by Kamau Muiga
Six general elections have been conducted in Kenya since the return of multiparty politics in the early ‘90s. Half of them – 1992, 1997 and 2007 – were accompanied by “tribal clashes” – periods of madness characterized by ethnic killings, massacres, displacements and lootings. The other three – 2002, 2013 and 2017 – passed on without the degree of violence experienced in the other three.
A solid historical logic permeates through this record, hiding in plain sight. The tribalization of Kenyan society was already complete by the time Kenya emerged out of the colonial experience in 1963. The colonial project had institutionalized the tribe as the basis of political, social and economic life in Africa. Whereas tribe was not a political category before the onset of colonial rule, it was politicized by colonial authorities through the legal-political demarcation and enforcement of tribal identities, tribal homelands and customary laws. Africans were required by colonial authorities to live in defined tribal homelands and abide by their respective customary laws, and the right of permanent settlement and land ownership was limited to one’s tribal homeland.
Similarly, inter-tribal political activity had been prohibited by colonial authorities. An elite stratum of Africans, whose basis of power was the ethnic group, emerged separately in each ethnic enclave as colonial history progressed and became the basis for the reproduction of political ethnicity in Kenya. The power of these ethnic elites was based on the political mobilization of their respective ethnic groups. The “nationalist movement” that emerged as independence approached was not a cross-ethnic grassroots movement but rather a coalition of ethnic elites from the educated and chiefly strata of the ethnic groups.
A centralized state, governed by a victorious ethnic coalition, was established upon independence, creating a system of ethnic winners and losers. To enjoy the “fruits of independence,” each ethnic group had to vote together to install a leader in the ruling circle, and the trend was sustained and reinforced by the creation of a set of ethnic winners and losers in each electoral cycle.
As the colonial power departed, two competing visions of land redistribution emerged during the decolonization process, playing out most visibly in the Rift Valley. One vision was based on the preceding customary order enforced by colonial authorities: former white lands lying within the Rift Valley Province were said to belong by customary right to the ethnic groups “indigenous” to that province, and those “indigenous” communities expected those lands to be restored to their rightful, customary owners.
The other vision was based on the new “modern” political order: Kenyan land was deemed to belong to all citizens of the new nation regardless of tribal identity, and any Kenyan could therefore own land and settle in any place they so desired. For instance, the new government facilitated the resettlement of people of Kikuyu ethnicity in various parts of the Rift Valley Province, in the former white lands deemed to traditionally belong to the Nandi-speaking peoples who became known as the Kalenjin. This created resentment and a feeling of dispossession and grievance among the Kalenjin of the Rift Valley.
This decades-long resentment blew up into open violence in 1992. A confluence of two factors was responsible: the historical resentment over land grievances; and the colonial legacy of politicized ethnicity which saw the political divide starkly defined along ethnic lines when multiparty politics returned to the scene in 1992. The so-called KAMATUSA group of ethnicities – the Kalenjin, Maasai, Turkana and Samburu – lined up behind the ruling KANU, while the Kikuyu, Luo and Luhya ethnicities lined up behind the opposition.
To consolidate their electoral prospects, KANU politicians in the Rift Valley began sponsoring violence in order to remove opposition voters from their electoral zones. According to the 1999 Akiwumi Report, the highest levels of the KANU administration were involved in organizing and funding the violence. But the ferocity and readiness of youth in the Rift Valley to carry out the violence was fuelled by a long-held resentment against “non-indigenous” communities in the Rift Valley allied to the opposition who were seen, through a customary lens, as encroachers and dispossessors of the indigenous communities of the province. It was an opportunity to settle a historical score.
Electoral violence therefore, right from the beginning, was a top-bottom collaboration between powerful politicians protecting their political prospects and people in the grassroots seeking redress for historical grievances. Both of these aspects are necessary for massive electoral violence to break out: without the patronage of politicians, perpetrators would lack the funds, training and protection necessary to carry out large-scale attacks. Without grievances to exploit, politicians would lack the basis to convince communities to attack people who have lived among them for decades.
