Violence in Kenya in Early 2008—Nine Interpretations by David Zarembka, Coordinator African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams

To understand the situation in Kenya as “ancient tribal hatreds” is to understand World War I and World War II as “ancient tribal hatreds” between the Germans on one side and the French, English, and Russians on the other.—David Zarembka

Abstraction of Global Africa

David Zarembka and Gladys Kamonya of the African Great Lakes Initiative appeared in St. Louis at the Friends Meeting (Quakers) this Spring on their cross-country trip to further “Understanding the Crisis and Violence in Kenya.” I came early to serve sweets and sandwiches and have a chance to chat with Mr. Zarembka. Gladys Kamonya brought Africa to us in song and David Zarembka, brilliant and relaxed, brought light and clarity to a complex subject: Violence in Kenya in Early 2008. Definitely read through this post with some care as he debates and adds information to each point. Definitely read point #5 LAND ISSUES.

David Zarembka is the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI), a Quaker organization whose mission is to support peacemaking activities at the grassroots level in Burundi, Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. AGLI is a project of the Friends Peace Teams.

David and Gladys live in Kenya and discussed the roots of the violence which erupted there following disputed elections last December. You can read Dave’s Reports from Kenya by clicking here. —JGR

David Zarembka, Coordinator
African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI), Friends Peace Teams
P. O. Box 189, Kipkarren River 50241 Kenya 254 (0)726-590-783
1001 Park Avenue, St Louis, MO 63104 USA 314/621-7262


by David Zarembka, Coordinator
African Great Lakes Intiative of the Friends Peace Teams

People like simple explanations for world events. When I was young, “Godless Communism” explained US foreign policy and now “Al-Qaeda” serves the same purpose. I will be giving you nine interpretations of the recent events in Kenya. You may chose one or more of those interpretations that you feel comfortable with and reject others. As you will see I have some opinions.

First we need to understand the context. In about sixty days following the announcement of the election results on December 27, 2007, approximately 1000 to 1500 people were killed by violence in Kenya. This compares with 850,000 who died in the Rwandan genocide in a hundred days, 300,000 who died over twelve years of civil war in Burundi, and the estimated 4 to 5 million who have died in the eastern Congo since 1996.

Early in March I received an email from Hezron Masitsa, the AVP-Coordinator in Nairobi. He wrote that a Kenyan named Joran Shijenje had been shot and killed on his way home from work. In Baltimore, Maryland! During the two months of conflict in Kenya, when 1000 to 1500 were killed, there were 5,000 to 6,000 homicides in the United States. I also just read in the paper that one out of every hundred Americans is now in jail. Something is clearly wrong with American society—but that is not the topic of this report.

1. “ANCIENT TRIBAL HATREDS” Almost all international coverage of the crisis in Kenya was based on the interpretation that the conflict was due to “ancient tribal hatreds”. For example, on January 27, Reuters, the wire service, distributed a picture of a woman lying dead on the floor in a pool of blood with her baby boy crying on a chair behind her. The caption read, “The body of a woman lies on the floor as her child cries during ethnic clashes in Naivasha…after members of Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe fought running battles with the Luos and Kalenjins who back Kibaki’s rival Raila Odinga.”

The problem with this interpretation is that the woman, a Luo married to a Kikuyu, was killed by the police! In fact 43% of those killed in Kenya were killed by the police and not in any ethnic fighting. Contrary to both international and Kenyan law the police used live bullets against demonstrators, rioters, and looters.

While the international media was focusing on those burnt to death in a church outside of Eldoret, the Kenya media was focusing on those killed and wounded by the police in Kisumu. Of the 82 people killed in Kisumu, the home city of the Luo, how many were Kikuyu were killed by the Luo? Zero, all 82 were killed by the police. In fact the Luo and Luhya (the ethnic group of most of the 139,000 Quakers in Kenya) do not kill people because they believe that the spirit of someone killed would haunt the killer with a guilty conscience. They may beat them and push them out of their homes, but they do not kill them.

Raila Odinga says that the election was not about ethnic divisions since many Kikuyu voted for him including 3,000 in Mwai Kibaki’s home constituency of Central Province. More to the point, one of his daughter-in-laws is a Kikuyu. There are many, many ethnically mixed marriages in Kenya.

