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Kenya: How Much More of Troubled Times?

Kenya is in turmoil following the contested results of the recently held general elections. International mediation between the parties in conflict will help but serious political and economic reform is a must to end disparities and inequality, which are the root causes of the problem.


Kenya: How Much More of Troubled Times?

Parvathi Vasudevan

Kenya is in turmoil following the contested results of the recently held general elections. International mediation between the parties in conflict will help but serious political and economic reform is a must to end disparities and inequality, which are the root causes of the problem.

The author (, formerly with the Centre for African Studies, University of Mumbai, now lives in Abuja, Nigeria.

ong regarded as a nation with a successful economy, Kenya is in the news, though for unfortunate reasons this time. This is much to the surprise of most Africa watchers since it has over the last decade or so attained for itself a special place in Africa’s growth chart by successfully undertaking difficult economic reforms. Compared to its neighbours, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda, Congo and Rwanda which have experienced wars, tribal conflicts, separatism and government repression, Kenya has a vibrant polity and has been a haven of progress and prosperity thanks largely to peace and stability. There is a vigilant press, an active civil society, a watchful parliament and a growing middle class that constitute the core of an expanding group of professional Kenyans. Kenya is home to several international organisations and is east Africa’s financial hub. Along with Nigeria and South Africa, Kenya is regarded as one of the “anchor states” in sub-Saharan Africa and a key to regional stability. The Kenyan economy too, has comparatively speaking been doing well registering a 6 per cent growth in 2006 – the highest in more than a quarter of a century. Tourism, tea and horticulture have been star performers and foreign investment has been substantial. However, towards the end of 2007, Kenya experienced a series of incidents that reversed this state of affairs, almost overnight. On December 27, 2007 the country held its fourth general elections amidst much fanfare. Both the principal candidates Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent third president of the Party of National Unity (PNU) and Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) aspiring to be Kenya’s fourth president used high tech approaches to woo the voters. The use of text messages, teleprinters, high powered consultants, (such as Dick Morris – the former campaign manager to Bill Clinton), fund raising

dinners for an unprecedented $ 15,000 a plate, were all new and novel for most Kenyans. Both also made use of opinion polls, dozens of radio stations and the three private broadcasters to air their messages. Such was the enthusiasm that diaspora Kenyans decided to advise their

country’s men and women. Undoubtedly, Kibaki’s first term has witnessed some progress, and buttressed by the recent ambience surrounding elections in Africa most outsiders felt that all was well in Kenya. The largest polling firm in sub-Saharan Africa, the Steadman Group clinched the sense of euphoria by pointing out that “it is an indicator of the state of democracy here” (Washington Post, December 14, 2007). In the process it also fuelled high expectations for Kenyans.

The Sceptical Kenyan

But ordinary Kenyans have long been sceptical of being able to partake in the success of the country’s economic boom conditions. While Kenya is not one of Africa’s “most indebted nations”, it still is a very poor country. About 60 per cent of Kenyans still live on less than one dollar a day. The average Kenyan is justifiably angry, because even after 45 years of freedom the troubling issues continue to be the lack of jobs and the general absence of functioning civic amenities needed for a clean, healthy and gainful living. Unabashed and widespread nepotism resulting in perceptions of marginalisation by those who have not been favoured, cronyism and massive corruption continue. According to the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Kenya ranks 150 out of 180 countries. The ordinary Kenyan is also sceptical because of the way in which political power is concentrated. The president is all powerful with exclusive powers to appoint and dismiss all officials of the cabinet, the judiciary, the parliament, heads of all parastatals and even the electoral commission. He is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Kenya. The president also controls the federal budget and most local governments are akin to shadow governments: those that do not contest the president’s orders get more allocations. Political patronage in Kenya’s public spending has as a result increased regional

March 1, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


equalities. This all-embracing and powerful nature of the president’s hold over Kenya has resulted in a widespread sense of disempowerment and disillusionment. With parliament being rendered impotent, most opposition members prefer to absent themselves thereby enabling the president to carry forward his agenda effortlessly. It is in this context that Raila Odinga has talked of the urgent need for “majimboism”, i e, federalism in Swahili. What Odinga is calling for is for a redistribution of power and wealth, a call that has found favour with all of Kenya’s minority ethnic groups but resisted by the kikuyus-the largest ethnic group.