The Rift Valley went on fire as the 1992 elections approached, with the violence continuing well into 1993. Kikuyu, Luo and Luhya residents of Nandi, Kericho, Mount Elgon, Londiani, Eldoret, Molo, West Pokot and Narok were attacked, killed and ejected from their homes. According to Human Rights Watch, over 1,500 people were killed and over 300,000 displaced from their home regions. Justice Akiwumi was once again scathing in his indictment of the highest organs of government for their involvement in the violence, including cabinet ministers, members of parliament, the provincial administration and top security officials.
The political dynamics surrounding the 1992 pre-election and post-election violence remained intact as the decade went along. Historical grievances surrounding land and settlement in the Rift Valley were never addressed, and the political divide was still defined along the ethnic rivalries of the previous election. The violence of the ’97 election, therefore, was extremely predictable. Before and after the elections, Kikuyu, Luo and Luhya people were once again attacked in Trans Nzoia, Molo, Kerio Valley, Laikipia, Njoro, West Pokot and Marakwet. The violence spread outside the Rift Valley, into neighboring Kitale and Bungoma and to Likoni and Kwale in the Coast Province, where people of these three communities were also targeted.
The peaceful nature of the 2002 elections was rooted in the political shifts that took place between 1997 and 2002. As the 2002 election approached, President Moi, the political leader of the Kalenjin voting bloc, chose Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, as his preferred successor to the throne. This created an alliance between Kikuyu and Kalenjin voters, and Uhuru Kenyatta’s ultimate vote count in the election was indeed dominated by these two communities. The political rationale for politicians to sponsor violence against the Kikuyu community in the Rift Valley had disappeared.
The rise of the Rainbow Coalition disrupted the ethnic alliances of the previous election even further. Sensing defeat, many KANU politicians defected to the Rainbow Coalition. By election day, the KANU incumbency was represented by Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu; William Ruto, a Kalenjin; and Musalia Mudavadi; a Luhya. The Rainbow Coalition was spearheaded by Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu; Raila Odinga, a Luo, Kijana Wamalwa, a Luhya; Charity Ngilu and Kalonzo Musyoka, both Kambas; and George Saitoti, a proclaimed Maasai. The neat ethnic political divide that had previously created opportunities for Rift Valley politicians to advance their careers through ethnic violence had been disrupted, paving the way for a peaceful general election.
The reconstitution of this divide after 2002, which most critically tore apart the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities once more, is key to understanding why violence returned in the election of 2007. The Rainbow Coalition fell apart after the 2005 referendum, setting in motion a major political realignment. Raila Odinga left the coalition and teamed up with William Ruto, the new political leader of the Kalenjin voting bloc. They came together in the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), primarily an alliance between the Luo and Kalenjin voting blocs. On the other side of the divide was President Mwai Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU), composed mainly of the Kikuyu-Embu-Meru voting bloc, which was now fully united after Uhuru Kenyatta’s entry into Kibaki’s fold.
Once again, Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities were on opposite sides of the political divide, giving Rift Valley politicians a motive to enhance their political prospects by intimidating and targeting Kikuyu voters in the province. Historical grievances surrounding land and identity in the Rift Valley had still not been addressed by the Rainbow government, giving the masses a motive to take the matter into their own hands by forcefully seeking redress. Both conditions for violence had been decisively met, and the Rift Valley once again erupted into a ball of fire when the 2007 election arrived.
The results became hotly contested, and the winner of the election became virtually impossible to identify. Once Kibaki was declared the winner, Kikuyus and other opposition voters were attacked, killed and displaced in Kericho, Kipkelion, Timboroa, Burnt Forest, North Kinangop, Eldoret, Molo, Kuresoi, and Koibatek. But the state machinery was in the hands of the Kikuyu-dominated government this time round, and therefore, according to the Waki Report, the state mobilized Mungiki gangsters to fight back. The Mungiki was however not deployed to confront Kalenjin attackers: they were sent into regions of the Rift Valley such as Naivasha and Nakuru to carry out revenge attacks on non-Kikuyu civilians. Kalenjin and Luo residents of these regions were attacked, killed and displaced ruthlessly by the Mungiki.