To understand the situation in Kenya as “ancient tribal hatreds” is to understand World War I and World War II as “ancient tribal hatreds” between the Germans on one side and the French, English, and Russians on the other. This interpretation explains nothing.

2. STOLEN ELECTION The second interpretation is that the conflict was a result of the election being stolen by the Kibaki Government. On the election day of December 27, I was a poll observer in Lumakanda where I live. The voting itself was excellent. People waited for an hour or two in the sun to vote (the lines were much shorter in the afternoon) and the voting for president, member of parliament (MP), and local county council was very orderly and well done. I watched as the votes were counted and the observers from the various political parties signed the results. Well done.

It was in Nairobi during the counting that the fraud took place. As soon as the results were announced the appropriate form was taken by the Head of the Electoral Commission to Mwai Kibaki and the Chief Justice just happened to be there to administer the oath of office—this is usually done a few days later with foreign dignitaries present.

Those people who supported Raila Odinga and his Orange Democratic Party (ODM) felt that the election had been stolen from them. They had gone to the polls to vote patiently and properly and then the results were manipulated. ODM planned a rally at Uhuru Park in Nairobi and a million of his supporters were expected to attend. Although freedom of assembly is one of the freedoms people have, the Government blocked the park by ringing it with riot police who used tear gas, water cannons, and live bullets to disperse those who planned to attend. Naturally many of the tear gassed youth rioted and thus began the destruction in Nairobi. Other cities where demonstrations were planned had the same result. For some reason the authorities in Kapsabet, in the volatile Rift Valley Province, allowed the demonstration which took place peacefully; the demonstrators blew off steam, went home and there was no violence.

The Government, again contrary to international standards, clamped restrictions on the media. I had to listen to BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) to learn what was really happening in Kenya. Twice people in the United States informed me of developments in Kenya before I had heard them myself.

The difficulty with this interpretation is that, suppose that Raila Odinga did win and should in fact be the President. The problem is still the same—a sharply divided country—with only the faces having changed.

3. CLASS WARFARE A third interpretation is class warfare. The election results were no more than a trigger for decades long tension due to economic inequality. During the five years of the first Kibaki Presidency, after years of stagnation, the economy had grown robustly. The GNP increased by 7% in 2007. But this growth in income has gone almost exclusively to the wealthy. Kenya (along with the United States) is a nation with one of the highest rates of inequality in the world. Former President Moi’s two sons are reported to have fortunes of over $500,000,000 and none of this is inherited since their father is still living. And Kenya is supposed to be a poor country. The Kenyan elite is extremely wealthy. Many of these elite are Kikuyu so the average person who has no contact directly with the wealthy elite took ot their pent up rage on their Kikuyu neighbors who, really, were no better off than they were.

Another aspect of this inequality is that Government funds, economic development, and business opportunities were confined to Nairobi and Central Province, the home area of the Kikuyu, while much of rest of the country was starved for funds. People everywhere paid taxes which were disproportionately spent in the center of the country. The violence was a response to this economic injustice.

4. YOUTH REBELLION Another interpretation is that the violence was a youth rebellion. Many youth felt alienated in that they had no stake in Kenyan society and no hopes for a better future. While older people tended to vote for Kibaki, the youth tended to vote for Raila. I was at a meeting where two parents said that they had voted for Kibaki, while their children had voted for Raila and this had created tensions in the family. When the youth voted for Raila they were voting for change and a better future. They felt that their vote had been stolen after they had gone, naively it turned out, to the polls to vote for change.

There is no doubt that the newly elected members of parliament are much younger and better educated than the previous parliament. Note also that in this election only 80 out of 222 MP’s were re-elected! Many of those who lost were the old, old members who had been in government and politics since the time of independence in 1963. The youth also wanted this change at the top—Kibaki is 76 and Raila 62.

5. LAND ISSUES Particularly in the Rift Valley, but also in other parts of the country, the issue was ownership and control of land. When the British came to Kenya at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Kalenjin and Maasi groups in the Rift valley opposed the British militarily. As a result the British crushed them, which in those days meant not only defeating the warriors in battle, but burning their villages, killing their animals, and destroying their crops. The surviving Maasi and Kalenjin groups were then pushed north and south to the more marginal areas of the Rift Valley, leaving the fertile, well-watered land in the middle mostly vacant.

