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What’s behind the Kenyan conflict?

This article is over 13 years, 11 months old
SINCE THE crisis in Kenya erupted six weeks ago there has been a lot of handwringing about the threatened collapse of a haven of "stability" in Africa. This is largely hypocritical nonsense.
Issue 2087

SINCE THE crisis in Kenya erupted six weeks ago there has been a lot of handwringing about the threatened collapse of a haven of “stability” in Africa. This is largely hypocritical nonsense.

I participated in the World Social Forum (WSF) in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, in January 2007.

The opening march followed exactly the same route – from the great slum settlement of Kibera to Uhuru Park in the city centre – that protesting supporters of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) have repeatedly been prevented by riot police from taking in the past few weeks.

Nairobi struck me as throbbing with tensions caused by the vast gap separating rich and poor. The WSF itself was disrupted repeatedly by protests driven by activists from the slums.

So it didn’t surprise me when the tensions in Kenya finally exploded, sparked off by president Mwai Kibaki’s attempt to steal last December’s election from the ODM leader, Raila Odinga.

The global media have been swift to portray the violence as arising from a “tribal conflict” pitting Kibaki’s Kikuyu against Odinga’s Luo.

But the situation is much more complex than this, as has been pointed out by David Anderson, professor of African Affairs at Oxford University.

Anderson is the author of Histories of the Hanged, an excellent study of the dirty war waged by Britain during the 1950s to crush the Mau Mau rebellion in the Kikuyu areas of central Kenya.

The techniques used by the colonial state included direct physical coercion – including the widespread execution of captured rebels – and the old imperial method of divide and rule, in this case aimed chiefly at splitting the Kikuyu themselves.


The result was that when Britain finally conceded independence in 1963, the post-colonial regime was careful to respect the property rights of the white settlers and the transnational corporations. And successive governments have used tribalism as a means of control.

Thus after independence many Kikuyu were given land in the Rift Valley that had traditionally belonged to the pastoralist Kalenjin, who make up the majority in the region. The Rift Valley has seen the worst post-election violence.

Anderson wrote in the Independent last week, “In Kenya’s politics, it has become the norm for politicians to hire thugs to do their dirty work, especially at election time. On its grandest scale, this was seen in the elections of 1992 and 1997, when government ministers employed vast armies of hired thugs to attack the homes of voters in opposition strongholds.”

And, finally, there is the complicity of the West. Michael Holman, former Africa editor of the Financial Times, has forcefully condemned Britain and the US for continuing to pump aid into Kenya in recent years, despite the growing evidence of Kibaki’s corrupt and undemocratic rule.

He points out that “for all the 6 percent annual gross domestic product growth achieved in the past two years under Mr Kibaki, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening.

“To see the crisis only in terms of tribal allegiances and ethnic clashes is to miss a vital element in the Kenyan picture. The population has doubled in 25 years. Unemployment is growing, and the number without land is growing. For these people there is nothing to lose by taking to the streets, driven by fury that transcends their tribe.”

But what matters for the US and British governments is that Kenya is an important ally in a region that the George Bush administration sees as a front in the “war on terror”, especially since Ethiopia’s US-backed invasion of neighbouring Somalia in December 2006.

No wonder that Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch complained when launching its latest report last week that, “It seems US and European governments will accept even the most dubious election so long as the ‘victor’ is a strategic or commercial ally.”

Presumably Kibaki was counting on this when he rigged the presidential election. Despite talks with Odinga last week he’s still clinging to office. Time will tell whether his gamble has worked.

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