The events that have swept Kenya since the rigged re-election of President Mwai Kibaki on 27 December offer a deeply unsettling reminder of how the manipulation of identity, such as ethnicity, by dominant political elites can produce carnage on a mass scale. The international media has, in trying to interpret recent events, emphasized the ethnic dimensions of the conflict that has been ignited by the election by explaining the last 10 days in tribal terms—Kikuyu, Luo, and Kalenjin most especially, and indeed, these differences run deep. However, what has been missing in these accounts is the extent to which these differences have been and are politically constructed. The British, when they ruled Kenya, reinforced ethnic difference as a means of sustaining the power of the colonial state. After independence the elite that came to rule Kenya did the same, setting poor Kenyan against poor Kenyan by highlighting the ethnic ‘differences’ within the poor. This was particularly so in the Rift Valley region, where, as a result, there is a long-standing history of interethnic conflict; this was especially so under the regime of former President Daniel arap Moi, who used ethnic differences as a principal excuse to maintain a repressive state for many years.
The use of ethnicity as a means of politically organizing the subordinate, for the benefit of the ruling elite, and the use of repression as a means to sustain an elite privilege that is predicated upon the use of ethnicity, cannot however hide the fact that Kenya is a deeply stratified society. Class dynamics must be understood if the political economy of recent events are to be interpreted. Dominant political groups have used politics as a means of plundering the country, and thus enriching themselves, turning themselves into a indigenous ruling class. Kleptocracy runs deep in this elite. A principal exhibit: the Goldenberg scandal of the early 1990s, which witnessed, possibly, 10 % of the country’s GDP being extorted by members of the elite through questionable exports of gold and diamonds, a scam for which no member of the ruling class has ever been prosecuted. A second exhibit: the Anglo Leasing affair, in which government money was paid to companies that did not exist, or was paid to companies at dramatically over-inflated prices, diverting millions of dollars to shady businessmen who in turn passed on money to corrupt senior politicians. Repression and kleptocracy have been tolerated by the West, as Kenya has always been a key strategic ally in East Africa. Western indulgence, even during the last few years of Moi, when, in theory, the West was trying to clamp down on corrupt excesses, has allowed Kenyan political elites to turn a blind eye to the poverty, unemployment and landlessness that confronts a population of 38 million, half of which live on less than US$2 a day, and half of which are under 20. Kenya’s economy must create several hundred thousand jobs a year just to stand still, yet the capital-intensive export agriculture that supplies high-value fresh flowers and vegetables to Europe that is favoured by the government, and the import-intensive tourism industry that is favoured by Northern holidaymakers, do not produce those types of labour-intensive jobs.
No wonder the citizens of Kenya wanted change. They thought they were going to get it in 2002, when Kibaki was first elected, promising to fight corruption and produce hundreds of thousands of jobs. There was, amongst Kenyans, at the time a remarkable, rejuvenating sense of possibility. Instead, they got more of the same, as anti-graft campaigns were quickly dissipated, stalwarts of the Moi years quickly returned to positions of authority, and oppositional figures such as Raila Odinga were forced to quit.
That this cabal would seek to rig the presidential elections is thus not surprising, although the blatant character of it has shocked many, not least of all me. As is clear, the outcome of the parliamentary elections was a disaster for the President. The President’s Party of National Unity, which includes remnants of Moi’s former Kenyan African National Union party, lost the vote, and half the President’s cabinet, including some very nasty people such as Nicholas Biwott, Moody Awori, and Gideon Moi, son of the former President, lost their seats. Kibaki and his entourage therefore put into play a long-standing plan to rig the Presidential election results by delaying the results from Central Province, a Kibaki stronghold. Kibaki was being trounced outside Central Province; therefore, the results in Central Province were altered, so that, in some instances, apparently greater than 98 % of the electorate voted in some precincts for the President, a ludicrous ploy that would have made Nicolae Ceausescu proud. As a result, Kibaki was declared the winner by 230000 votes by the tainted Kenyan electoral commission. When the result was announced, security forces sealed off central Nairobi, because the political class knew what the impact of the declaration would be; the President was hurriedly sworn into office. The electorate, robbed of the change that it sought, exploded, particularly in the slums of Kibera and Mathare outside Nairobi, pools of humanity that Mike Davis would recognize as ‘existential ground zeroes’ which, because of their desire for change, had the potential to become volatile in the wake of their political expression being thwarted.
Raila Odinga, the Orange Democratic Movement’s (ODM) candidate for president, and a long-standing opponent of the one-party rule of former President Moi, expected the vote to be rigged; indeed, the ODM engaged in some irregularities as well. Reliable accounts suggest that the ODM had a pre-existing plan to react to the announcement of a Kibaki victory by calling on a campaign of civil disobedience. Thus, on the ground, there has been some encouragement of young hoodlums rampaging through the streets of Kisumu, Mombassa, Eldoret and the Nairobi slums; the ODM is not innocent. Nonetheless, the assignation of blame must be laid at the door of Kibaki, who has robbed the Kenyan people of the change that they clearly indicated they wanted.
The venality of Kenya’s ruling and middle classes cannot be overemphasized. They do not have to see the sea of poverty in which they live. They are ferried by car from place to place, living behind fairly secure walls, where they can bemoan the rioting on the street outside, and ignore their own culpability in it. That culpability runs deep: they have materially benefited from the kleptocratic repressive state run by Moi and Kibaki, and they believe in their right to rule. Many hardliners in the elite will therefore argue that the reduction in repression under Kibaki was a mistake, and what is needed, to manage the ‘tribal tensions’ of Kenyan society, is a return to repression.
Indeed, what that repression would entail has already been witnessed in the past few days; the security services have been responsible for a significant share of the violence. What is not clear, however, is how ordinary Kenyans would respond. Previously, politically-motivated ethnic conflict occurred in rural areas removed from the capital. What is now different is that conflict has moved full-scale into the slums of Nairobi, where the frightening possibility of these politically-constructed identities fostering neighbour turning on neighbour is very real; in the absence of political accountability the poor have started to devour the poor. Accentuating the possibility of a deepening quagmire of conflict are the presence of young criminal gangs that have sought to use the troubles in the slums as an excuse to terrorize and loot, while at the same time trying to increase the control of slumlords over the impoverished population that lives there; many of these gangs, which draw from unemployed and disempowered youth, are linked to political parties. In this existential ground zero, 300 are dead, upwards of 250000 people are displaced, rape gangs stalk the countryside, and children are burnt alive in a place of sanctuary.
Cote d’Ivorie has tragically demonstrated that the myth of stability can quickly degenerate into civil war when the demons of ethnicity that have been used by the ruling elite turn on the political choices that have been made by that very elite. The flame has been lit, and while political leaders dither in the safety of their sanctuary it is only ordinary Kenyans who can put it out. One can only hope that that is what they do.