Yet, an equally important reason for the scepticism of the ordinary Kenyan is the fact that in Kenya tribal based affiliations continue to be a very potent mix. While there are 40 recognised ethnic groups, only five matter most – the kikuyus account for 20 per cent, the luos 14 per cent, the luhya 13 per cent, the kalenjin and the kamba each with 11 per cent. Ethnicity in Kenya, according to John Githongo, a former high ranking Kenyan official in charge of rooting out corruption and now an exile in the UK, has come to mean a kind of overpowering identity facilitated by a sense of being unfairly wronged, a sense of grievance unattended to, a mentality of being under siege (BBC Hard Talk programme, January 23, 2008). Put differently, ethnicity is a highly politicised kinship and politics in Kenya is often a factor of the uninhibited rivalry between the kikuyus and the luos. The distribution of wealth in Kenya has been highly skewed in favour of the kikuyus. They are well-educated, prosperous and enjoy high positions in the administration. They also constitute much of the professional classes and top business houses. Further, much of the landholding in Kenya’s most fertile area – the Rift Valley, was purchased by the kikuyus in the 1960s and 1970s – and was in fact re distributed by Jomo Kenyatta as a dole to his own tribe, the kikuyus rather than being returned to the kalenjin tribe members from whom the white rulers had forcibly appropriated the land without any compensation.

Another reason for the scepticism lies in the deep distrust of the character of

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march 1, 2008

people in public life. This was reconfirmed when on December 30, 2007, the Electoral Commission of Kenya declared Kibaki, a kikuyu to be the winner of the presidential elections yet again, even as the ODMled by Odinga, a luo had won most of the seats in the parliament. This was much to the surprise of many observers, national and international. There was no report of irregularity in the voting. What was highly flawed was the counting process, which triggered the massive violence that followed. This was confirmed by the observers from the European Union, the Commonwealth, the Kenyan Domestic Observation Forum, the African Centre for Open Governance and the Institute for Education which had sent 17,000 observers into the field during the elections “The people of Kenya have been cheated…by their political leadership and the institutions…” pointed out Jendayi Frazer, the US assistant secretary of state for Africa after a visit to Kenya (The Financial Times, London, January 7, 2008). The Law Society of Kenya declared that the swearing in of Kibaki was “null and void”.

The Aftermath

What followed has been labelled as ethnic cleansing bordering on genocide. These are strong words but violence fed violence based on ethnic loyalties. Thousands of kikuyus from Kenya’s fertile Rift Valley were displaced, estimated variedly between 3,00,000 and 6,00,000. Irresponsible accusations by government spokespersons and counter-allegations that are equally untrue made by Odinga, escalated the tribal clashes resulting in widespread destruction of human lives and property. It is said that around 1,000 persons lost their lives. Clearly, both the parties are guilty of making a mockery of the election results. Unabashed violence has facilitated fringe groups such as the mungikis to take advantage of the fluid situation and to systematically perpetrate mindless violence. There is also the unspelt fear that if this game of reprisals continues, Kenya’s armed forces could also split on the basis of ethnicity.

More worrisome is the fact that the economic tensions within the ethnic groups have brought back to centre stage the long-standing and bitter disputes over land. Land-related clashes have always occurred during election time, in the first multiparty elections in 1992/93, the second in 1997, the third in 2001/02 and again in 2007. Landholding has always been a contentious issue because it is highly unequal and has tremendously increased income inequality. Kenya currently ranks 148/177 countries in income inequality, according to the UN Human Development Index of 2007-08.

Mediation Efforts

In order to defuse the situation, mediation attempts were made by a number of governments and public personalities both from within and outside Africa. John Kufuor, president of Ghana in his capacity as chairman of the African Union tried to mediate but without success. Kenya would also not brook any mediation efforts by South Africa – Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu’s attempts to mediate were rebuffed. Cyril Ramaphosa, invited by Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General was forced to return home. And, the subsequent efforts of Kofi Annan, Ban Ki-Moon (current UN Secretary General) and the calls for peace made by the members of Kenya’s media, clergy and business houses have all been aimed at bringing about peace in the country and a viable solution to the political impasse. Kofi Annan has been assisted by Graca Machel, former first lady of South Africa and Benjamin Mkape, former president of Tanzania. Together, the three head the Kenya National Dialogue and Reconciliation Team (KNDRT). The team is still in dialogue with the two parties.

Economic Ramifications

It is clear that if the crisis continues, East Africa’s biggest economy would shrink, making it difficult if not impossible to meet the pre-election growth target of 7-8 per cent in 2008. The Central Bank of Kenya not unsurprisingly has endorsed this view. There is also the looming fear of a huge budget deficit. By early January 2008, the Standard & Poor’s had changed its outlook on Kenya to negative – a view shared by other rating agencies as well. By mid-January the Nairobi Stock Exchange’s main index had fallen by 6.1 per cent since the beginning of 2008.


With much of the violence occurring in Kenya’s fertile Rift Valley not only has there been a massive destruction of property and crops (80 per cent of the country’s staple crop is maize), it has also disrupted much of the country’s dairy sector. The farming community, mostly the kikuyus, has been displaced on a massive scale. Apart from the magnitude of the numbers displaced is the fact that this occurred within a short span of time and will have serious implications for agriculture and Kenya’s food security. There has also been an extended closure of offices and factories. Western Kenya, which accounts for 35 per cent of Kenya’s market, has found it difficult to ship goods into or out of Kenya. According to the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM), the loss to the economy is approximately $ 3.7 billion not considering the agriculture sector where effects will take some time to be assessed. Particularly worrisome is the fact that microfinance borrowers are most adversely affected while the small and medium enterprises are finding it difficult to get financing as also to get regular supplies of vital inputs needed to prevent their units from experiencing closures. Already, some of the Asian businesses have been contemplating of moving out of Kenya. Should this materialise, the impact on the Kenyan economy will be significant as Asians have substantial business and financial interests across several sectors. Retrenchment and unemployment seem unavoidable.

