As Kenya prepares for election, the spectre of violence looms

Tribal identity politics rather than broad-based party politics still dominate

Fears of a renewal of the intertribal violence that marred the aftermath of Kenya’s 2007 presidential election have surfaced ahead of the country’s general election next month.

The anxiety is not obvious upon first meeting residents of the communities concerned. But ask them to recount their personal experience of the east African country’s disputed election in December 2007 and concerns over the August 8th poll quickly come to the fore.

John "Chege" Mwangi, a shoe salesman from Kibera, a large slum in Nairobi that witnessed a lot of bloodshed in the aftermath of that poll, recalled how he got caught up in the violence when trying to protect his shop.

“We gathered together as Kikuyu to defend our businesses,” he said, referring to the ethnic group of which he is a member. “People then started killing one another, which worsened the tribalism.”


Mwangi added he was praying Kibera’s residents were now “educated enough” to avoid turning to violence if the coming election results are also disputed.

According to international investigations, most of that ethnic violence, which left 1,300 people dead nationwide, was orchestrated by politicians and business people who felt aggrieved about the election’s outcome.

Abandoned prosecutions

Afterwards Kenya's current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his political rival at the time, William Ruto, were charged by the International Criminal Court with inciting their respective Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes to carry out atrocities. The prosecutions were later abandoned, however.

Both men have put their rivalry aside since 2007, having gone on to form the Jubilee coalition, which won the 2013 general election. The ruling coalition is again contesting the 2017 poll, and its main rival is the National Super Alliance, a coalition of opposition parties led by Raila Odinga, a Luo.

A decade ago Kibera witnessed pitched battles between different tribal groups that left dozens dead. According to residents, tensions are again running high because violence broke out in the area during the political parties’ primaries.

For the past decade, civil society, NGOs, church groups and local government have established initiatives that promote peaceful coexistence among Kibera’s estimated 800,000 residents, the majority of whom are members of the Luo, Kikuyu, Kamba and Luhya tribes.

One such intervention involved training peace monitors to act as an early-warning system on the prevalence of hate speech and tribalism, especially at political gatherings.

A scary time

Peace monitor Eunice Ondari (57), a Kikuyu, has been keeping track of the mood in her Kibera community for a number of years. "There is a lot of tension at the moment because the political campaigning has started," she said. "I see youths threaten each other using hate speech; this is a scary time."

Despite the prevalence of hate speech in the general population, all of the peace monitors The Irish Times spoke to said they had so far not heard such language being used during election campaigning in Kibera.

However, there are other warning signs that a disputed poll in August could spark tribal violence. Local media have reported that seven people across the country were killed in incidents linked to political parties’ primary elections in April.

Furthermore, the race between the ruling Jubilee coalition and the National Super Alliance is expected to be extremely close. Both coalitions comprise political parties that are organised along tribal lines, with the former mostly made up of people from the Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes, and the latter predominantly Lou, Luhya, and Kamba.

A Human Rights Watch report released on Kenya in late May has warned that journalists are being intimidated from doing their jobs ahead of the election, and that they "have faced a range of abuses" since the last poll in 2013.

It is also unclear if the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, which will oversee the election, is prepared to carry out its mandate. Preparations for the poll should have got under way a couple of years ago, but the commission only began its work late last year.

Potential for violence

A few hundred kilometres west of Nairobi is the ethnically diverse Nakuru county, another hot spot of political violence after the 2007 election.

Locals here willing to talk to a journalist described a similar situation to that found in Kibera. While provincial politicians are not overtly flaming tribalism yet, people are extremely anxious about what lies ahead.

Many people said they were getting ready to move back to their tribal homelands ahead of the polls to avoid political violence if it emerged, even though this would deny them the chance to vote as they were registered in Nakuru.

Peterlinus Ouma, a programme manager at the Nairobi-based conflict resolution organisation Shalom, believes this year's general election has the potential to be far more violent than the relatively peaceful 2013 poll.

He maintained the circumstances are more volatile this time because Kenyatta wants a second term in office, and his opponent, Odinga, has indicated this is his last run for the presidency.

“The glue that holds our nation together is very weak,” he said. “The ruling government is perceived to be supporting regions where their supporters are dominant, over the National Super Alliance areas. [The Alliance] say they will use alternative ways of accessing justice if elections are not credible. They will not go to court, so what will their alternative be? Both sides have militia that can be used to perpetrate violence.”

Identity politics

Ouma went on to say the main problem in Kenya continues to be that identity politics rather than broad-based party politics still dominates the political landscape. “It starts at the national level and the same scenario trickles down to the county level, where there is clannism [a prejudice based on clan affiliation],” he said.

When asked if hostilities would erupt around this poll, he replied that if issues currently undermining the election process are not addressed, the likelihood was high.

“I think politicians are going to use violence to bar certain parts of the electorate from voting in particular regions. Those who participate in this are going to try and scare opposition voters away from the areas they are registered to vote in,” he concluded.