Have colonial ghosts come back to haunt Kenya? Taking a look at the recent violence that spread across what was one of the most politically stable countries in Africa, and asking why such a steady country faced such sudden tremulous times, a Kenyan anthropologist, engaged in human rights issues, gives us his perspective.

Kenya, one of the most politically stable countries in Africa, is found on the east horn of the African continent. The country gained its independence from the British in 1963 after years of armed struggle and diplomatic negotiations led by a generation of leaders who are still in active politics today. Diverse interests that have accumulated over time, especially in businesses, have continued to control the country’s politics, and when a motley crew of younger opposition politicians upstaged them in elections last year, the old leaders just dug in and refused to leave. Widespread violence followed. The government, for a time, continued to play truant and refused to enter into any meaningful form of power sharing agreement with the opposition, even amidst talks chaired by former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan and backed by the international community, in particular the European Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom. This essay attempts to put this story into perspective.


Kenya’s Post-Election Violence

For the better part of the first two months of the year, Kenya’s political situation remained fluid, tense and unpredictable. The country was not holding, and a bloodbath loomed after weeks of ethnic violence precipitated by a suspected electoral fraud that returned President Mwai Kibaki of the Party of National Unity to power. As wide sections of the population tottered from the consequences of internal strife, a nebulous search for peace began in Nairobi: the National Dialogue and Mediation forum, chaired by Kofi Annan, with the assistance of a panel of preeminent African leaders.

At the talks the opposition party, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), first decamped from its earlier radical position to press for the resignation of President Kibaki to allow for fresh presidential elections, opening the way for the negotiations. The ODM had refused to recognize Kibaki as the president, and during the first few statements from him at the start of the talks, the ODM threw tantrums and almost boycotted the parley after Kibaki referred to himself as the duly elected president of Kenya. The ruling party dodged the reconciliation spirit of the talks and failed to read the intensity of local and international pressure to work on a solution to the impasse. It required the intervention of African Union Chairman and Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who warned the parties of dire consequences if the peace processes were to be derailed. The big stick wielded by the two seemed to have worked, as a new peace accord has now been reached between the warring parties and Kenya will soon have a premier and a president, with both sharing executive powers. The grand coalition agreement will be constitutionalized.

A host of local and international observers in the polls, including the European Union observation team and the Commonwealth, agreed in their reports that the December 2007 elections, particularly the presidential vote tallying, was marred with incompetence and spurious tallying. In a multiethnic society of about 40 distinct ethnic groups, Kenya was firmly jolted by the disputes. At the Annan talks it was also agreed to form a review committee to establish the facts behind the election fiasco, as well as to create a Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission to help in reconciling Kenyans and addressing historical grievances that were partly the reasons for the conflicts.

The electoral differences have been very costly for the country: About 1,500 Kenyans died in the post-electoral skirmishes, 350,000 people were displaced from their homes, and many continue to live as internally displaced refugees in temporary camps across the country. Businesses have been stalled, moreover, and by local estimates over US$2 billion losses to businesses have been counted. Any more dithering on the peace talks, and the impatience and war-mongering culture that was beginning to take root in the country would have led Kenya to an eventual paralysis and even collapse. But how did Kenya get to that point in the first place?

Sworn in on a wheelchair after a near-tragic road crash at the height of the 2002 general election campaigns, President Kibaki owed much to his coalition partners for the National Rainbow Coalition euphoria and sense of unity that won him the victory. His last weeks of campaigning found him confined to a wheelchair, but an amalgamated league of campaigners from the coalition’s leading party stalwarts—then known as the Summit—crisscrossed the country on a platform of change.

With the Kenya African National Union’s trouble-free concession of defeat, Kenya’s had been an exemplary political transition in Africa. But that was then. Kibaki faced his reelection against a strong opposition coalition headed by the man who ironically is credited for his presidency, Raila Odinga, and an array of his former ministers.

At his inauguration in 2002, Kibaki and his government promised a new constitution and an end to official corruption, political patronage, and nepotism. It would be these pledges, on the political front, rather than promises of economic revitalization that would dog the Kibaki administration over the coming years. In effect, the Kibaki regime would defend its reelection plan on account of a healthy economy, with a growth rate of 8 percent up from the tottering levels of 2002. However, it had not fulfilled most of the political pledges, particularly those to draw up a new constitution and end high-level corruption. Worse still, the Kibaki administration seemed to have come to revolve around a cabal of ethnic state operators who apparently convinced him to rubbish the preelection Memorandum of Understanding on a power-sharing agreement with his former colleagues.


A Tight Race?

Although a tight election was developing and many pollsters pointed to a close finish, in the minds of many Kenyans it was never to be as contentious and as bloody as it became. Both the Party of National Unity and the ODM attracted huge support across the country. In the end, the Electoral Commission of Kenya released the results of only 209 constituencies (following nullification of the results in 3 constituencies), indicating that the president had won with about 200,000 votes ahead of the ODM presidential candidate, Raila Odinga, and inviting instant dispute. By this time, live broadcasting of the vote tallying process by the media had been banned, and Nairobi was reduced to a police state with heightened security patrols and closures of certain roads. What, then, led to the vicious post-electoral violence in the country?

