Kenya in Crisis

Kenya is unlikely to follow the genocidal trajectory of Rwanda, nevertheless international concern is justified because the country is essential to the stability of east and central Africa. Kenya lies athwart internal and regional faultlines of politics, ethnicity, religion and class and it is imperative that the crisis be resolved quickly.

By Knox Chitiyo, Head of Africa Programme, RUSI

The 27 December elections have triggered a frenzy of violence which have laid bare the fault lines in east Africa’s largest economy. The rush to judgement by the Kenya Election Commission, which announced President Mwai Kibaki as the winner despite credible evidence which showed that there had been serious ballot tampering and vote rigging in the Kikuyu heartland of Kenya, has plunged the nation into crisis. Media images of the brutal massacre of dozens of civilians sheltering in a church in Eldoret, reports of inter-ethnic killings and photographs of machete- and panga-wielding mobs racing through the cities, elicit primal memories of Africa as a slaughterhouse. More sensationalist reportage, and recent vitriolic comments by both Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga, make frequent comparisons between Kenya and Rwanda, the suggestion being that Kenya is now a genocide–in-waiting.

This apocalyptic scenario is unlikely. Kenya is very different from the Rwanda of 1994. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 was not an inexplicable phenomenon; the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi had a long history of ethnic clashes, and each decade since independence, had witnessed inter-ethnic massacres, culminating in the genocide of 1994. In Kenya, by contrast, although there are certainly tensions, and low intensity violence between the ruling Kikuyu communities and other ethnic groups such as the Luo, the Kalenjin and the Meru , there is no tradition of ethnically-based, organised mass killings. In addition, it should be remembered that the genocide in Rwanda was not accidental; it had been pre-arranged, and only needed the trigger of Rwandan President Habyiramana’s air crash to light the tinder box. In Kenya there is, as yet, no nationally organised movement or organisation which is calling for ethnic elimination. Although there will certainly continue to be ethnic violence in Kenya for some time to come, Rwanda’s genocide, far from acting as a spur to Kenyans to emulate on of Africa’s most tragic moments, is an inhibitor, reminding Kenyans - and Africans in general - of how destructive tribalism can be.

This does not mean that Kenya’s troubles are over. 2008 has ushered in a period of violence and uncertainty for Kenya, the central and east African region, and the international community. It is impossible to say how long the crisis will last, but the problems are unlikely to be resolved soon. Although many observers have expressed shock at the sudden conflagration in east Africa’s most stable and powerful economy, the reality is that Kenya has been as assiduous in building the architecture of crisis as it has been in creating the foundations of economic power. There are various causes of the current crisis, and each has laid down markers which were often ignored, but which have now coalesced. The causes include politics, ethnicity, economics and the unresolved tensions in Africa between democracy and authoritarianism.

Causes of crisis

Politically, Kenya, like many African countries has long been riven between the politics of nepotistic authoritarianism, and the idealism of grassroots democracy. Kenya’s first President, Jomo Kenyatta, was an unabashed autocrat who believed that multiparty democracy was incompatible with national stability and economic growth. During his tenure as leader of the Kenya African National Union (KANU), Kenya flourished economically, even as alternative political voices were stifled. Kenyatta’s successor, Daniel Arap Moi, who took power in 1978, formalised the one-party state, but was shaken by an attempted air force coup in 1982 and growing internal and international pressure to democratise Kenya. The result was multi–party elections in 1992, which were won by Moi, who capitalised on the fratricidal politics of a divided opposition. In December 2002, Mwai Kibaki, leader of the opposition National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) rode to power on anti-KANU and anti-corruption sentiment. NARC, however, was divided over the new constitution which Kibaki was proposing. The most powerful splinter group from NARC was the Orange Democratic Movement, formed in 2005, which Raila Odinga now heads. These layers of political disagreements had been 'managed' until recent; the 'validation' of the election and Kibaki’s insistence that he is the legitimate winner of the 27 December election, and his refusal to countenance any alternative scenario other than him remaining as head of state, has triggered the crisis. What lies beneath, is, however, a protracted constitutional dispute over Presidential powers and the electoral process. In addition, there is personal antipathy between Kibaki and Odinga. The latter believes that he suffered betrayal and humiliation at Kibaki’s hands, since the 'understanding' between them had been that Kibaki would not pursue a second term in office – hence the refusal by either man, and Odinga in particular, to negotiate.

