The Default Politics of Ethnicity in Kenya

By Holmquist, Frank; wa Githinji, Mwangi | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

The Default Politics of Ethnicity in Kenya


Holmquist, Frank, wa Githinji, Mwangi, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


The ethnic impetus of Kenya's post-election violence of January and February 2008 was evident.1 It was less evident, however, why alternative political identities and processes did not prove strong enough to head off the violence. We will discuss the important and competing, but currently relatively weak politics surrounding ethnicity in order to gain a better understanding of why ethnic politics is the modus operandi in Kenya. This kind of politics led to a near post-violence paralysis of the coalition government and an apparent inability to implement the full range reforms laid out in the National Accord of 28 February 2008, mediated by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Following the 27 December 2007 election, the Election Commission of Kenya (ECK) declared that President Mwai Kibaki of the Party of National Unity (PNU) was re-elected and Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) was defeated although the ODM won a majority in Parliament. Severe violence broke out in protest of a flawed election process and outcome. The Accord brought an end to violence, led to a coalition government, and suggested arenas of reform to head off a recurrence of violence.

Two approaches to the recent crisis will inform the flow of discussion based on separate aspects of power dynamics.2 One approach looks at high politics and poses the question of why the political class was so divided-largely in ethnic terms-that the state almost collapsed. The second approach to the crisis addresses the diffuse revolt from below and involves the question of the relationship between the state and its citizens. The violence came from several directions at once, and while much of it was planned and guided from above, including by police, it in part targeted those who were thought to be current or former supporters of the state or beneficiaries of state largesse. For many, the violence was a verdict on a state that was acting in an unfair and unjust manner. As the violence continued there was a growing class-based anger that was displayed in encounters with people of wealth regardless of their individual or group standing vis-à-vis the state. These two aspects of the crisis-that of the state occasioned by the divided political class and that of the diffuse revolt from below-conditioned the gathering storm. 3

Kenya and Africa face multiple challenges that Thandika Mkandawire enumerates as the crises of development, democracy, and inclusion.4 In his view the state must counter the neo-liberal emphasis on the market by rejecting its pull toward the denigration of state roles in development; democracy must deepen; and inclusion must be broad and embrace social class, gender, and age categories, and a host of other identities, including ethnicity. This paper will loosely use these three goals to help assess Kenya's trajectory going into and coming out of the 2007 election, and indicate how movement on these goals might figure into the severe divisions within the political class that occasioned the near collapse of the state and the revolt from below. This paper argues that while Kenya made progress on the formal democracy dimension, it failed on those of development and inclusion. Before we proceed let us clarify our use of ethnicity as a concept. Ethnicity is often invoked to explain many of the problems of African nations. It is used in two distinct ways. The first is the older and probably more popular view that African societies are characterized by deep ethnic cleavages that are ancient and permanent. In this view, ethnicity is seen as irrational and primordial. The second more nuanced view and the one we embrace-is that ethnicity is socially constructed and a moving target. Given the contours of historical ethnic relations in Kenya, ethnic identities are primarily used by political elites to mobilize citizen support and are rationally embraced by citizens in the absence of other forms of political identities, discourses, and organizational vehicles at the national level. …

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