In this now mostly vacant land the British created the “white highlands”. They gave large estates to British settlers. We are not talking about the 160 acre quarter section given to American settlers (one fourth of a square mile). Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa, had 6,000 acres. Others were given 10,000, 20,000, and even 100,000 acres. This is in a land where today there is only 1.5 arable acres per person. The Mau-Mau rebellion of the 1950’s was partly a protest against this great inequality.

When Kenya gained independence in 1963 the Kalenjins and Maasi thought that the lands seized from them would be returned. What happened was that many of these large estates were transferred from the departing British settlers to the new ruling Kenyan elite who were mostly the loyalist supporters of the British during the Mau-Mau rebellion. Other of these estates were bought up by land companies, divided into plots and sold to those who could afford them—in most cases this meant Kikuyu from Central Province rather than the original owners of the land.

These land issues have not been resolved but allowed to fester. At the time of the 1992 elections there was violence in the Rift Valley during which an estimated 1000 people were killed. Folks in Lumakanda tell me that it was even worse than the recent round of violence. At the time of the 1997 election there was violence again. On Mt. Elgon, since June of 2006, over 500 people had been killed over a land dispute between two clans of the Sabaot, a Kalenjin group. Note that this total is one-third to one-half the number killed in the recent post-election violence. There were other deadly disputes in Molo, Rongai, Laikipia, and elsewhere. The election 2007 election results triggered additional violence in these areas.

6. VIOLENCE AS USUAL Although Kenya had a reputation as a peaceful, calm country — unlike many of its neighbors, I had always considered it otherwise. On May 5, 1969 I was in Kenya when the powerful Luo Minister for Economic Development, Tom Mboya, was assassinated. Kenya felt then just as it did during the recent crisis. The glue that had been holding the country together was no longer working. One didn’t know if the country would descend into chaos. The difference this time was the existence of cell phones and the internet. In 1969 we had to rely solely on word-of-mouth rumor. This time we could use our cell phones to phone or text people in other parts of the country and ask them what was happening. Then, as I did, we could report events as we saw them to the outside world via the internet .

The electioneering period before December 27 was also very violent. At least 25 people were killed. An assistant minister was discovered to have “traditional weapons” (machetes, bows and arrows, clubs, etc) in his Government sponsored vehicle and nothing happened to him, although he did lose the election. A prominent minister who had controlled the Kisii area for decades was shown on TV talking to the leader of a gang with a bow and arrow in his hand. Two minutes later the gang leader attacked members of the opposition who were alighting from a helicopter. One of the major leaders of the opposition, William Ruto, was put in the hospital for a week or more. Again nothing happened to this minister, but he also lost the election. At the local level, our electrician was the leader for the ODM youth here in Lugari District and he and four other youth, while putting up posters of their candidate, were attacked by youth from a rival candidate. He had to go to the hospital for treatment and two of his friends were hospitalized.

Roughly every few days one reads in the newspapers of people killed by mob justice. This occurs because the police are corrupt and when people turn in a thief, within a day or two, he has paid a bribe and is out on the streets again. I have seen this myself in Nariobi where a large crowd runs after an alleged thief who survives only if the police are able to rescue him. The attitude that makes this acceptable is the same attitude that allows a person to attack a neighbor because they happen to be from a different ethnic group.

7. CENTRALIZED GOVERNMENT The nature of colonial rule is that everything needs to be controlled from the center by the colonial power. Consequently whent he British gave Kenya independence they also passed on a very strong central government. When Jomo Kenyatta was president this centralization was increased. He was an icon that could not be challenged. As a result the president of Kenya controls not only the executive branch, but also the judicial branch, the legislature, the electoral commission, the police, and the army. For example, President Kibaki had appointed all 22 members of the Elector Commission of Kenya which announced that he had won the Dec 27 vote.

The results of this highly centralized government are that winning the election is crucial as the candidate either wins “everything” or nothing. It also allows for the control of wealth and power by the group that controls the presidency. Kenyatta was a Kikuyu who started the trend to reward the Kikuyu over others. When Kenyatta died and Daniel arap Moi became president he quickly accommodated himself with the Kikuyu elite power structure and survived for twenty-four years until Kibaki defeated him in the 2002 election.

