Socialist Worker

Western responsibility for Kenya's ethnic violence

by Ken Olende
Issue No. 2086

There has been an upsurge in violence across Kenya in east Africa.

Up to 800 people have been killed since the result of the “stolen election” was declared on 30 December 2007. Though many were protesters shot by the police, others have died in ethnic battles.

There are somewhere between 43 and 48 ethnic groups in Kenya, depending on how they are defined. The largest single group is the Kikuyu, at 22 percent of the population. The president, Mwai Kibaki, is a Kikuyu. Opposition leader Raila Odinga is from the Luo people.

The elite of all ethnic backgrounds have enjoyed an increase in wealth and resources in recent years, while 60 percent of the population continues to live on under 2 dollars a day.

A disproportionate number of the rich are Kikuyus and in Kenya it is commonly believed that somehow all Kikuyus benefit from this. Early ethnic attacks were almost all against poor Kikuyus.

Fighting is now taking place across a growing area. It has now spread to include Rift Valley towns like Nakuru and Naivasha – central to cash crops for export, such as tea and flowers for the European market.

For 70 years Kenya was colonised by Britain and it still bears the scars. The settlers took all the best land, much of which is in areas like the Rift Valley, and institutionalised “divide and rule” policies, which set groups in competition with each other.

Kenya became independent in 1963, but was still dominated by the interests of settlers and multinational firms.

Initially there was an attempt to redistribute land to the poor. Some 17 percent of settler land – mostly in the Rift Valley – was distributed in this way, largely to poor Kikuyu families. Before the British occupation this land had traditionally belonged to the Maasai and Kalenjin peoples.

Current land shortage means bitterness has recurred, with accusations that Kikuyu settlers stole the land they were originally given.

While the poor squabble over rights to small farms, multinationals and rich farmers retain huge estates.

Reporting of Kenya’s crisis has left out the role of the West.

The US congratulated Kibaki on his victory before being forced to backtrack and make noises about democracy. Kibaki has been a close ally in the “war on terror”.

Kenya assisted the US-backed invasion of Somalia last year by closing its border with Somalia. The US armed Kenya to the tune of an estimated £1.25 million in 2007 alone.

Kenya has also deployed its own Kenya Anti-Terrorism Unit. Dislike of this last is one of the reasons for the high level of opposition support in Muslim areas by the coast.

Also at independence, as Roger Southall, editor of the Journal of Contemporary African Studies has argued, 'Financial and commercial spheres of the economy were still under the control of whites, Indians and foreign companies. Inevitably, therefore, the rising African political class resorted to use of the state machinery to promote its entry into business: legitimately through demands for Africanisation, illegitimately through massive and systematic corruption. Politics thus became the competition of ethnic elites.'

The government left by the British was extremely centralised, and has become more so as successive governments cemented their control.

Some 300,000 people have now fled “ethnic cleansing”, leading the media to make comparisons with the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

But this is unconvincing. Kenya has a much wider ethnic range. No section of the ruling class believes that one group can become solely dominant. In Kenya ethnic politics has always been about alliances.

Some kind of compromise could be made between the parties as they realise that none of them can make money while the system is at stalemate.

However all this would offer to ordinary people is a brief respite, as none of the political parties is serious in arguing against ethnic divisions.

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Article information

Tue 29 Jan 2008, 19:22 GMT
Issue No. 2086
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