“For all its flaws, an example to others,” announced the headline on Kenya in a December 2007 issue of The Economist. Less than two months later, the Kenya it depicted as “a haven of stability and prosperity in eastern Africa,” no longer exists. In its place is a country where ethnic conflict has taken on a life of its own, with violence increasingly detached from the political strife with which it began. The speed at which Kenya’s social fiber has come unraveled has both Kenyans and the international community scrambling to de-escalate tensions that have become primarily ethnic in nature.
As we are inundated with images of men sharpening pangas in the street, of the bloody limbs they have hacked, of bodies strewn about, we are reminded of recent ethnic conflicts such as that of Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. What explains this so-called ethnic violence, what are its ramifications, and what can be done to prevent it? On the face of it, defining ethnic violence seems fairly straightforward – it is violence that occurs between ethnic groups. What is less clear is explaining how and why these ethnic groups come to be defined as such and where and when violence will occur.
In some cases, ethnic groups are fabricated for political purposes, as was arguably the case in Rwanda during and post-colonialism. In others, like Kenya, groups of people are in fact distinct. But the cohabitation of culturally distinct peoples is not a necessary and sufficient condition for ethnic conflict. Observers often argue is that historical animosity or “ancient hatreds” explains violence between ethnic groups. Such primordial explanations, however, have little predictive power. Furthermore, they do not explain how or when people choose to organize themselves according to ethnicity as opposed to another aspect of their identity.
In Kenya, as in many countries, ethnicity has been used in recent history for political and economic leverage. Under presidents Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki, certain groups were favored in the distribution of the national cake. Professors of Economics Paul Collier of Oxford and Stephen O’Connell of Swarthmore College cite Moi’s Kenya as a classic example of ethno-regional redistribution. Under Moi, the telecommunication and other industries were used for the economic benefit of the Kalenjin, the core of Moi’s political base. Kibaki, for his part, appointed members of the Kikuyu, Meru, and Embu ethnic groups to top ministerial positions within the ministries of finance, justice, and internal security. Despite Kenya’s impressive economic growth under Kibaki, many non-Kikuyu feel the Kibaki government has favored its Kikuyu political base.
Even given this history, however, one could not have predicted with any certainty when or where ethnic conflict would occur in Kenya. It is not the existence of distinct ethnic groups as such that results in ethnic violence. It is, I would argue, politicians or elites’ manipulation of these ethnicities to wield political power that has the potential to throw a stable country into genocidal chaos. It appears that Kibaki and Odinga used ethnicity as a political tool, one that has caused a domino effect over which they now have little control.
While violence began primarily as a means to express legitimate anger over a fraudulent election, there are now other factors also at play, including opportunistic thuggery. Stanford University professors James Fearon and David Laitin explain that if thugs or gangs engage in ethnic violence with ulterior motives unrelated or only indirectly related to ethnicity, such as looting or land grabbing, “processes begin that leave moderates in the group little choice but to follow a similar path. By initiating tit-for-tat sequences, thugs bring about the construction of more antagonistic group identities, making it rational to fear the other group and see its members as dangerous threats.” It is in this way, perhaps, that Kenya has now spiraled widely out of control. The looting and gang violence have now created a legitimate threat to the Kikuyu, who have responded violently in kind. In short order thousands of ordinary Kenyans are fleeing for their lives. How then to stop Kenya from slipping further down the path toward its own destruction – social, economic, and political?
Unfortunately, the more time that passes means not only more loss of life, but also more difficulty in returning to normalcy. Lehigh University professor Chaim Kaufmann argues that, “in ethnic wars both hypernationalist mobilization rhetoric and real atrocities harden ethnic identities to the point that cross-ethnic political appeals are unlikely to be made and even less likely to be heard…restoring civil politics in multi-ethnic states shattered by war is impossible because the war itself destroys the possibilities for ethnic cooperation.” Kenya is has not yet reached this point of no return, but it is drawing closer by the day.
It is crucial that both Kibaki and Odinga openly criticize and actively prevent further ethnic violence from occurring. In addition, both men must reach across ethnic lines and avoid the further polarization of a country already deeply fractured. Without the mutual commitment of Kibaki and Odinga to stabilize the country first and foremost, neither man can hope to run the state. Odinga’s promise of federalism, or majimbo, may be useful in easing tensions between the Kikuyu and Kenya’s historically less fortunate groups, but only if the Kikuyu are not alienated in the process.
The Kenya of today is not the Rwanda of yesterday – it does not appear ethnic violence was either orchestrated or inevitable. Nevertheless, the country has reached a critical juncture, and with each passing day of violence, a resolution becomes increasingly difficult and the societal wounds deeper. The December Economist headline remains the same, though Kenya has changed. Not only despite its flaws, but because of its flaws, Kenya should be an example to its neighbors and others around the world. Ethnicity as a political tool has a mind and heart of its own. To wield this tool, despite potential pay-offs, is to gamble with the stability of a country and the lives its citizens. Those who have taken and who continue take this gamble must be prepared to take responsibility for its consequences.