Poverty has also been a destabilising factor, and is arguably the real cause of the crisis. Although successive KANU governments and President Kibaki’s regime have presided over one of Africa’s most stable economies, that economic progress has come at the cost of enormous economic, political and resource inequalities. Since independence, Kenya’s landowning class has entrenched itself and there has also been an urban plutocracy. Corruption remains endemic despite Kibaki’s professed anti-corruption mandate since taking office in 2002. There is widespread rural and urban poverty, which was exacerbated by the drought of 2005 and the governments’ slow response to the suffering. Nearly half of Kenya’s population live beneath the poverty line. HIV/AIDS has also been a major factor in impoverishing the citizenry. The current crisis has seen the melding of poverty and ethnicity to bring old resentments to boiling point. The Kikuyu, who are 20 per cent of Kenya’s population, but who constitute the political and economic ruling class, are widely perceived by more marginalised groups as the root of the problems in Kenya. Many groups perceive President Kibaki’s determination to retain power as a Kikuyu conspiracy to remain as Kenya’s political and economic elite and to continue the marginalisation of other groups. Although, this is far from the truth - many of the urban and rural poor are in fact Kikuyu - this idea gained currency after the recent election. (Other groups resent what they believe to be the Kikuyu’s triumphalist 'appropriation' of the Mau Mau history and legacy). Much of the violence is the result of the poor who transcend ethnicities venting their fury at a failed democratic process which they see as the death of hope, and which is likely to continue their impoverishment; criminal elements have also seized the opportunity given by the temporary collapse of a central authority, to take the law into their own hands.

Criminal and state violence also witnessed a marked increase in 2007, particularly in Nairobi, the capital. In early 2007, the Mungiki, a gang which had developed from an anti-Christian sect into Kenya’s largest criminal society, terrorised the Mathare slum district of Nairobi and villages in central Kenya. Both the Mungiki and the police forces which hunted them, showed extraordinary brutality which resulted in the murders and mutilations of innocent civilians. The Mungiki had barely been 'contained' before this new round of violence following the December poll, and it seems evident that some of the worst of the current violence bears the Mungiki imprint. 2007 has thus been the year in which violence - whether criminal, political or social - has become 'normatl' to some degree in Kenya. The question is whether December 2007, has seen a 'spike' in the levels of violence, or whether 2008 will witness carnage which far surpasses anything seen before.

Options for Kibaki and Odinga

It is unlikely that President Kibaki will voluntarily relinquish power, even though his credibility and legitimacy have been severely undermined. He has however, been buttressed - so far - by the support of the military, who have cracked down on the opposition and the city-dwellers. The AU’s faint criticism will also strengthen Kibaki’s resolve. He will probably hold discussions with Odinga - but Kibaki will see himself as operating from a position of power. He will not offer to step down, but may offer Odinga a newly minted vice-presidency or a ministerial post, as well as including opposition members in his Cabinet. For Kibaki, though, such an agreement will essentially be an incorporation of the opposition, not a merger. Although there has been international criticism of the electoral process and result, so far there has not been international condemnation. Britain and the United States, Kenya’s key economic and political allies, have voiced concern, and urged a speedy resolution to the crisis through negotiation; they have, however, been relatively restrained in their comments. There has been no talk of suspending Kenya from the Commonwealth, as was the case with Pakistan a month ago. Nor have there been any threats of sanctions against Kibaki’s regime. It is clear that Kibaki intends to ride out the storm and continue as head of state, regardless of the internal and external challenges to his authority.

His opponent Raila Odinga has a diminishing range of options; he is likely to issue a legal challenge to the 27 December electoral process; he may also play a waiting game – Odinga’s coalition now dominates Parliament, and they could make it impossible for Kibaki to enact any legislation, or otherwise function as head of state, once Parliament is reconvened. However, Odinga is aware that Kenya’s opposition parties have a history of imploding under the weight of diverse expectations. In addition, Kibaki has previously demonstrated that he only requires ethnic (Kikuyu) and military support to survive, as shown when he dissolved his entire cabinet in 2005, after quarrels over the constitution. In addition, Odinga’s family are, historically, from the grandee tradition in Kenya and he certainly believes that it is his destiny to be Kenya’s next President. He will thus not be inclined to wait. However, any attempt by Odinga to seize power will likely be snuffed out by the security forces, and he could find himself further from the corridors of power than ever before.


