Political violence analysis on Kenya. Another case of failed state?

Posted in Africa | 16-Jan-08 | Author: Manuel Amarilla-Mena

Manuel Amarilla-Mena


In Kenya major acts of political violence have occurred through different electoral periods since its independence in 1963. Previously to the current electoral stage there were indications of potential political violence. However the preventive tools could not reduce this. Why was this? This article tries to understand that violence is rooted in transitional societies where political agendas seem to forget democracy and give priority to free market policies. Unless the international community do care about Kenya political agenda, Kenya looks like to be in the path of a failed state.

Kenya has emerged from a constant pattern of internal conflicts since its independence in 1963 from Great Britain. The most recent periods of conflict took place during the 1990’s and at the beginning of the new century. The death toll of this period of confrontation reached ‘thousands’, it caused there to be many internally displaced people, refugees and the almost total collapse of the state. This was aggravated by tribal2 rivalry, rampant corruption and the economic inability to cover the basic needs of the population. Ironically, the richness of its natural resources compounded the level of violence.

In this article I try to analyse that while the international community is very concerned about free market expansion, there is a lack of concern about societal agendas to reinforce any welfare state projection in Kenya. Consequently, electoral periods are a window where we can observe elements of a possible collapse of Kenya as a nation state.

Kenya political violence spiral:

Political violence in Kenya is, overall, bound to electoral periods. There is a strong sense that whoever wins an election takes all. Kenya’s history of political instability and violence is a story of rival factions competing for totalitarian power, where ruling groups use their control of the state to benefit themselves and their associates. This system of “winner takes all” has previously resulted in a vicious cycle of violent uprisings, followed by repression and embezzlement3.

Since its independence in 1963, Kenya has lived under convulsive tensions. In 1965 a Kanu member, Gama Pinto, was assassinated for his criticism of Kenyatta, a Kanu leader who was president at that time. In 1969, the Minister for Finance, Tom Mboya, was gunned down, increasing tensions amongst ethnicities. Furthermore, in 1969, Kenyatta was stoned in Kisumu and the presidential guard opened fire killing 43, his political rival Oginga Odinga was detained and his Kenya People’s Union banned. In 1975, MP J M Kariuki was killed and his body found mutilated and Daniel Toroitch Arap Moi (Vice President at that time) was accused of being behind the assassination. In 1979 Moi ascended to the presidency. In 1980 he banned tribal organisations, civil servants and university unions. This led to Kenya becoming a one party state in 1982. In august of 1982, an abortive coup led by army junior officers created a security vacuum that spread a spate of lawlessness in Nairobi marked by lootings, rape, vandalism and killings. This led Moi’s regime to become even more ruthless. Since then the rigging of elections has gone hand in hand with the looting of government assets, such as land or houses, by those supporting the government. Opposition figures were arrested or forced to exile. In 1990 the then Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Robert Ouko was found murdered. British crime experts from Scotland Yard led by Detective Inspector John Troon investigated the case, in a report refered to as the Troon Report found nothing. This was then followed in 2003 by a failed parliamentary committee inquiry, which was led by Chairman Gor Sunguh. It was alleged that President Moi's government was guilty of a cover-up in Dr Ouko's murder,

In 1991, a multiparty system was reintroduced due to internal and external synergies. There were several rallies throughout the country in which several people were killed, hundreds injured and which led to the arrest of the leaders. Eventually Moi gave in to pressure and accepted multiparty system after repelling Section 2A of the Kenyan constitution. However in 1992 and 1997, he used diverse control methods. One of the techniques Moi used was to promote violence in his homeland of Rift Valley. Moi's regime closed the Rift Valley province to everyone through expulsion of non-riftvalleyians, especially the Kikuyu. When it was over, there was a huge cover-up, but the situation remained very tense. According to the Kenya Human Rights Commission, between 1991 and 2001 around 4000 people died and half a million were displaced. During the 1992 elections killings, intimidation and forced displacement were the political tools used by the governing party (KANU) to suppress opposition, Militias were hired and the main hot spot was the Rift Valley Province. During the 1997 elections the same pattern occurred and KANU and its government targeted different opposition strongholds, again in the Rift Valley, spreading violence to the districts of West Pokot, Marakwet and Trans Mara.

In 2002, the constitution having been changed disbarring Moi from another term, he selected Kenyatta's son, Uhuru Kenyatta, to run for the presidency. This did not go well with other members of KANU and especially Raila Odinga who had previously left his party in a ‘marriage’ between his party and KANU. He left KANU and the marriage to form a united opposition, the opposition, this time united under Kibaki, soundly defeating Uhuru Kenyatta. At this point Kibaki had the opportunity to bring all Kenyans together as a real nation, but he soon dropped all the non-Kikuyu who had helped him into office. A group of Kikuyu politicians and businessmen became a controlling clique. Nevertheless, the electoral period led to a death toll of approximately 107.

The referendum in 2005 prompted a different political game where no direct power was decided and, therefore, the political commitment was different. Political entities didn’t use personalities but ‘symbolic’ fruits. Bananas lost against oranges and thus, there was no obvious sense of winner or loser during the campaign, the Election Day or even the post-campaign period. Consequently, the political violence was reduced to a minimum; just 8 people were killed in Kisumu and Mombasa4.

Current violence as premonition of state failure:

The 2007 December elections prompted a pattern of political violence rooted in pending issues such as land reform, rampant corruption, insecurity and a huge wealth gap amongst Kenyans. Therefore, the sense of political confrontation per se has created a polarised electoral environment, fertile soil for political violence, either in well known hot spots or in random volatile areas where ethnicity plays an important role.