Part of Kibaki’s platform during this election, where he was supported by the Luo and other ethnic groups, was to decentralized the government and make the distribution of resources more equitable. But as soon as he gained control of that centralized power, he refused to give it up. As a referendum on centralized power, Raila won six of the eight provinces, 99 members of parliament, and control of almost all the cities outside of Central and Eastern provinces which were won by Kibaki. So the violence was a demand for what is being called “devolution” of power.

8. INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY We must not let the international community off the hook. I will give three examples of how actions of the international community have adversely affected the situation in Kenya.

The first is birth control. Remember back around 1980 when there was a big debate about abortion in the United States and the Reagan administration cut off funds for family planning accusing them of promoting abortion? In Kenya this came to mean opposition to birth control. When I was in Kenya in 1970, in Machakos District, the family planning clinic had three people for a population of almost 1,000,000. It is the large number of children born at that time who are the youth (youth in Africa is defined as anyone under 35) that participated in the violence after the 2007 election. At that time Kenya had one of the highest birth rates in the world. It dropped considerably in the 1990’s but I understand that the birth rate in Kenya is again increasing because of the emphasis on HIV/AIDS.

The second is the structural adjustment program placed on Kenya in the 1980’s by the International Monetary Fund. For our example here, this meant that the Kenyan Government could not increase the number of public servants, including teachers. So as the population of school aged children was increasing rapidly, the number of teachers was not. Moreover, in 2003 the Kibaki government declared free primary school education and about 1,000,000 additional children showed up for school. The result is classes of up to 100 students with few resources for their education. So the large numbers of children born in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s have not received adequate education.

Lastly there is the issue of corruption. The former dictator of Zaire (now the Congo) is reported to have said, “I know I am corrupt, but who is corrupting me?” The centralized form of government in Kenya also allowed for gigantic corruption at the center. Kenya is known as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. In almost every case of this grand corruption there were international partners involved—businesses, governments, NGO’s, and the UN agencies. I will give only one example.

Safaricom is the most profitable company in East Africa with 8.5 million cell phone subscribers. At one time it was owned totally by the Kenya Government. A few years ago they sold off 30% of its shares to Vodafone, a large British telecommunications company. Later it came out that the Government had only 65% of the shares left because 5% had been given to a mysterious company called Mobitelea Ventures. The public does not know who the officers or shareholders of this company are. It is therefore is assumed to be the “bribe” that Vodafone paid for buying the Safaricom shares. The Kenyan Government is now selling off another 25% of their remaining holdings in Safaricom.

9. SPIRITUAL/RELIGIOUS The zeitgeist of Kenyan society is Hobbesian economics — if everyone does things in their own interest, society will function for the best. This has long ago been determined to mean that the fortunate few exploit the many for their own interest. In Kenya personal and family greed is more important than societal prosperity. This is true from the rulers at the top to those at the bottom who believe that stepping on others is the way to get ahead. Rather than praising Kikuyu for their hard work and emulating their success, the violence after the election was an attempt to bring them down to the level of everyone else because of the perception that they had succeeded.

The Biblical injunctions that one should love one’s neighbor and do unto others as they have done unto you have been laragely ignored. Within a few weeks after the violence began, I heard a sermon at the Lumakanda Friends Church which stated that a true Christian would never loot property, burn a home, or kill someone—and this was from a woman who had to move out of her house in Eldoret because it was owned by a Kikuyu. I have heard that this message has been preached in many other churches of all denominations.


So you may select those interpretations that seem most logical to you. I would say that a viable solution to the violence requires much more than a political settlement by the two sides. Rather it means a major restructuring of Kenyan society addressing the underlying causes mentioned above. Kenyans are well aware of these issues and the need for corrective action.

Unfortunately in the past in Kenya, whenever there has been a crisis, the tendency has been to ignore the underlying causes as the country returned to “normal”. But “normal” in Kenya means the building up of pressures which will again explode into violence unless they are addressed. It is still too early to determine if fundamental changes will be made or all will soon be “back to normal”, if there will be significant improvements for all or another round of violence, perhaps during the next election in 2012 .

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