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Kenya burning

By LongJaunt | 1 Comment » March 26th, 2008

A world of change can happen in three months. For those keeping score, we wavered quite a bit about if we should indeed head to Kenya. Once a mark of stability in a continent known for anything but, the East African nation disintegrated into deadly tribal strife after contested presidential elections late last year. By the time we were packing our bags, we were pretty sure that Kenya was off the itinerary. A month and a half later, things had settled and we cautiously looked into visiting the nation once again.

Ultimately, it was the blessing of Jon Rosen that gave us the confidence to buy our tickets. Rosen, a childhood friend of ours and a former teacher in Kenya, continues to maintain strong contacts with the Kenyan running scene and has a good hand on the local pulse. Currently a master’s student at Johns Hopkins School of International Studies in Bologna, Italy (a future destination on the Jaunt), Rosen recently wrote the following piece that masterfully breaks down the recent, and unstable situation in Kenya. -T.A.


For someone with a deep personal connection to Kenya and its people, the presidential and parliamentary elections of last December 27th had long been marked on my calendar. On that day, opinion polls showed, Raila Odinga, a youthful populist who preached a message of ethnic harmonization, stood a fair chance of upending the aging incumbent Mwai Kibaki.

Elected five years prior on a pledge to curb the country’s longstanding history of corruption, Kibaki was nonetheless accused of reverting to the ways of his forefathers: endorsing tribal favoritism, widening the gap between the country’s elite upper-class and its impoverished masses, and turning his back on various episodes of high-level plundering of state coffers.

As returns trickled in the day after the election, Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement had made large gains in Parliament, and, local sources reported, had a sizeable lead in the race for the Presidency. On the 29th, however, the announcement of further results was suspended under dubious circumstances. That day, I opened my inbox to find the following message from police officer friend who’s also an athlete – and an astute political observer – in the Rift Valley town of Eldoret.

“There are some alarming news about Kibaki rigging the poll ‘n a speedy swearing in ceremony tomorrow against the peoples’ wish. You can imagine what will definitely follow. The Eldoret you knew is not the Eldoret of today, total chaos, total mess.”

Thus began the overnight plunge of a country I’d grown to love for the hospitality and kindness of its people, into one replete with the vilest of human atrocities.

How on Earth did this come to be? At the core, I see three different explanations.
Drive for Democracy
First, the post-election chaos can be viewed as an exasperated cry from patriotic Kenyans who believed the country was on the verge of real democracy. Despite this recent tribal bloodletting, the majority of Kenyans are educated, politically active, and – particularly among the younger generation – tired of a government driven by corruption and cronyism, one committed to feeding itself before feeding its people.

Beneficiaries of – by African standards – an impressive system of public education, young Kenyans are highly literate and actively engaged in world affairs. Though Sigor High School, where I taught in 2004, was located in a particularly underdeveloped area of the country, my students, as a whole, were more interested in the US presidential election than their American counterparts.

Today, these kids, most of whom have mobile phones and easy access to internet, can see how the rest of the world operates, can read in the papers that their elected officials make $100,000 per year plus living expenses and gasoline subsidies for their Mercedes’, while they themselves (despite an economy that is – or rather was – growing at 6% a year) finish high school and are jobless.

Young men and women like these, from all tribes, were deeply committed to getting rid of the old guard, symbolized by the aging, guarded, and corruption-tainted Kibaki. To them, whether rightfully or not, Raila Odinga, right down to his Facebook account and populist rhetoric, was their candidate for change.

Thus, it was not just Kibaki’s victory, but the same old tricks used to secure his victory, that represented a step back for Kenya, not a step forward. A country that one-day was a beacon of hope for the continent of Africa, was the next day relying on soldiers from neighboring Uganda to help prevent it from plunging into further chaos.

It is this widespread post-election anger that leads us to the second mode of looking at the conflict: the unleashing of deep-rooted ethnic tensions that date back to well before the creation of the Kenyan state itself.

Like all African countries, Kenya as we know it today is an artificial creation, the result of arbitrary lines drawn by colonial powers that forced groups of people accustomed to centuries of tribal or clan-based rule to suddenly adapt to the European nation state model.

In Kenya, this required uniting more than 40 different tribes, each with their own language, culture, and traditional geographical homeland. Most prominent among these were the Kikuyu, which today represent 22% of Kenya’s 36 million inhabitants, and the Kamba, Luhya, Luo, and Kalenjin, each comprising roughly 10% or slightly more.

Some countries, at independence, managed to transition to the nation-state model relatively smoothly. In neighboring Tanzania, for instance, where President Julius Nyerere introduced a number of policies aimed at social collectivization, a strong national identity emerged, enhanced by the adoption of Swahili as the universal primary language. (It should be noted, of course, that this socialist model was an economic failure, as Nyerere, himself, admitted; thus, while one of the continent’s most peaceful countries today, Tanzania is also one of its poorest).

In Kenya, the story is a bit more complicated – partly due to the fact that at the height of the colonial period in the 1940s and 1950s, much of the country’s best farmland – the lush green hills of the Central Highlands – was occupied by British settlers.

At Kenya’s independence in 1963, most of these settlers departed, and Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta – a Kikuyu – instituted a land-redistribution scheme that was viewed by other tribes as overwhelmingly favorable toward Kikuyu, as well as his own family members and personal associates, dubbed the Kiambu Mafia – which would retain prominent influence over the economy’s Key Coffee and Tea growing sectors.

