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Tribal Politics at Play in Kenya's Election

  • Gabe Joselow

Kenya's national elections for parliament and president are scheduled for March 4. The country's leaders are hoping to avoid a repeat of the violence that followed the 2007 vote when more than 1,100 people were killed.

It’s campaign season in the Kibera slum in Nairobi. Walls are plastered with posters as politicians try to pull votes from this sprawling constituency.

The area is a stronghold of Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who was a member of parliament for the region.

Kibera resident Helen Abuya says she hopes if Odinga is elected he will improve the lives of people here.

“For Kibera, we are very poor people, we don’t have water…. We want change.”

Abuya adds she would want to live in a house made of durable materials, not of “mabati,” a local type of corrugated wood.

Kibera is one of the poorest areas of Kenya, with most people living on less than $1 a day. Development has been scarce, and more than anything, residents say they want better opportunities to work.

Daniel Aduma has lived in Kibera for the past 25 years. He says he’s disappointed with the previous government and that it’s time to give someone else a chance.

“We have had previous ones. So let’s try [leaders from] another tribe, like from the western region, let’s see if they can help.”

Tribal tensions

The population of Kibera is primarily from the Luo community - the same as Odinga. His main rival, Uhuru Kenyatta, is a Kikuyu. Disputes between Luos and Kikuyu landlords here have led to conflicts in the past.

Violence erupted in Kibera following the disputed presidential election in 2007. Police had to surround the neighborhood with barricades for several months to keep fighting from spreading to other parts of the city.

It is more peaceful now, but also more divided, with tribal communities keeping with their own and not mingling much. And tensions remain very high.

Professor Joshua Kivuva from the University of Nairobi says tribalism and politics go hand in hand in Kibera.

“In fact, this is a time that class is a dominant thing in Kenyan politics, but in the slum areas it is not going to be that because ethnicity is a more overriding factor. And especially knowing the distribution of slums and the presidential candidates, that the two dominant communities that live in slums are also the two dominant communities that are contesting the presidency.”

The vote is expected to be extremely close. Opinion polls show the main candidates virtually tied.

While Kibera has its favorite, residents are simply hoping more than anything for peace.