The Ethnicity Factor and Risk of Conflict in the 2017 Kenyan Elections
Kenya has held elections every five years since it obtained independence in 1963. The August 8, 2017, elections will be the country’s sixth since the end of one-party rule in 1991, and the second since the introduction of a new constitution in 2010. The elections also mark a decade since the worst political violence ever witnessed in Kenya’s history, when more than 1,000 people lost their lives and over 600,000 were displaced from their homes. The violence of 2007–2008 still casts a long shadow over the 2017 elections, and there is widespread fear and tension from within and outside the country in the face of the increasingly inflammatory political rhetoric, fake news, and political propaganda from the two main political camps: the Jubilee Party of the incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta and the National Super Alliance (NASA) of the main opposition leader Raila Odinga.
As in many African countries, ethnicity is at the center of Kenyan politics, and while it may not be the sole determinant of the final outcome of general elections, it does undoubtedly play a significant role. Ethnicity is also central in political party formation in Kenya, and coalitions are mainly formed around individuals who have ethnic clout to bring in the numbers. For instance, although Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party is a coalition of eleven political parties, it is perceived as owned and controlled by Kenyatta himself since he has the largest numbers thanks to his ethnicity, Kikuyu, which is the largest ethnic community in Kenya; his deputy, William Ruto, comes from the Kalenjin ethnic community, the fifth largest in Kenya. NASA—the main opposition coalition led by Raila Odinga, from the second largest ethnic community, Luo—brings together major political and ethnic representatives from the Luhya, Kamba, and Kalenjin communities. Its chances of success in the coming elections are pegged on this perceived “ethnic weight.”
From a historical perspective, ethnicized politics is not new to Kenya and can be traced from Kenya’s colonial past. Ethnicity significantly informed the formation of the first national political parties in Kenya, which led to the country’s independence in 1963. Leaders from the dominant ethnic groups, the Kikuyus and the Luos (still are the biggest and “worst” political adversaries), formed the first national political party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), in 1960. The smaller ethnic groups—including the Kalenjins, Kamba, Luhya, Maasai, and ethnic groups from the coastal region—felt left out and came together to form the second national political party, the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU). Although the main objective of these two parties was to defeat the colonizers, ethnic identities were at the core of these political organizations.
It can therefore be observed that political mobilization in Kenyan politics has always been informed by ethnic consciousness rather than ideological consciousness. A politician’s political affiliation is largely determined by ethnic belonging and party politics is nothing more than representing “your people’s” interests. Electoral process is by and large determined by affiliation to the “right” party—naturally, the party led by one of the community’s own political “big wigs.” This is so critical that even the most popular politician will have difficulty being elected if he or she stands on the ticket of a party associated and led by a “rival” ethnic community.
Like all other general elections in Kenya, the 2017 campaigns have been dominated by political rhetoric with strong ethnic undertones and mobilization that is likely to divide the country along ethnic lines. The 2007–2008 post-election violence was regarded as largely ethnic in character. Kenya's political leaders have always relied on the backing of members of their ethnic group, and 2017 is no different. It is common for “big tribal kingpins,” power brokers, and local groups staking claims in struggles over land, public appointments, and other scarce resources in Kenya during the electioneering period to use ethnic identities as key instruments to get political mileage. Political analysts and observers are therefore paying attention to voter registration in the leading candidates’ ethnic strongholds as an indicator of who may have an upper hand in the coming elections.
The 2007–2008 post-election violence in Kenya painted a picture of a country deeply divided by ethnic cleavages. Although this violence caught the attention of the world due to its magnitude and intensity, in many respects it mirrored the character of violence that preceded Kenya’s 1992 and 1997 general elections. Most political violence around general elections in Kenya are triggered by the outcome of the presidential elections. It can be observed that the stakes in the August 8th elections are higher than normal for the two leading presidential candidates, President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Both can be said to be giving the presidency their final best shot, with Kenyatta in his final term as stipulated in the constitution and Odinga giving it his last shot as per the Memorandum of Understanding that binds the NASA coalition. This final showdown has a strong historical legacy as well: President Kenyatta is the son of Kenya’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, and his rival Raila Odinga is the son of Kenya’s first vice president and later political opponent of Jomo Kenyatta, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. So with such historical political rivalry at play and political temperatures rising as the clock ticks to August 8th, Kenyans can only hold their breath and hope that the political heat will silently cool off when the curtains fall after the announcement of the presidential results.