Yet another major sector that has already felt the impact is tourism. This sector which brings in an annual inflow of $ 700 million has witnessed a dramatic fall in the number of arrivals, while the outbound flights to Europe are nearly full. Job losses across the leisure industry are on the rise. South Africa and Tanzania would be the likely beneficiaries in the process. Shipping is another sector that has suffered from the crisis. Mombassa, Kenya’s port city that serves most of east Africa is facing labour shortage. The situation has translated into shortage of several products, and most importantly, petroleum products in landlocked economies in Great Lake region, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Uganda, southern Sudan and Rwanda.

The Economist Intelligence Unit survey has mentioned that foreign investors may now be unwilling to invest both in the short and medium term. And international aid agencies have confirmed the suspension of aid pending the outcome of Kofi Annan’s mediation.

Will Mediation Succeed?

On February 15, Kofi Annan announced that the two major parties have agreed to have an independent commission consisting of Kenyan and non-Kenyan experts to review “all aspects” of the election and to come out with its findings within 3-6 months. The assumption is that the findings would be factored into comprehensive electoral reforms. However, Annan suggested that the fundamental causes for the ethnic tensions over land and resources as well as a sense of being marginalised by a government dominated by Kibaki’s kikuyu tribe have not yet been addressed (Stephanie Crummer, Washington Post, February 16, 2008).

It is too early to say whether the negotiations will be dragged on for months till the review commission comes out with its findings. Right now, there is some lull in violence. And the limited agreement on having an independent review commission seems to be a concession to the enormous international pressure that has been exerted in recent weeks. The visit of the UN under-secretary for humanitarian aid and emergency relief coordinator between February 7 and February 10 and the visit of the US secretary of state on February 18 would have played a part in the political parties agreeing to the limited agreement.

What is evident is that president Kibaki and the opposition leader Odinga are not yet in a mood to relent, since they are prisoners of the pressures that are being exerted by the hardliners in their camps (The Daily Trust, Nigeria, January 23, 2008). The present agreement is seen as a small vindication of what Annan had stated at the start of the mediation process that they have not come with a solution, but are there “to insist on a solution” (The Nation, January 24, 2008). Insistence on a solution accompanied by unrelenting international pressure under the gaze of the world’s media appears to have ensured that the dialogue is not disbanded for some reason.

The problem is that even if there are final agreements on paper, the political and social realities could easily rip apart the fragile peace. The main lesson of the Kenyan crisis equally valid for most of sub-Saharan Africa is that violence appears inevitable given the nature of landholdings in rural Africa and on

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Economic Political Weekly


account of unbearable living conditions in the slums in urban Africa. Economic programmes therefore would have to aim at not merely growth but also at the alleviation of inequalities and for provision of essential requirements – water, electricity, shelter and affordable food.1 Ideally, the political parties should chalk out a common economic development programme even while working out a new constitution and other politicoeconomic (especially land) and judicial reforms.

How far would the international opinion help Kenya to gain enduring peace? Past experiences indicate that neither aid suspensions nor sanctions at the bilateral and multilateral levels can alone bring about the desired changes. Possibly, these along with more frequent and focused international media discussions on development issues and the urgent need for social, political and economic reforms would help Kenya in two ways. First, it would prove that the current crisis does not make Kenya “a failed State” nor is the country beyond redemption. It is a clear pointer to the need for good electoral reforms and for having neutral observers to ensure that elections are free and fair. Secondly, a quick turnaround would point to other countries in the continent that ethnic, racial and political issues can be resolved internally and fairly quickly through approaches that forge harmonised solutions.


1 The solution is not something unique. In fact, the president of the African Development Bank, Donald Kabiruka pointed out that any prolongation of the crisis in Kenya would spell a massive downturn across east Africa triggering an alarmingly high rate of displaced people. He called for corrective mechanisms that would factor in the sharing of growth in a “deliberate way” especially by encouraging small businesses, and focusing on free education accompanied by skills formation and skills upgradation. Attending to the needs of the ever expanding slum residents has, he said, to be done on a priority basis because that is where “the volatility arising from inequalities comes from”, a point that was also echoed by the former World Bank vice president, Jean-Michel Sverino, in an article, ‘Did Development Fail in Kenya?’ reported in the Financial Standard, Abuja, Nigeria, February 15-Sunday, February 17, 2008, p 17.

Economic Political Weekly

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