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Kenyan elections have been dominated by ethnic divisions that are the legacy of colonialism. But this year’s could be different

Kenya is gearing up for another hotly contested election on 9 August. The main issues on the table for voters include corruption, national security and the economy, with inflation spiking at a five-year high supposedly due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Kenya has a long history of electoral violence linked to the country’s ethnic groups, but this year this factor appears to be losing its potency. Perhaps the effect of the 2010 constitution, which helped devolve power and resources to Kenya's counties, has helped defuse these tensions.

What are the main ethnic groups in Kenya?

With more than 55 million people, Kenya is home to a diverse range of ethnic groups. These are the Kikuyu (17.1%), Luhya (14.3%), Kalenjin (13.4%), Luo (10.7%), Kamba (9.8%), Somali (5.8%), Kisii (5.7%), Mijikenda (5.2%), Meru (4.2%), Maasai (2.5%) and Turkana (2.1%). Non-Kenyan and other groups together comprise 9.2%. These groups are further subdivided into smaller sub-groups, each with its own distinct identity. Religiously, Kenya is predominantly Christian (85.5%), with a significant Muslim minority (10%) and other smaller religious groups.

How have the ethnic divisions dictated Kenya’s politics?

Since Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963, the country has largely been governed by presidents from the majority Kikuyu ethnic group, the largest and most economically powerful faction in Kenya. This dominance was instigated by Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, who favoured the Kikuyu in government appointments and business contracts, creating resentment from other groups.

However, Kenya's second president, Daniel arap Moi, was from the Kalenjin, the third largest group. Moi was in power for 24 years and was in turn accused of favouritism towards his own ethnicity. Under Moi, Kenya experienced a period of ethnic violence and political turmoil. 

The 2007 election led to widespread violence after incumbent president Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, was declared the winner amid allegations of ballot-rigging. The violence left more than 1,100 people dead and 600,000 displaced.

Why are ethnic divisions so entrenched in Kenya?

Kenya's colonial history is one factor that has contributed to the country's ethnic divisions. The British colonisers favoured some groups over others. The Kikuyu were given preferential treatment in education and business opportunities, which created resentment among other groups.

"Much of what we are experiencing in these elections have that colonial baggage," said Michael Wairungu, a professor at St. Lawrence University Kenya Semester Program, in a recent Brookings Institution webinar. "We are using terms which are problematic, like tribe [and] ethnicity. All those are creations by the westerners and missionaries that came before independence."

This factionalism has had serious consequences in Kenyan society, according to a recent BBC story: "In Kenya, ethnic identity has been used to grant privileges – sometimes it's the only qualification considered for a job, a vote in the election, or even in accessing mundane favours from someone in a position of authority." 

"It has been weaponised to humiliate and frustrate others – a situation that breeds a siege mentality in those bearing the brunt and a sense of entitlement among those benefiting from it. Politics therefore becomes a zero-sum game, at the expense of addressing pressing issues that could better people's lives."

In order to get elected, politicians have had to appeal primarily to voters from their own ethnic group, rather than the interests of Kenya as a whole. This is particularly evident in the run-up to elections when candidates from different ethnic groups often make promises to their respective communities that they cannot deliver on.

Did the 2010 constitution help to resolve these divisions?

In 2010, Kenya adopted a new constitution in an attempt to address some of the country's long-standing ethnic divisions. It devolved power to Kenya's 47 counties, giving each a degree of autonomy. It also established an independent electoral commission and introduced a system of proportional representation.

The 2013 election was Kenya's first under the new constitution. The result was a victory for Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu and son of Kenya's first president, who narrowly won against his main rival Raila Odinga, a Luo (50.5% to 43%). The election was largely peaceful, though there were some isolated incidents of violence, and Odinga unsuccessfully challenged the result in court.

The 2017 election was another close contest between Kenyatta and Odinga (54.17% to 44.94%). Again, Odinga disputed the result, claiming that the election had been rigged. This time, the Supreme Court overturned the result, ordering a re-run – in which Kenyatta was declared the winner with a 98% vote share. Odinga boycotted the re-run, claiming that the election commission "could not oversee a free and fair process," according to the New York Times.

Who are the leading candidates this time?

Odinga, 77, is trying his luck for a fourth time to become Kenya's president. He is from the Luo ethnic group, the fourth largest in Kenya; his deputy, Martha Karua, 64, is from the Kikuyu and the first woman to run for vice-president. Odinga's choice of a female running mate from Kenya's largest ethnic group is seen as an attempt to broaden his appeal. Some call Karua, a lawyer who served as the country's justice minister, "the Iron Lady" for rising to high office in a male-dominated political sphere.

The second viable candidate is William Ruto, 56, Kenya's current-vice president, who is Kalenjin; his deputy is Rigathi Gachagua, 57, from the Kikuyu. Ruto is a former ally of Kenya's current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, but the two have had a falling-out. Ruto was indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity for his role in the 2007 election violence, but the charges were later dropped for lack of evidence. 

One of the things that makes this election different is that the incumbent president, who cannot run for a third term, is backing the opposition leader, Odinga, rather than his deputy president Ruto. Another notable difference is presidential candidates picking running mates from different ethnic groups in an attempt to build more inclusive coalitions. "Unlike in other elections, [which] were ethnically driven, this election is a bit unique," said Michael Wairungu. "It will be issue-based rather than ethnic-driven."

Written By: Olivium staff.


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