Ethnic Politics in Kenya

Ethnic Politics in Kenya


Colonialism in Kenya was violent and exploitative. Under colonial rule, “British Army officers of the 1950s understood that the law was malleable to their definition of necessity” (Bennett, 2013, 1). Essentially, British administrators made up their own rules about how to treat the people in Kenya. Still, even to the present day, former British administrators often claim altruistic motivation for British actions in Kenya. For example, one British soldier in Kenya, David Smith, views Britain’s involvement as necessary and helpful to the people in Kenya. He identifies three reasons for Britain’s “reluctant decision to become involved” in Kenya (Smith, 2005, 27). He discusses British desire to end the slave trade across the continent, the desire to develop East Africa, and lastly to prevent German from claiming land or authority in Kenya (Smith, 2005, 30-41). However, Smith writes of the British as though they were entirely benevolent. The slave trade was barbaric, but he ignores Britain’s own maltreatment of slaves and initiation of the slave trade. He writes that Britain wanted to develop East Africa and had the Sultan’s permission, but he ignores the diversity of East Africa, which was ruled by many leaders, not just the Sultan, nor were Britain’s motives free from greedy economic considerations.

Independence and Mau Mau

Rebellions and protest rose up across the continent of Africa as colonialism continued. In Kenya, perhaps the most famous of these rebellions is the Mau Mau Rebellion. In Kenya today, controversy exists not only on the ethics of the Mau Mau fighters, but also on the origins of the rebellion. All parties seem to agree that there was a conflict over land ownership. However, the legitimacy of these claims is disputed. David Smith, a farm manager and soldier in colonial Kenya, writes

“The British went to considerable lengths to ensure not a single acre was taken from anyone who could genuinely show they had owned it or that it had been under cultivation by them at the time, and that if any had been taken inadvertently, to make sure it was either returned to the owners or they were adequately compensated” (Smith 90).

Yet, in Imperial Reckoning, Caroline Elkins has a very different take, writing: “This practice of divide and rule was also a cornerstone of the colonial government’s labor policy. With insufficient land in their reserves many Africans had little choice but to migrate to the Europeans farms in search of work, and survival” (Elkins, 2005, 15). It was out of a result of this oppression that Mau Mau arose. Mau Mau played a significant role in the politics of the time and still continues to do so. Macharia and Kanyua argue that it is essential to understand the economic, cultural, and political significance of the Mau Mau because this played a significant role in post-colonial power dynamics (Macharia & Kanyua, 2006, 131-132). Land was and continues to be the main indicator of wealth in Kenya. Those who sided with the British over the Kikuyu gained wealth and power, and were thus reluctant to see the Kikuyu come to power (Macharia & Kanyua, 2006, 133).

Ethnic Identity

Although ethnic divisions and conflicts existed prior to colonialism, these tended to be “”largely part of the nation-building process in which small groups were driven by the dynamics of change to integrate into, and coalesce with bigger, larger and more organized ones” (Falola, Doron, & Okpeh, 2013, 2). During colonialism, ethnic tensions were manipulated, and now conflict across the content tends to be “essentially [a] product of social and distributive injustice, intra-elite squabbles for political power and the control of state resources” (Falola, Doron, & Okpeh, 2013, 2). Scholars however debate the extent to which this has impacted present issues on the continent. For example, J. O’Connel argues in “The Inevitability of Instability” that because of colonialism and the way it ended, instability will be an inevitable issue on the continent (181-182). However, Falola et. al argue that this is not in fact the case, that politicians can help this by encouraging citizens to adopt ”a national rather than an ethnic identity as their primary identity” (Falola, Doron, & Okpeh, 2013, 3-4).

Ethnicity in Kenya’s Elections

In 2007, elections in Kenya erupted in violence, leaving 1,000 people dead (Lynch, 2011, 2). Present day ethnic and political conflicts in Kenya have their roots in colonialism and are exacerbated by a presently dual narrative as to the Mau Mau and other rebellions that took place across Kenya in the 1950s. The International Criminal Court charged Uhuru Kenyatta with crimes against humanity. However, the charges were dropped due to a lack of evidence, which his government has refused to hand over (BBC, 2014). The question remains, how has he managed to stay in power despite accusations of gross human rights violations? The answer lies with his association with the Kikuyu and lack of racial reconciliation within Kenya. The first map below (Figure 1) divides Kenya along ethnic lines and the second (Figure 2) along voting choices. From these figures, it is clear that voting takes place along ethnic lines.