Although there is no guarantee of success for Africa Union mediation, the AU chairman, President John Kufuor of Ghana, has begun attempts and it is vital that the AU has recognised that the crisis in Kenya is not simply an 'internal matter', as President Kibaki has called it. If the crisis continues unchecked, it has the potential to destroy the nation and further destabilise an already volatile regional neighbourhood. The AU and the global community appear to have agreed on a 'quiet diplomacy' approach to resolve the crisis. There is disagreement , however, on whether Kibaki and Odinga should be persuaded to form a government of national unity, or whether the two men should simply be persuaded to begin a dialogue. If President Kufour goes to Nairobi, he will need to make a rapid assessment of the situation, and suggest the best way forward. If a government of national unity is not feasible, it is likely that the EU, the Commonwealth and the UN, will press for an official investigation of the elections and a possible re- run. What really matters to Kibaki, however, is the AU position; and it is unlikely that the AU, given its past record on disputed elections, will take a firm stand against Kibaki; all the indications are that the AU will recognise Kibaki as the President of Kenya. Currently, it is Odinga who appears to be feeling the weight of internal and international expectations; he has postponed his 'alternative' Presidential ceremony – this would certainly have precipitated a state crackdown and more bloodshed, although he has insisted that he will lead his supporters in a series of protest marches to Uhuru Square in central Nairobi. It remains to be seen to what extent his supporters will continue to brave police tear gas, batons, and bullets.

There are major regional and continental implications for Kenya’s crisis; Kenya is the financial hub of east Africa; already, the crisis there has triggered fuel shortages and price increases in neighbouring countries. Kenya has been the regional stabiliser, providing an economic bulwark for Uganda and Rwanda, as their economies emerged from conflict. Kenya has also provided sanctuary for refugees from conflicts in neighbouring states such as Somalia. If Kenya itself becomes unstable, it could have a 'contagion' effect across the entire eastern and central African region. In the Nairobi terrorist bombing in 1998, Kenya suffered at the hands of 'imported' religious extremists; there are tensions between Kenya’s coastal communities and the hinterland. The problems are primarily those of poverty and alienation, but there is also a religious element, with some of the Muslem communities around the coast and Mombasa, feeling aggrieved and marginalised. This has been borne out by the current unrest, which has spread to Mombasa, where it has taken on ethnic, class and religious overtones.

Kenya’s political crisis is also important in what it presages. 2008-10 will see parliamentary and Presidential elections across much of southern, central and eastern Africa. There is a deep ambivalence in Africa towards democracy and governance; this is particularly evidenced in the tensions between embedded state authoritarianism, and grassroots democracy. The Kenyan elections have highlighted this conundrum, and a swathe of elections, from Zimbabwe in March 2008 to South Africa in 2009, and Ghana in 2009, will further highlight the importance of the electoral process in Africa’s future. The key question for Africa is whether their leaders will allow genuinely free and fair elections; whether they will relinquish power if they lose the elections; and what happens to the country in the event of a disputed election.


Although the current crisis in Kenya will not result in the break-up of that country, the crisis is deeply unsettling. Kenya lies athwart internal and regional faultlines of politics, ethnicity, religion and class and it is imperative that the crisis be resolved quickly. The opposition has vowed to continue its protests – there is likely to be a violent confrontation with the police. Both Kibaki and Odinga have to reach a middle ground of common sense and pragmatism which avoid the minefields of ego. Whether, and when, they will do so, is debatable. There has to be a resolution of the longstanding constitutional-political impasse which has led to the current crisis; corruption and rural and urban poverty also have to be addressed. Ethnicity has obscured the real issues, but if left unresolved, Kenya could well splinter along ethnic lines. After all, in Africa, ethnicity is often the first resource of both the powerful and the powerless.

Knox Chitiyo
Head, Africa Programme, RUSI

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

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