According to the prediction of former president Moi, multipartyism was bound to bring about tribal tensions and deepen regional divisions in the country. The former president was himself an expert in divide-and-rule tactics of administration. At the height of fervent campaigns for political reforms in Kenya in the 1980s, he opposed political pluralism on the claim that the country was not cohesive enough. Multiparty democracy was finally reintroduced in Kenya in 1991, but early elections in 1992 and 1997 saw poll violence, especially in the Rift Valley parts of western Kenya and the coast of Kenya.

In Kenya’s politics, the capture of safe votes is often strengthened by filial connections between the contestants and electorate. Politicians of the above communities found it expedient to throw out voters from the immigrant settler population so that their declarations of “party zones” would be realized. The Rift Valley was declared a Kenya African National Union zone, and other parties were warned against venturing into the area. Accordingly, this occurrence also fulfilled Moi’s prophecy on political pluralism. In 1997 these conditions were repeated with varying tactics and consequences. Official coverups and impunity often followed state involvement in the clashes. In 1993, though a parliamentary select committee to investigate and make recommendations on the clashes was set up in Kenya, nothing followed. Another Judicial Commission on Tribal Clashes finished its work in 1999, but neither the Moi administration nor the Kibaki administration implemented its recommendations.


Colonial hangover or ethnic complexity?

The divide-and-rule administration tactics, although a legacy of the British colonial administration in Kenya, were polished under the Kenya African National Union regime. State appointments, budgetary allocations, and a distribution of public goodies appear to strictly follow the beacons of ethnic loyalty and closeness to state power. This manner of distributing the national cake is a major cause of the ethnic discontentment and, with the imperial powers of Kenya’s presidency, can be a harbinger for chaos. Figuratively speaking, communities that find themselves at the periphery of power mobilize against the status quo on the basis that it wants the plate to go around. “It is our turn to eat” is an oft-quoted maxim in Kenya’s campaigns.

The communities feeling displaced and marginalized from the center of power by the Kibaki administration bandied together in the ODM against the government. When it lost the opportunity to stage a takeover, therefore, this was going to be painful and frustrating. If it had been through an illegitimate loss in the polls as has been alleged, the violence could only have been expected as a logical consequence of anger and frustration. Deep-seated anger against the Kikuyus, seen to have dominated power and the consumption of the national cake since Kenya’s independence in 1963, can no doubt be blamed for this eventuality. Although the Mau Mau war of independence was related to the Kikuyu uprising against the colonialists for their loss of land, the departing crown bequeathed a shamelessly exploitative and divisive state machinery to the new power elite under Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu. With a relatively more educated working class and a better physical infrastructure inherited from the white administrators, Kenyatta capitalized on these advantages to make the Kikuyu a powerful and envied community in the country’s post-independence economic takeoff.

After the declaration of the state of emergency in Kenya in 1952, the British government followed with a land rationalization plan known as the Swynnerton Plan. Under the plan, the British would encourage the newly independent Kenya money to buy back the “White highlands” formerly settled by the colonialists. When the colonial farmers departed, an expansive swathe of land was left uninhabited in a region previously owned by the Kalenjin and Maasai. However, the pastoralist Maasai had in any case lost their claim to a large part of the Rift Valley land through the 1904 and 1911 agreements with the British colonial administration. On the part of the Kalenjins, they witnessed their supposed ancestral land annexed by the independent government and dished out to mainly Kikuyu settlers after independence. This Kikuyu resettlement plan was backed only by a section of the Kalenjin politicians. By 1971, over half of all arable land in the Northern Rift Valley, settled by Kalenjins, were in the hands of new Kikuyu buyers. Without any solution to this historical grievance, Kalenjin-Kikuyu clashes in these areas are bound to recur.

Like the celebrated Mau Mau episode in Kikuyu nationalism, the Kalenjins treasure their brave history too. The community of the Kalenjins was at the forefront in opposing colonialism. When the East African Railway line reached the region, it sparked off the Nandi resistance led by the legendary Orkoiyot Koitalel Arap Samoei from 1905 to 1911. This nationalism has stayed alive in the whole Kalenjin community and political tradition.

But the media culture cannot escape censure. Although the country has a fairly credible independent and free press, Kenya’s media took sides, perceivably to serve ethnic interests in the campaigns. Camouflages of such ethnic interests abet serious frustrations and can spread hate propaganda and falsehoods or become a war-mongering tool. Kenya’s ethnic media stations remained culpable for stroking negative ethnic emotions throughout this period.

It is now important that durable solutions are found to avert a repetition of similar scenes in Kenya’s future. The suggestion to deal with matters of transitional justice, encapsulated in the need for a justice, truth, and reconciliation organ, is still necessary and urgent. This will help to understand and prescribe solutions to Kenya’s enduring pains and grievances. In the near future, emphasis on the return to lasting peace is important, but to seriously address it, constitutional and legislative agreements for power sharing and other solutions to mass poverty are imperative. Finally, for justice to prevail, Kenya’s legislative institutions must attend to the inadequacies in the law instruments and the judicial institutions that adjudicate them. What makes public leaders hesitate to use legal channels to address grievances will only set the stage for bigger chaos.

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Otieno Aluoka, N.O.

Otieno Aluoka, N.O.*

University of Nairobi


Received fellowship: University of Nairobi, 1999
SLI 2013: Kisumu County Leadership & Development Conference, 2013

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