in Kenya where citizens feel a solidarity with each other that they have not felt before. One looks to the Churches to take a lead in this process.