Socialist Worker

Behind the turmoil in Kenya

The protests and riots that followed the "stolen election" have shown the depth of discontent in a "stable" African country, writes Ken Olende

Issue No. 2083

Rioting began in Kenya after sitting president Mwai Kibaki was declared winner in presidential elections on 27 December. Opposition leader Raila Odinga challenged the result, accusing the ruling party of ballot rigging.

Odinga’s popularity had grown out of discontent with the ruling elite. In many poor areas demonstrators took to the streets in anger at the “stolen election”.

The notorious GSU internal security forces killed scores of people as they opened fire on protests around the country. They are responsible for the majority of deaths that have occurred in the last weeks.

The demonstrations and riots were an uprising of the poor, and a demand for change and reform.

Though the discontent has also laid bare festering ethnic tensions, the most striking thing is that ordinary people have had the confidence to contest a rigged ballot.

The first really free election in recent history was held only five years ago. In 2002 there was rejoicing across the country when Kibaki beat Uhuru Kenyatta, the anointed successor to former dictator Daniel arap Moi, who had ruled Kenya since 1978.

At the time Kibaki and Odinga were together in the National Rainbow Coalition – an alliance of parties campaigning against the Moi regime and promising change.

Zahid, a socialist in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, told Socialist Worker, “There were two flawed elections after the return to multi-party democracy, in 1992 and 1997. Real change only came in 2002. Raila Odinga was important in pushing to turn things around.”

Now Kibaki stands accused of the kind of election rigging that his original victory was supposed to end.

In the parliamentary poll that ran at the same time as the presidential ­election the government suffered heavy defeats, with 20 ministers losing their seats.

Evidence emerged of widespread ballot rigging in the presidential vote. International observers complained and protesters took to the streets.

Within days members of Kibaki’s own electoral commission were distancing themselves from the results.


Two events sum up the reasons why Kibaki’s popularity fell after 2002.

First was the attempt to introduce a promised new constitution. It was drafted to enshrine civil rights and defend ethnic minorities.

However, the government then added clauses increasing the power of the president. Fearing that this might herald a return to authoritarian rule, voters rejected the modified constitution in a referendum during 2005.

Odinga was a leading figure in the no campaign and soon afterwards launched the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), which became a focus for discontent.

The second issue was corruption. Kibaki’s government appointed John Githongo as an anti-corruption commissioner.

His reports, particularly into a scheme to print Kenyan passports through the British company Anglo Leasing, accused senior members of Kibaki’s government of the kind of corruption that it been elected to eradicate.

These were not isolated incidents and as Kibaki’s fortunes waned Odinga positioned himself at the head of the opposition. Since last month’s election Odinga has called himself “the people’s president”, but his party has not offered leadership to the demonstrators on the streets.

His ODM is a loose alliance. It doesn’t have the kind of grassroots organisation that could maintain the demonstrations and organise to challenge ethnic attacks.

It has nothing serious to say about the grievances that are leading to the ethnic fighting – chronic unemployment and lack of housing in the cities, and landlessness in the countryside.

This has allowed the slide into ethnic fighting to go unchecked.

There are 43 ethnic groups in Kenya. The largest is the Kikuyu who make up 22 percent of the population. Other major groups include the Luhya, the Luo, and the Kalenjin.

Kibaki is Kikuyu, Odinga is Luo. In the excitement of the 2002 election ethnicity was not a central issue explaining why either was elected.

Steve, a Kenyan living in Britain, told Socialist Worker, “Tribal tensions have smouldered for a long time in places like Nairobi’s Kibera, the biggest slum in Africa, where a million people live in total poverty.

“Sometimes this has flared up in battles between ethnic gangs such as the ‘Taliban’ who are Luo, ‘Jeshi la Mzee’ who are Luhya or ‘Mungiki’ who are Kikuyu.”