The peaceful nature of the next elections in 2013 was rooted in the political shifts that took place between 2007 and 2013. Once the ICC opened an inquiry into the violence of 2007 and 2008, two of the figures indicted by the court included Uhuru Kenyatta, the heir-apparent to Mwai Kibaki as leader of the Kikuyu bloc; and William Ruto, the undisputed leader of the Kalenjin bloc. These two figures came together and cunningly whipped up nationalistic opposition to the ICC in order to undermine the legal process. Their common interest in fighting the ICC brought them together into a political coalition that established an alliance between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin voting blocs.
The rationale to sponsor violence in the Rift Valley once again disappeared as Kikuyus and Kalenjins voted together for the first time since 2002, and the election of 2013 therefore passed on peacefully. Additionally, the formation of this alliance as a reaction to the ICC process postponed any efforts to resolve historical grievances that have plagued the Rift Valley since independence. The ethnic alliance survived Kenyatta’s first term, and the two communities voted together once more in the election of 2017, which again passed on without the ethnic killings and displacements of the historically contentious Rift Valley.
After the 2017 election, however, another major political realignment began to take shape. Raila Odinga, the leader of the Luo voting bloc and the most prominent opposition figure, was mounting a serious political challenge to the domestic and international legitimacy of President Uhuru Kenyatta. After the Supreme Court annulled the outcome of the August election, Odinga boycotted the second round of elections and proceeded to swear himself in as the so-called people’s president. Faced with the prospects of questionable legitimacy and a tumultuous second term, Kenyatta opted to cut a deal with Odinga – in the so-called handshake of 2018 – establishing a political partnership that consolidated Kenyatta’s legitimacy and brought Odinga to the center of political power in Kenya.
This had the effect of sidelining William Ruto, the leader of the Kalenjin voting bloc whose partnership with Uhuru Kenyatta had established the twice-victorious Kikuyu-Kalenjin alliance. With the entry of Odinga into the equation, the alliance between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin blocs is being ruptured. Content to preserve the alliance, however, William Ruto has sought to sidestep Uhuru Kenyatta’s leadership in the Kikuyu bloc by cultivating partnerships directly with Kikuyu political figures. This has set him on a collision course with the president, and has effectively split the Kikuyu political leadership into two: those allied to William Ruto and those allied to Kenyatta and his new partner, Raila Odinga.
Different scenarios may therefore play out as we head into the next election season. The partnership between Kenyatta and Odinga might well run its course and turn sour. If the two part ways, Kenyatta might repair his old partnership with William Ruto, and the Kikuyu and Kalenjin voting blocs might head into the next election united once again. Alternatively, the Kenyatta-Odinga partnership might survive the next three years and become an electoral coalition, and William Ruto’s Kikuyu lieutenants might hold steady and build up a significant following for him within the Kikuyu electorate. In this scenario, Odinga and Ruto would split the Kikuyu vote between them in the 2022 elections.
Other scenarios, however, carry grave prospects for peace in this country. Kenyatta might utilize his political clout to brow-beat Ruto’s Kikuyu lieutenants into submission and fully unite the Kikuyu vote behind him, making him the chief power broker in the Kikuyu bloc. He might then throw his weight behind Odinga, or, if the two part ways, he might throw his weight behind a different candidate instead of going back to his partnership with Ruto. In yet another alternative, Uhuru Kenyatta’s political clout might start to wane as he enters his lame-duck period, and a prominent Kikuyu political figure might emerge in his place as the chief power broker in the region. This figure might then back Ruto’s candidacy, or unfortunately, they might run for president themselves or back one of Ruto’s rivals.
In all these latter scenarios, Kenyans would be facing, for the first time since 2007, an election in which Kikuyus and Kalenjins are contesting for power on opposite sides of the political aisle. Historical grievances surrounding land and identity in the Rift Valley, yet again, were never resolved by the Kenyatta administration. The resentment and grievance in the Rift Valley still holds. Both conditions for violence – grievance and political rivalry – are set to materialize once again in 2022. Every time this has happened since the return of multiparty politics, Kenya has had extremely violent elections, with the epicenter of violence in each case being the Rift Valley. History, in other words, is telling us that dark clouds are already hanging over the 2022 election, and we should therefore approach the season with extreme caution and soberness.
Kamau Muiga is a writer based in Nairobi, Kenya. His work has appeared on Brittle Paper, Africa is a Country, African Arguments and The Star.