Kenya’s Violence: Britain’s Legacy

It’s hard to fathom how a rigged election could produce such violence as burning women and children alive in a church. But that’s what happened in the Kenya Assemblies of God Church in Kiambaa, just outside the town of Eldoret in western Kenya. Unfortunately, it didn’t come as a surprise to me or others living in the region.

Some brief historical background may help explain why Kenya has seemed to suddenly erupt into ethnic violence after President Mwai Kibaki was sworn into office following disputed elections. So far, the Kenyan government has estimated that about 300 people have died. But it’s likely that this number is underreported and will keep climbing. The post-election violence has pitted the Kikuyu ethnic group, whose members support the incumbent Kibaki, against the Luo, who are in the tribe of opposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga, Luhya, Kalenjin and other ethnic groups.

British Rule, Kikuyu Functionaries

The genesis of the current situation has its origin in British colonialism during the early 20th early. The nature of their colonial model was total control from a strong center. While proportionally few British people actually settled in Kenya, they controlled large estates. To run these estates and enjoy the comfortable life the British desired, they needed lots of labor, the cheaper the better. Therefore, the colonial government levied a tax on each adult male that forced him to work six months per year just to pay the tax, which was then used for the benefit of the settlers. The settlers were harsh and cruel to their African laborers.

The “tribe” that was most affected by the British rule were the Kikuyus, mainly because they lived on the fertile soil of a small area on Mount Kenya. They were quickly forced off of their minimal amount of land by the colonialists and consequently many of them were forced onto the settlers’ estates to work for them. The Kikuyu are known for being very industrious, hard-working people who early on saw the benefits of education. Many of them became the low-level functionaries that any government needs, including the British colonial authorities.

Mau Mau Rebellion

During World War II, many young Kenyan men were drafted into the British army and served across the globe. Their eyes were opened by what they saw and when they returned to Kenya after the war, they found that they were given the same menial, low-paying dead-end work. By the early 1950s, this dissatisfaction gave rise to a protest movement called the “Mau Mau rebellion.”

The Mau Mau movement was mostly among the Kikuyus and they forced people to take an oath to oppose the British rule. Perhaps 90 percent of the Kikuyu in Central Province on Mount Kenya took the oath, willingly and unwillingly. The remaining 10 percent were the loyalists who worked for the British colonial government. Although Jomo Kenyatta, who later became president, was originally jailed as a Mau Mau leader, they soon realized that he was really a loyalist. Additionally, his son, Peter Kenyatta, with Jomo Kenyatta’s blessing, was one of the leaders of the loyalists. Kenyatta was soon separated from the other Mau Mau leaders.

The suppression of Mau Mau was extremely brutal. A larger percentage of the Kikuyu population in Central Province died during the suppression of Mau Mau in the 1950s than Rwandans perished during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Torture was prevalent. Women and children were put into concentration camps with little food and medical care, and as a result a large number of them died. No one should be under the illusion that the British were “better” colonialists than the Germans or Belgians. The technique the British used here was to deny everything with massive cover-ups and much of this history is only now being uncovered.

During this same time, the British implemented land consolidation in Central Province. The result was that the loyalists received nice, large land holdings at the expense of the Mau Mau people who were in jail. When the Mau Mau rebels returned, they found that their land had been reduced to only small fragments unable to support their families. They were forced either to work for the Kikuyu loyalists or to emigrate to other parts of Kenya which were not so heavily populated–in particular, many Kikuyus went to the Rift Valley province.

Matatu Conductors

Some of the most successful loyalists went into business, using the dispossessed Kikuyu to do the labor that they now needed. In particular, the Kikuyu often replaced Indian shopkeepers in small towns and villages. Many more became the conductors and drivers of the matatus (mini-buses) that dominate Kenya land travel. By now some of these individuals have built their businesses substantially and have become tycoons.

The British, at the time of independence in 1963, handed the control of government to their loyalist supporters. The Kikuyu business tycoons and the Kikuyu political establishment formed a strong bond during Jomo Kenyatta’s presidency. When Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin, took over the presidency on Kenyatta’s death, he quickly made a deal with the Kikuyu establishment that he would not bother their businesses and they agreed to let him on the Kenyan gravy train, which included pervasive corruption and looting of government funds. (Kibaki, the most recent president of Kenya was at one time part of both the Kenyatta and Moi Governments).

