Kenya: Behind the Violence

The voters who started lining up before dawn were young and eager. They came early to the polling station in Mathare, one of Nairobi's sprawling slums, because they wanted to make their opinions heard in Kenya's second multiparty election. Then they waited, many staying on till nightfall to watch for fraud and illegal stuffing of ballot boxes. "We youths, we don't have jobs," said Eric Masawa, a 21-year-old election observer. "But we have needs. This time around, we want to be seen."

They certainly have been seen. In the days following Kenya's disputed vote, it is mostly young people who have taken to the streets to protest President Mwai Kibaki's claim of victory after a deeply flawed ballot that saw challenger Raila Odinga's commanding lead disappear overnight. The postelection violence has left at least 300 dead and, according to the Red Cross, an estimated 70,000 displaced. As gruesome reports of people burned to death in church or hacked to death by machete continued in the days after the election, observers quickly blamed ethnic conflict for the unexpected chaos in one of Africa's most promising and prosperous nations.

The roots of the conflict, however, are far more complex than simple tribal tension. Kenya is not experiencing a one-dimensional ethnic conflict but violence that is based on a foundation of history, poverty and age. As much as it is a battle between tribes, it is also a battle between generations. "To dismiss this [violence] as tribal and simply as that is irresponsible and downright stupid," says David Anderson, a Kenya expert who teaches African Studies at Oxford University. "Tribal violence is a description and not an explanation."

Certainly, ethnic tensions have played a role in fueling the conflict. Kibaki is a member of the Kikuyu, the country's largest tribe and one that has wielded disproportionate political power ever since leading the Mau Mau resistance movement that helped gain Kenya's independence from Britain in 1963. Since winning office in 2002, Kibaki has been perceived as favoring the Kikuyu and ignoring the country's 41 other tribes. Odinga, a Luo, would have broken up Kikuyu hegemony, and many Kenyans see Kibaki's retention of office as a continuation of a tribal and nepotistic order.

Nonetheless, the focus on ethnicity has overlooked some of the most critical factors driving the hostilities. As is so often the case, the Kenyan conflict is as much a battle over resources as over ideology or principle. Most of the clashes have taken place in the cities of Nairobi, Kisumu, Mombasa and Eldoret—all of which have long histories of conflict over resources such as land. One of the worst atrocities of the week took place in the Rift Valley village of Kiambaa, near Eldoret, where up to 50 Kikuyus were burned to death in a church after clashes between their tribe and members of the Kalenjin and Luo tribes. However, the Rift Valley has experienced land disputes since colonial times, when white farmers took fertile land from Kikuyu and many tribe members moved to the valley after independence. Similar tensions have grown in Mombasa in the Coast Province, where resources have been strained by migration. "If this violence is really driven by ethnic hatred, why is it that violence breaks out in specific places that are utterly predictable?" asks Anderson. "This violence is not promoted simply by ethnic hatred, but it is provoked in areas that have a history of violence because of other issues, like land."

Ethnicity cannot be divorced from resource allocation. In general, the Kikuyu were perceived as having benefited most from the government even before Kibaki, but Kibaki's claimed victory has aggravated bitterness even more in the communities that have felt themselves at the margin politically, socially, and economically. "If you're looking at what's being done, it's an attack on property," says Calestous Juma, a Kenyan professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "It's deep resentment."

Despite Kibaki's having driven Kenya's economic growth from a negative rate to over 5 percent each year, not all Kenyans have felt the rewards of the country's increased prosperity. Again, part of this has to do with ethnicity, as Kibaki is perceived as having most greatly rewarded the Kikuyu community with high-paying government posts and business contracts. But part has to do with Kenya's high poverty rate, which is 56 percent nationally. "Under Kibaki's government we have had remarkable economic growth. At the same time we have had an unprecedented expansion of poverty. The inequalities in the country have widened," says Kepta Ombati, chief executive of the Kenyan nonprofit Youth Agenda.

Postelection violence is occurring almost exclusively in poor areas, where people are rising up because they often have very little to lose. Mathare and Kibera, site of most of Nairobi's violence, are the city's most impoverished slums, filled with dilapidated homes, wandering animals, unemployment, and daily conflict.

In addition, the youth of the people who have taken to the streets underscores that Kenya is also facing a generational battle. This was playing out even before the election, when the 62-year-old Odinga marketed his campaign against the 76-year-old Kibaki as one of a younger person trying to overturn an old-world and out-of-touch administration. "Young people felt that this was a generation of septuagenarians and octogenarians, and they felt it was a remote government," says Ombati. "They didn't feel it was their government."

Indeed, last week's election—which by some estimates drew a 70 percent voter turnout—saw an unprecedented level of youth involvement. According to Youth Agenda, 68 percent of registered voters in Kenya are between the ages of 18 and 35. On Election Day Mathare was hardly the only polling station showcasing the youthful enthusiasm and optimism that was to turn so sour when Kenya's Electoral Commission announced that the popular Odinga had lost the race. "You have an intergenerational conflict," says Juma. "The younger people who are dispossessed, they're seeing a system that isn't supporting them at all. They have no commitment to the current system, because it has excluded them."

Within the coming weeks the international community and Kenyans themselves must commit to brokering a compromise between the two parties. But even if a settlement is reached, the disillusionment of Kenya's young people could have consequences that extend beyond the life of the current government. Negotiators, too, will have to delve more deeply into the nuances of the conflict and avoid what Harvard's Juma calls "the template [of thinking] about Africa in terms of ethnic differences." Masawa, the young election volunteer, phrases it more simply. "Back in 2002 we thought things would change more," he said on Election Day. "But it's always the same story. We want those old guys out."