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Elitism and Poverty Drive Kenya Crisis


Kenya continues to simmer with tension following the disputed December election. Since President Mwai Kibaki was controversially declared the victor over his rival, opposition leader Raila Odinga, violence has claimed the lives of about a thousand Kenyans. Thousands more have been displaced to refugee camps and shelters as clashes between people of different ethnicities have erupted. Kibaki is from Kenya’s majority ethnic group, the Kikuyu, while Odinga is a Luo. Peace negotiations are underway, with power sharing seen by some as a possible solution. But former United Nations chief Kofi Annan says it’ll take at least a year for the broader issues fueling the tragedy to be resolved. In the first part of a series on the underlying causes of the crisis in Kenya, VOA’s Darren Taylor examines ethnicity as a key factor behind the chaos.

In a country where there are more than 40 different ethnic groups, the Kikuyu make up more than 20 per cent of the population of about 38 million. There’s long been ill-feeling in Kenya against the Kikuyu, because it is members of this ethnicity, who are close to President Kibaki, who are perceived to control the country’s economy.

In Kenya, this elite is known disparagingly as the “Mount Kenya Mafia” – after President Kibaki’s home area.

Two of the three presidents since independence have been Kikuyu, and analysts say former President Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin, was sympathetic to the Kikuyu because he realized he couldn’t survive without the backing of the country’s largest ethnic group.

In the post-election violence, most of the victims were Kikuyu, but revenge attacks by Kikuyu gangs have since claimed more lives.

It’s in the wake of this mayhem that some of Kenya’s leading wordsmiths have formed the Concerned Writers Group.

“We’ve been going around to the affected areas, trying to calm people, trying to restore a measure of sanity to the country,” says Muthoni Garland, author of several books and a nominee for Africa’s most prestigious literary award, The Caine Prize.

In their pre-election writings, Muthoni and her colleagues warned their fellow Kenyans against stoking the fires of ethnicity. But Garland says it was especially the politicians who refused to listen.

“Both Kibaki and Odinga have played people to win the election. Both sides were guilty of whipping up the hate speech, urging people to take on tribal positions, and to associate with those of their tribe in voting for a particular politician.”

Horrific scenes have flashed on international television screens. Luo and Kalenjin attacking Kikuyu, and vice versa. Bodies hacked with machetes, terrified people burnt alive, people driven from their homes – simply because they belong to the same ethnic group as the president. But still many Kenyan intellectuals deny that ethnicity is at the heart of their country’s crisis.

Rasna Warah, a columnist for Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper, says foreign correspondents have been “too quick” to describe what’s happening in Kenya as “pure ethnic cleansing…. They’ve ignored the socio-economic reasons underlying this tragedy.”

She points out that the main reason for the violence is the perceived “unfairness” of the polls – not because one ethnicity wants to seize power from another.

But Stan Gazemba, winner of Kenya’s premier writing Prize, The Kenyatta Award, says the reasons for the tension between Luo and Kikuyu are to be found in the “clouds of the past.”

He explains that Odinga’s father, Jaramogi, played a key role in empowering the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta.

“In exchange for the support of Jaramogi Odinga and the Luo, Kenyatta agreed to let Odinga lead the country after his rule. But this never happened. Instead, Kenyatta gave the presidency to Moi. Ever since then, the Luo have felt betrayed and marginalized,” says Gazemba.

In the build-up to the 2002 elections in Kenya, Kibaki, too, secured the support of Raila Odinga and the Luo, by means of a similar agreement.

“But, instead, Kibaki has brushed Raila aside. History has repeated itself,” Gazemba comments.

Again, the Luo of today feel scorned and betrayed.

But Warah insists that the Kenyan catastrophe “has more to do with the inequalities in the country, which are represented regionally – and therefore ethnically – and therefore have transformed into ethnic violence. The real reasons are economic and issues to do with disparities in income and opportunities.”

She says Kenya’s current constitution gives “enormous powers” to the president, to the extent that he can “basically decide who controls the country’s wealth.” Hence there’s a perception in Kenya that Kibaki is “doling out riches” to the Kikuyu at the expense of the country’s remaining ethnic groups.

“It cannot be ignored that Kibaki’s government has come to show a distinct favoring of Kikuyu interests – especially at the tail end of his regime. He’s made some terrible mistakes regarding this,” says Binyavanga Wainaina, a Caine Prize winner and founder of Kenya’s premier literary journal, Kwani.

However, Wainaina appeals for people to remember that the vast majority of Kikuyu who’ve been killed, maimed and displaced are “innocent and poor” and aren’t part of President Kibaki’s “Kikuyu elite.”

Warah agrees and says since Kenya got independence from Britain in 1963, most Kikuyu have suffered just as much as the country’s other ethnicities. They also live in slums; they too struggle to survive.

“Kenya is one of the most unequal societies in the world. Ten per cent of the country’s population controls nearly half of the country’s wealth,” Warah says.

Gazemba adds: “What we’re dealing with is also a class conflict between rich and poor. We have a certain clique of rich Kikuyu here who always play the tribal card whenever they feel like their interests are threatened. That’s where the ethnic element comes in.”

President Kibaki has always maintained that his administration is dedicated to improving the lives of all Kenyans, regardless of their ethnicity.

But Gazemba says the cost of living for all in Kenya has been steadily rising.

“Yet we have been bombarded by messages from the government that the economy is picking up, that people’s lives are improving. But the truth is that the economy has been improving for the wealthy, and not for the poor.”

Wainaina states that what’s really inflaming the unrest in Kenya is poverty, rather than ethnicity.

“I have so many people telling me the basic costs of flour, of sugar, of cooking oil have risen to a point that their salaries or whatever income they’re earning cannot meet their monthly needs.”

Warah, though, remains “immensely saddened” by some Kenyans’ eagerness to focus on the “surface differences” between them, instead of uniting in the face of their shared suffering.

“I don’t think most Kenyans wake up in the morning and say: ‘I’m a Kikuyu’ or ‘I’m a Luo.’ I think people wake up in the morning and say: ‘I have to pay school fees,’ or ‘I have to go to work,’ or ‘I don’t have money for rent.’ And if you look at all the communities that live in the slums of Nairobi for instance, they are extremely diverse – ethnically diverse. And people have co-existed for years, and have suddenly turned on each other because of a stupid election.”

Odinga and President Kibaki are reportedly close to reaching a power sharing agreement that may bring peace once again to Kenya. But Warah says even if this happens, she’ll continue to be haunted by one question: Why has neither leader “forcefully condemned” the brutal ethnic violence that has been committed in their names?

“Oh God, I wish I knew the answer to that,” she sighs. “The whole of Kenya is asking that question. And we still don’t know why. Perhaps it’s in their interests to have a trail of blood of blood behind them. I don’t know. It’s the million dollar question.”

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