No Moi Joy

When the Kenyan people, including the Kikuyu elite, tired of Moi, they tried to replace him. In 1992 and 1997, Moi divided and conquered the opposition. One of the techniques Moi used was to promote violence in his homeland of Rift Valley. In 1992, perhaps 1,000 Luo, Luhya, and Kikuyu were killed by the Kalenjins and more than 100,000 became homeless. As happened under British rule, Moi’s regime closed the Rift Valley province to everyone and little is known of the details. When it was over, there was a huge cover-up, but the situation remained very tense.

In 2002, Moi was now too old for another term and he selected Kenyatta’s son, Uhuru Kenyatta, to run for the presidency. The opposition, this time united under Kibaki, soundly defeated Uhuru Kenyatta. At this point Kibaki had the opportunity to bring all Kenyans together as a real nation, but he soon dropped all the non-Kikuyu who had helped him into office. A group of Kikuyu politicians and businessmen became a controlling clique.

Orange Democratic Movement

In 2007, the others (members of the Luo, Luhya, and Kalenjin tribes) who felt betrayed by Kibaki, joined together in the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) to oppose Kibaki. Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, a former foreign minister and a member of the Kamba tribe, stayed out of the coalition and formed his own party called ODM-Kenya.

To summarize, since independence the Kikuyu have directly or indirectly controlled the Government and dominated the Kenyan business community. They have kept and promoted the centralized system of government handed to them when British rule ended in December 1963. Under this governing model, the president was all-powerful, as he controlled the executive, legislative and judicial branches of Government through a hybrid presidential and parliamentary system.

The 2007 election campaign revolved around “devolvement” meaning decentralizing. Naturally, Kibaki and the Kikuyu people opposed this since it would mean giving up their power.

Payback Time

There are 80,000 matatu mini-buses on Kenyan roads, most of which are owned and operated by Kikuyus. I spend a lot in matatus and have ample time to analyze the business. The conductor rents the vehicle with a driver for the day and keeps whatever is left over. So the conductor has to push and push to make sure that he does not actually lose money. The conductor therefore often tries to increase the price of the ride, stuff more people into the vehicle, and drive faster. This leads to amazing antagonism between the conductor and the passengers. There is no customer service, just customer disservice. The riders continually believe that they are being taken advantage of and abused. This happens almost every time one gets into a matatu.

So, unfortunately, the current wave of violence is seen by many Kenyans as payback time. It’s amazing how only Kikuyu shops and homes are being burned, leaving everyone else’s intact. Those at the bottom are taking it out on those whom they feel are on top. They have no contact with the Kikuyu tycoons and politicians and so they are taking the pent-up rage of 44 years of independence out on the average Kikuyu in their community. The Kikuyu are then retaliating by killing the other ethnic groups that happen to live in their communities. This also explains why Kibaki (read the Kikuyu elite) wished to stay in power by rigging the election. Otherwise, they would be the losers.

At stake here is whether the status quo, with the Kikuyu on top, will prevail or if the essential nature of the Kenyan government will change so that everyone gets a fair share. (But if the latter scenario takes root, it would remain to be seen whether the Kikuyu would be allowed their fair share or be punished.)

Plenty of Tinder

Changing demographics can also help explain Kenya’s predicament. With the large population increase in recent decades, there are many youth. Many of them have been educated to the secondary level or even above, yet are left with few jobs and nothing to do, and therefore alienated from Kenyan society. These are the shock troops of the rioters and looters. They see no future so they can easily be turned to violence.

Clearly there was plenty of tinder. The spark was the announcement that Kibaki “won” what everyone in western Kenya, and the European Union, considers a rigged election. The youth waited until the result was announced on the radio and then immediately attacked matatus (I saw the plumes of eight burning matatus), Kikuyu shops and homes, and then the Kikuyu themselves.

David Zarembka, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative in Kenya.