Uhuru Kenyatta’s regime is not unique. In Kenya, “political parties…tend to be associated with particular ethnic groups, while competitive elections have displayed strong ethnic voting patterns” (Lynch, 2011, 2). Ethnic politicking has been a problem in Kenya since Kenya gained independence in 1961 and Uhuru’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, came into power (BBC, 2015). Under Jomo Kenyatta, rival political parties were banned after the assassination of Tom Mboya, which sparked ethnic conflicts. Jomo Kenyatta died in 1978 and was succeed by Daniel Moi. Under Daniel Moi, Kenya became a one party state and, in 1992, 2,000 people were killed in ethnic conflicts. He stayed in power until 2002 at which point Mwai Kibaki won in the election. Uhuru Kenyatta replaced him in the disputed elections of 2007, which erupted in ethnic violence and left 1,500 people dead (BBC, 2015).

From the summary above of the last 55 years of politics in Kenya, it is clear that violence and ethnicity have been major issues. The case of the 2007 elections is especially interesting and highlights the intertwined effects of ethnic politicking, colonialism, and violence. Violence erupted mainly between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin (Lynch, 2011, 2). However, the Kalenjin is a recent ethnic grouping that originated with colonialism (Lynch, 2011, 3). Lynch argues that in fact “the main motivation for the construction and politicization of a Kalenjin alliance was (and continues to be) a nexus of fear of loss and potential for gain” (Lynch, 2011, 6). Even though other ethnic groups may have roots before colonialism, the motivation behind political unity along ethnic lines is arguably the same. If someone from the same cultural or ethnic group gains power, the entire group will benefit. In the case of the Kalenjin, they were originally made up of several small groups that unified for political purposes (Lynch, 2011, 4-5). Ethnic violence, in conjunction with politics, continues to be a problem across Africa (Ruvalcaba & Peterson, 2016). Perhaps the key to moving beyond the artificial ethnic identities solidified or created during colonialism then lies with politicians laying aside their own agendas to promote “‘national’ rather than ‘ethnic’ and ‘sectional’ issues” (Falola, Doron, & Okpeh, 2013, 4).



Figure 1. Ethnic group distribution across Kenya. As described in the text, this map, along with the one below, show how ethnicity and voting align in Kenya. BBC News. 2013.



Figure 2. Map of primary political orientation by region. As discussed above, political party affiliation ethnicity are closely linked. BBC News. 2013.




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BBC. “ICC Drops Uhuru Kenyatta Charges for Kenya Ethnic Violence.” BBC News. 5 Dec. Web. 02 May 2016.

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Elkins, Caroline. Imperial Reckoning : The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. 1st ed.New York: Henry Holt, 2005. Print. Woodruff, DT433.577.E45 2005.

Falola, Toyin., Roy. Doron, and Okpeh Ochayi. Okpeh. Warfare, Ethnicity and National Identity in Nigeria. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World, 2013. Print. Woodruff, DT515.585 .W37 2013.

Lynch, Gabrielle. I Say to You : Ethnic Politics and the Kalenjin in Kenya. Chicago: U of

Chicago, 2011. Print. Woodruff, DT433.545 .K35 L96 2011.

Lovatt Smith, David. Kenya, the Kikuyu and Mau Mau. Herstmonceux: Mawenzi, 2005. Print.

Macharia, Kinuthia., and Muigai. Kanyua. The Social Context of the Mau Mau Movement in Kenya (1952-1960). Lanham, Md.: U of America, 2006. Print. Woodruff, DT433.577 .M24 2006.

O’Connell, James. “The Inevitability of Instability”. The Journal of Modern African Studies 5.2(1967): 181–191. Retrieved from JSTOR. Web.

Ruvalcaba, Peter, and Megan Peterson. “Violence in Twentieth Century Africa.” Violence in Twentieth Century Africa. Emory University. Web. 02 May 2016.