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Is Kenya on the Brink of Violence?


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The largest incidence of post-election violence in Kenya happened in 2007/2008 after a highly contested general election between the major protagonists Mr. Mwai Kibaki of the Party of National Unity (PNU) and Mr. Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). The violence erupted immediately after the Electoral Commission Chairman announced Mr. Kibaki as the winner, prompting supporters of Odinga to protest. The protests which were dubbed peaceful took another twist when supporters of both candidates turned against each other, with catastrophic results. Close to 1,500 people died with many others being injured. The post-election violence also led to an unprecedented internal displacement of people, with more than half a million people fleeing their homes.


The post-election violence had root causes which so far have just been skimmed over and not fully addressed. Kenya has had a history of post-election violence after every election with the last one being the most violent. Therefore it is worth noting that while the incidences of violence seem to occur during political processes, there are underlying determinants such as poverty, bad governance, corruption, insecurity, unemployment- however tribalism is the main factor in post-election violence.


Kenya has over 42 tribes with the major tribes being Kikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin, Kamba and Luo. These major tribes control the political direction of the country. Each tribe has a political leader who banks on tribal support to get power or control resources. Members of one tribe can team up with members from another to obtain ‘power’ at the expense of the others. For example, the Kikuyu and the Kalenjins voted as a block for the current Jubilee government. Once a tribal leader is elected into office he or she is likely to reward their communities by appointing members to different positions in government. Other tribes are likely to feel resentful and begin to hate the other tribe. This hatred causes simmering tensions amongst members from different regions or tribes, which quickly turns into violence every time there are political campaigns.


Tribalism is therefore a Kenyan national disaster and should be named so. Glossing over tribalism and its effects, as the media and the middle class tend to do under the guise of patriotism, is not sustainable. Instead, the country is in need of long term solutions.


A look at the social media reveals how deep seated tribalism has taken root in Kenya. The social media is used mostly by the upper/middle class and media personalities. People from one tribal group bash the other daily in Facebook and other chat rooms, which reinforces the problem. If the hatred and the concept of tribal leadership continue then there looms a bigger catastrophe than has been seen.
The post-election violence was brought to an end through a negotiated dialogue forum called the Kenya National Dialogue and Reconciliation (KNDR) led by the former secretary general of the United Nations Mr. Kofi Annan. A grand coalition was formed bringing together members of the PNU and ODM. The talks also detailed solutions to future violence in a four agenda strategy. A new constitution which was successfully promulgated in August 2010 was a key part of the proposals. Through the constitution major reforms have been started with devolution being a key change. The constitution allows the formation of different constitutional commissions such as the National Land Commission (NLC), charged with land reforms and the National Cohesion and Integrity Commission (NCIC), a body charged reconciling the country. A proposal was also made to the effect that perpetrators of the post-election violence would be prosecuted both locally and internationally, setting the stage for prosecution of six suspects at the International Criminal Court. Another milestone from the KNDR was the formation of the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC). Despite having turbulent times before and during its gatherings the commission produced a report with far reaching recommendations.


In spite of the above proposals there seems to be a system failure. The NCIC has only managed to investigate a few cases of hate speech. Local perpetrators of the post-election violence have not been prosecuted. A major hindrance to land reforms is the constant bickering between state-run lands’ department and the NLC. Police reforms face the same fate with the inspector general clashing with the police commission. The TJRC report has been widely shunned by the political class with no indication of commitment to its implementation. Devolution is also mired in corruption, nepotism and claims of sabotage from the national government. National government appointments are still being seen as a preserve of a few tribes. There is havoc in the social media as people express negative ethnicity openly through regular posting of hate messages. The perceived system failure is a precursor to violence in the future.


It is important for Kenyans led by the leaders to accept that Kenya is a tribal country. It is from this point of acceptance that things can change. Living in denial hurts the country. The solution lays in a series of national dialogue fora involving major political players, religious leaders, the civil society the media and the Kenyan citizen amongst other special interests. Part of the agenda should be how to deal with tribalism and other national challenges. This should not be a one off event. Instead it should be cascaded via civic education to the grassroots. Currently there are numerous community based peace initiatives led by International and local NGOs however they have little impact as they are isolated, scattered, uncoordinated and are conducted with meagre resources. Some of these initiatives are also short lived. Such initiatives should be supported in a well-structured approach involving the government, civil society and the private sector. Other solutions would include empowering the NCIC, frank media campaigns and full implementation of TJRC report and other KNDR resolutions.


Victor Oteku is a CSO specialist with a Bachelor of Arts (Economics and German) and a Master of Arts degree in Management of Nonprofit Organizations. He has wide experience in gender and sustainable community development consultancy.

Victor is passionate about peace, good governance and community development. He thrives in a society with diversity and is keen on learning about cultures and customs that are different from his own. He is devoted to serving others.

Written by Victor Oteku and published on 29-June-2014




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