Analysis: Tribal rivalry, poverty and corruption fuel violence over contested election

Neither of the two main presidential candidates would have envisaged this level of violence.

kenya riots 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
kenya riots 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Serious disputes over the legitimacy of Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki's reelection victory on December 27 has sparked violent protests across the country, pitting Kenya's two primary ethnic groups (Kikuyu and Luo) against each other. The death toll, which has already reached the hundreds (including 50 Kikuyus burned to death in a church in Eldoret, 300 km. northwest of Nairobi) is set to rise unless tribal anger is quickly assuaged. Moreover, security forces have been ordered to shoot troublemakers on sight, further aggravating an already explosive situation. Opposition leader Raila Odinga has called for a mass rally in Nairobi on Thursday to protest the election result; the government has refused to grant a permit for the protest, allegedly for fear of violence from an emotionally charged crowd expected to be composed primarily of Luo (Odinga's tribe). Kibaki and Odinga received a total of 8,937,714 votes, with the questionable winner, Kibaki, leading by a mere 231,728. The result has been contested by the opposition, with the support of European Union election observers. Significantly, neither of the two main presidential candidates would have envisaged this level of violence. Central to Kibaki's campaign was the claim that owing to his governance, Kenya has experienced unprecedented economic growth over the past five years. However corruption was also a key feature of Kibaki's Kenya, as well as his promise to deal with the country's widespread poverty. According to government figures, around 16 million Kenyans live in abject poverty (on less than $1 a day). Key failures in addressing corruption and poverty have created a backlash against Kibaki, with the current violence emanating primarily from the slums that have not reaped the benefits of Kenya's recent prosperity (Odinga's constituency is in Kibera, Africa's largest slum). Odinga's political campaign centered on those two issues, and he has successfully marketed himself as a man of the poor, even though he is one of Kenya's wealthiest men. Odinga has vowed to distribute Kenya's wealth to all levels of society. Tribal affiliation is central to Kenyan politics, as in other African nations. Luos comprise the majority of the enraged opposition, taking to the streets in violent protest. The Luo-Kikuyu rivalry has acerbated tensions, with members of Odinga's Luo tribe (about 13% of the population) seeking retribution against Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe (about 24%). Kikuyus have been targeted in the slums (particularly in Kibera and Mathare), with homes and businesses set on fire as Luo and Kikuyus gangs roam the streets. Fearing for their lives and understanding where ethnic violence can lead, especially in Africa (the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Ivory Coast are prime examples), Kikuyus have begun fleeing to neighboring Uganda. While Kibaki stands firm on the election controversy and continues to use force to quell the unrest and to silence the opposition, tribal rivalry is causing the violence to spiral out of control and raising the possibility of bloodshed on a scale that until recently, Kenyans would not have imagined to be possible. Shani Ross is the executive coordinator for the Counter-Terrorism Executive Studies Program at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.