Mungiki originally emerged claiming it would bring back the spirit of the Mau Mau rebellion that fought British rule and win rights for the dispossessed.

But it degenerated into a violent gang living on extortion, mostly targeting fellow Kikuyus.

Many Kenyans believe that all Kikuyus benefit because a large proportion of the ruling elite is Kikuyu. So one section of the poor takes out its anger at Kibaki’s regime and the corruption of the rich on its equally impoverished Kikuyu neighbours.

The United Nations estimates that 250,000 people have fled ethnic attacks across the country during the election crisis.

Zahid said, “This violence is not new. Millions of Kenyans have already been experiencing ethnic strife, particularly in rural areas like the Rift Valley north of the capital.”

Mungai, who spent Christmas in the Rift Valley town of Kericho, told Socialist Worker, “I tried in vain to get back to Nairobi. Finally, armed police escorted us. Youth had barricaded roads and we had to use power saws to clear the way. I saw the property of Kikuyus and Kisii [a minority ethnic group] burnt and stolen. People were being killed for belonging to these communities. It was terrible.”

The most notorious attack was the massacre of more than 30 women and children sheltering in a church in the town of Eldoret in the Rift Valley.

Steve said, “My aunt narrowly escaped death in the Eldoret massacre. Many Kikuyus now live in areas that were once seen as belonging to other tribes.

“We have lived together and intermarried for a long time. It frightens me that so many people can’t see that Kenya’s real tribal division is between rich and poor.”

Zahid said, “Millions of Kenyans continue to live below the poverty line. The high growth rates that international bankers talk about have only affected the rich.”

Otieno, a union activist in Nairobi, told Socialist Worker, “It is like war in poor areas. I don’t have food, paraffin or money. I can’t even go out to get more airtime for my phone.

“But we are hoping for a big rally in Uhuru Park in central Nairobi over the election rigging. I think ordinary people will go.”

Unfortunately after we spoke the ODM called off the protest.

Despite the ugly ethnic clashes, the majority of the confirmed killings have been by the internal security forces attacking protesters.

And these are not ethnic attacks by a Kikuyu dominated state on non-Kikuyus. In Nairobi’s Kariobangi slum the GSU paramilitary police attacked Kikuyu slum dwellers.


Since 2002 there has been a relatively free media and some space for opposition groups to organise. If Kibaki is allowed to get away with stealing this election all this could end.

Shirley, a British socialist who was in Kenya during the election, told Socialist Worker, “The excitement of the election campaign was unbelievable. There was none of the cynicism you see in Britain. So the sense of betrayal is much greater.

“I stayed with a Kikuyu family who had voted for Kibaki. They were genuinely shocked at the blatant ballot rigging. Live TV broadcast local returns from polling stations long before electoral commissioners in Nairobi announced them with Kibaki’s vote vastly inflated. That was why the government banned live TV reports.”

The campaign for a recount or a rerun of the election must continue. Either would almost certainly make Odinga president.

Mungai said, “Odinga was the better candidate, though there are questionable characters around him. His victory would not result in a revolution but it would be a step forward, even if it was only a matter of time before power struggles disintegrated his coalition.”

Once in government the question would arise of what could pressurise Odinga to keep his election promises, rather than following Kibaki’s path.

Beyond populist rhetoric about opposing corruption and cronyism there is nothing particularly radical in Odinga’s programme.

Like the ruling party, the ODM is committed to free market policies. A real political alternative to the existing elite is needed.

In January 2007 thousands of activists met at the World Social Forum in Nairobi to develop alternatives to neoliberalism.

The event started with a 5,000 strong march from Kibera to Uhuru Park – just as protesters were attempting last week when they were met with water cannon and tear gas.

Onyango Oloo, one of the organisers of the forum, has answered calls for general calm by saying, “No justice, no peace”.

Onyango Oloo's piece can be read at Pambazuka News »

Also read 'Slums, resistance and the African working class' in International Socialism journal 117 »

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.