In summer 2007 and as a premonitory signal, hints of possible political violence became apparent during the incidents which took place in Mt. Elgon where government forces clashed with local clan self defence groups leaving at least several people dead.

In the Nairobi area Mungikis5 confronted local enforcement agencies leading to a huge number of killings. The Health Minister Charity Ngilu was also observed confronting police trying to release a human right activist held in a detention centre6. A mass funeral service in Kisii, due to a major car accident in which 20 people had been killed, prompted a clash between political factions attending the ceremony.7 Even the Catholic Church called the Government of Kenya to give security protection to all candidates8. In general, the perceptions indicated a volatile political panorama for the campaign, election day and post electoral period.

In summary, the possible occurrence of political violence depended on how the political parties and the government undertake the role for which they are responsible during the electoral period. Currently, the situation does not look very positive. The pre-election period should have been the right time, to address several factors in order to reduce violence. This ranged from a clear position from the opposition and the government commitment to accept any results, ensuring that there was no presence of private militias or shadow groups to harass the general public and, above all, a freedom of speech for all political entities in feuds between adversaries.

Logically, conditions for a free electoral process depended upon there being a political context where the security electoral apparatus played an important role. The Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) and local enforcement agencies, particularly the Kenya Police (KP) through the coordination body of the Office of the President, were supposed to locate and identify those areas where political violence had been significant during past electoral periods. However, these initiatives were undermined by the best efforts of politicians to incite violence and ethnic hatred in a situation where the media contributes to putting the electoral environment at risk9. With the existence of Peace Committees, and in this context, the Peace Committees had to play an important role in controlling a possible desire for violence. These committees were to scrutinise civil society, law and administration bodies to analyse the security situation at different levels. Perhaps they could not send the message on time or they were not listened or their role was insignificant.

Consequently, the impact of violence has been affected by the following state failure factors: the lack of readiness of Kenya’s judicial systems and their effectiveness, the inefficiency of the electoral security structure, the media manipulation, the strategies of political entities, and last but not least, the factor of diverse international political interests. It seems that there was no consideration for these factors and elections were understood as a blue print obligation for some actors. At what point is the current climax of violence a surprise? I am afraid that in Kenya’s panorama since 2002 elections10, few improvements have been made in the dynamics of general stability. Rampant corruption, gross public financial mismanagement, inadequate distribution of the country’s natural resources, and weak rule of law may well add fuel to the political context. The government’s failure to address crushing poverty despite international aid and alarmingly high unemployment rates among youth render Kenya vulnerable to future instability as proved during the electoral period.


As recognised by Kenyan experts, high expectations amongst ordinary Kenyans for quality of life improvements have increased the likelihood of violent conflict. As Kenya has grown economically and tax revenues and employment levels have increased, impatience for improved public services such as health, education, power and transport has also grown. To date signs of improvement are not evident. Furthermore, bureaucratic inefficiencies, both institutional and individual, impede progress. The admirable tolerance of the Kenyan people to his modest lot is perhaps the greatest counter-balance to revolt but no comfort should be taken from assuming that tolerance is ever-lasting. Whereas the public at large are still suffering from conflict fatigue, there will come a time when tolerance of blatant inequality becomes untenable and they could again turn to extreme retribution.

The international community has a big role to play in shaping Kenya’s political future. The United States, the European Union and - within the later - the United Kingdom should understand that social and economic changes are necessary to meet the expectations of Kenya’s diverse society. The international community has the resources to communicate this priority to local politicians. However they are more interested in maintaining the stability of Kenya per se. This is unfortunately an empty goal unless they accommodate the ever-thinning patience of the local population, which is more and more frustrated about inequality, a lack of future prospects and the non existence of welfare state programs. However, are the US, EU or UK interested in promoting these social and economic changes? The answer can be found in a need for new international relations perspectives. Clearly, there is enormous scope for greater collaboration between the US, the EU and emerging actors such as the African Union. Collectively they might be able to push for the societal and political improvements that will ensure that Kenya draws back from tragedy of state failure. Simultaneously, US should coordinate policies with another powerful economic actor in the area such as the EU and reinforce the role of an emerging one such as the African Union. The EU needs to have a consensus amongst its member states, where UK is the main leader however neither to impose nor to disengage. The African Union should undertake a clear reform framed on its possible economic role to grant security in the area. It is highly important that African leaders take necessary steps to go further than a simple military commitment. Nevertheless and for the health of these actors, the lack of social and political progresses will frustrate Kenya development and trap its population in the cage of a failed nation state.

1 The Author is currently Executive Director at the Centre for the International Promotion of Security. He is an International Political and Security Advisor and Expert in International Crisis Prevention and Management. He holds postgraduates from UK and Spain. He has worked for the European Commission, United Nations, Interpol and for the Spanish Ministry of Interior. He got field experience in different conflicts and political democratisation processes including the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Nepal, Venezuela and Kenya. He is also doctoral candidate at the Peace Studies Department, Bradford University (UK).

2 Ethnical violence is rooted in a fight for the control of power.

3 Roland Paris “At war’s end” (Cambridge University Press, 2005) p 224.

4 Amnesty International, Kenya Profile.

5 Inspired by the bloody Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s against the British colonial rule, thousands of young Kenyans - mostly drawn from Kenya's largest tribe, the Kikuyu form this sect whose doctrines are based on traditional Kikuyu practices.

6 BBC, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/6925745.stm

7 Saturday Standard, September 8 2007.

8 Ibid, September 7 2007.

9 Kenyan National Human Right Commission, “Promotion Accountability in the Political Process in Kenya”, (Nairobi, 2007 ), pg. 107

10 2002 elections supposed a tacit power shift between current Kibaki administration and former Moi’s