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Nov 9, 2012 | 11:30 GMT

5 mins read

Kenya: The Danger of Election-Related Violence

Kenya: The Danger of Election-Related Violence
-/AFP/Getty Images

As Kenya's elections draw near, deep ethnic rivalries threaten to spur a descent into violence. Tribalism is a key factor in African politics and will be an important driver in the minds of Kenyan voters. Rising income inequality among and within ethnic groups, along with a 40 percent unemployment rate, will add to the divisions among Kenya's tribes ahead of the vote, scheduled for March 2013, and increase the risk of intra-tribal violence. Moreover, Islamist groups in the coastal region could capitalize on political and security weaknesses to advance their agenda as the election nears.

In September and October, more than 250 people were killed in the eastern Kenyan province of Tana as a result of politically motivated tribal conflicts, and a new mass grave has been found in the area. The violence reportedly started as a dispute over grazing land, but local politicians got involved to promote their causes. This fighting, coupled with the rise of the Mombasa Republican Council — a secessionist group on Kenya's coast that has threatened to disrupt the election unless its demands are met — has highlighted the risk of additional election-related violence. Far removed from the main battle between powerful rival tribes, the Mombasa Republican Council and similar groups have their own demands and could exploit any failure of Kenya's security forces.

Kenya is the largest economy in East Africa and is among Washington's most reliable allies in the conflict-prone region. Kenya is also involved in neighboring Somalia as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia's fight against al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militants. However, election-related violence in Kenya could hamper Nairobi's efforts in Somalia and create instability in the region, as domestic unrest could require Kenyan security forces to refocus their operations to ensure stability at home. Tribal sympathies within the security apparatus could also challenge Kenya's fragile coalition government if it attempts to take preventive security measures. 

Kenya's Tribes

Kenya's Tribes

Kenya's Tribal and Political Landscape

Kenya's population numbers approximately 41 million. The Kikuyu tribe makes up about 17.2 percent of the total, the Kalenjin tribe accounts for 12.9 percent, the Luo tribe is 10 percent and the Kemba tribe is 10.1 percent. The Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes have traded power since 1963, and the Luos want to end those tribes' dominance. The Luhya, another western Kenyan tribe, represents 13.8 percent of the population and typically allies with the Luo. The Kikuyu tribe — along with, to a lesser degree, the Kalenjin tribe — has gained control of substantial fertile farmland and key business activities in the country over the last few decades.

Currently, more than a dozen candidates are running for the Kenyan presidency. Four of them represent larger tribes and are considered important power players who could influence the election's outcome. Candidate Uhuru Kenyata, representing the Kikuyu tribe, faces charges from the International Criminal Court for involvement in post-election violence in 2008. William Ruto, whom the International Criminal Court charged with funding, arming and commanding his Kalenjin tribe during the violence that followed the previous election, is a current member of the Cabinet and carries a great deal of influence among the Kalenjin tribe. Both of these candidates are working to not only win the presidency but also to avoid the International Criminal Court charges against them. Kamba tribe member and current Kenyan Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka is an important ally of Ruto and Kenyata.

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga represents the Luo tribe from the western part of the country in the presidential race. Odinga claimed to have won the presidency in 2007, but under pressure from the international community, he accepted the prime ministerial post for the sake of peace. This time, Odinga and the Luos are hoping to be "compensated" for their concession and to win the presidency.

The International Criminal Court charges against Kenyata and Ruto, which were devised to deter further tribal violence, are a wild card in the election. The candidates are mostly focused on forming alliances and striking power-sharing deals in order to win in March. The larger alliance will be that of the Kalenjin, Kikuyu and Kamba tribes, which would allow a candidate to secure more than 40 percent of the vote. This alliance could shatter Odinga's presidential ambitions and force him to seek an alliance with any other political group, including Muslims in Kenya's coastal areas. Once again, the battle for the presidency will be between the Luos and the other three major tribes — the main players in the 2008 post-election violence.

The Country's Fragile Security  

Kenya's overall security situation is eroding. Kenyan security forces have failed to prevent deadly episodes of violence between rival tribes. Moreover, since last year, the country has had serious security problems in the coastal area related to a rise in regional Islamist movements and particularly to spillover from conflict in Somalia; al Shabaab has attacked a couple of public venues in the Nairobi and Garrisa areas. 

The current Kenyan government is a fragile coalition formed with the help of international mediation after the 2008 violence, and incumbent President Mwai Kibaki from the Kikuyu tribe will not run for re-election. The Luos are not ready to lose the chance to gain the presidency, and the Kikuyus are trying to maintain their long-standing hold on power. 

Security before and after the election will depend mainly on the integrity of army and police forces, which are known to be corrupt, ethnically divided and partisan. Moreover, on Nov. 5, some Kenyan police officers threatened to go on strike unless the government granted their demand for a 42 percent pay raise before the election. Kenyan security forces' leniency in dealing with their respective tribes could weaken the government's ability to prevent conflicts. 

Two factors could contain or prevent election-related violence. First, Kenya has a new constitution, written in 2010, that limits the power of the president. It also allows every tribe and community to be represented in parliament and decentralizes authority to newly created counties. Thus, the the presidency is a slightly less valuable prize than it once was.

Second, unlike in 2007, the international community is closely following Kenya's political race. The International Criminal Court indictments against candidates Ruto and Kenyatta for the fighting in 2008 are meant to help Kenya avoid another round of tribal violence. By threatening such sanctions against Kenyan politicians, the United States and other Western countries can encourage the leaders of tribal factions to take steps toward calming the violence.

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