Though much of this land was inhabited by Kikuyu before the arrival of the British, other tribes, particularly the Kalenjin, claimed that Kikuyu resettlement had encroached on their territory, which spreads across the vast Rift Valley province and intersects with Kikuyuland in the vicinity of the large town Nakuru.

Exacerbated by this land grab, as well as well as other forms of tribal favoritism displayed by Kenyatta, ethnic identities remained deeply imbedded in the post-independence Kenyan psyche.

Though English and Swahili were adopted as national languages, local dialects remained – and remain today – the primary forms of everyday communication, except among a minority of highly educated upper class Nairobians, and members of the Kenyan foreign diaspora. Until January Kenya’s large mix of ethnic groups had managed to co-exist in relative peace but visible tensions still existed.

In Sigor, which is deep within the land of the Kipsigis – a sub-tribe of the Kalenjin – a few minority Maasai students (from the semi-nomadic group known for its traditional dress, proximity to East Africa’s game parks, and also, it turns out, their land disputes with the Kalenjin), told me they were frequently ostracized by their Kalenjin peers.

A handful of Kikuyu teachers, sent to the area by the government against their wishes, seemed fully accepted by their university-educated Kalenjin colleagues, but looked down upon by their Kalenjin students.

To make a long story short, these longstanding ethnic divisions exploded after Kibaki’s reelection, as rival tribes, most notably the Kalenjin and the Luo, began to target Kikuyu, whom they claimed had benefited from years of government favoritism, first under Kenyatta, and for the last five years, under Kibaki.

While some viewed violence as the only effective means to convince Kibaki’s new government it would not be accepted, others took advantage of the growing unrest to settle old ethnic scores. Luos ran minority Kikuyus out of their homeland in Kisumu, and Kalenjin, making use of the skills learned during the month-long warrior training that accompanies their coming-of-age circumcision ritual – ran Kikuyu out of Eldoret, the Rift Valley city just down the road from the famed running hotbed of Iten.

In the already crime-ridden slums of Nairobi, where all ethnicities are mixed together in what must be nothing short of unbearable squalor, things were even worse. According to some reports, (though this has been rejected by my sources in Kenya) the violence had actually been premeditated by opposition clan elders, who instructed youth to make use of the ensuing chaos to send minority Kikuyu, if not to the grave, back to their home area of Central Province.

Whether or not this is true, the fact remains that most of the post-election violence was ethnically related, and after some time, many killings became simply retaliatory, no longer linked directly to the election.

Finally, there are the opportunists, disaffected, and often drunken youth, who exploited the country’s recent state of lawlessness by looting shops or manning makeshift checkpoints along the country’s highways, collecting “taxes” with the threat of sharpened machetes.

With no jobs, and little hope for the future, they had nothing to lose. And since the police possessed no power to stop them, they were able to make a living by feeding off the chaos – and in so doing, making the chaos even worse.

Moving Forward
Eventually, after six weeks of death and destruction, things in Kenya simmered down, and the rival parties – with more than a nudge from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan – reached a power-sharing agreement that left Kibaki in power and named Odinga to a new post of Prime Minister.

Yet, as the two sides now haggle over the agreement’s details, including the appointment of key ministries – and their accompanying perks that are some of the world’s most lavish – the average Kenyan continues to suffer.

Across the country, makeshift tents for the ethnically displaced can be found in parks, sports stadiums, and even outside Nairobi’s most affluent suburbs, with no sign of resettlement in the near future.

Benard Langat, in fact, my friend turned LongJaunt tour guide, traveled two hours to compete in a 5,000 meter-race in Nakuru this past weekend, only to find the meet canceled, the track now a semi-permanent camp for refugees.

Just as important, a healthily-growing economy once touted as the continent’s most promising has been set back ten years, according to some experts, and vast fleets of white vans normally traversing the country’s famed game parks are for the most-part grounded, putting millions connected with the tourism industry out of work.

Finally, as the ever-tenuous deal is hashed out, sporadic clashes between protesters and police will continue indefinitely, though the worst of the chaos is certainly over.

The vast majority of Kenyans, from all sides of the ethno-political spectrum, simply seek a return to normalcy.

Yet normalcy may be a long time coming.


Jon Rosen is a master’s student at Johns Hopkins School of International Studies in Bologna, Italy, he can be reached at

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One Response to “Kenya burning”

  1. Kefa Says:

    Congratulations, the above gives a clear chrononogy of facts. However, it doest clearly indicate the root cause of the problem. The land issue especially of redistribution of land after Kenya’s Independence was used as a reward for politically correct and on tribal lines. As the land question is critical For example, the Kenyatta government gave out ancestral land in the Rift Valley and some parts of Nyanza to his tribesmen, whose land was dispossed by him and his political elites in Central and Nairobi Provinces. These people were then allocated land in areas which should have been ideally allocated to those moved out by colonial government.

    As time went by the population increased, opportunities decreased, the Maasai, Luos and Kalenjins began demanding for their original land.

    Another important factor that exacarbated the chaos was a believe my citizens of unequal distribution of national resources and government jobs which many felt was favouring Kibaki’s tribe.

    These and many other reasons blew up the already tense situation.

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