Kenya has had six multiparty elections since 1991 when the one-party state ended, following pressure from civil society and donors. All elections since then have been high-stakes ethnic contests.
Three of the last six elections culminated in large scale ethnically targeted violence to win the presidency. In 1992 and 1997, under President Daniel arap Moi, state sponsored Kalenjin militia killed Kikuyu in the Rift Valley to keep them from voting. Then, in 2007-8 following the declared win of President Mwai Kibaki, violent politically organized Kalenjin gangs attacked Kikuyu and other upcountry ethnic groups in the Rift Valley, followed by retaliatory violence against Kalenjin, Luo, and other civilians in the Rift and elsewhere in Kenya.
The International Criminal Court’s (ICC) decision to charge six individuals for the 2007-8 post-election violence, five of whom were well known politicians, dampened the prospects of a recurrence in the 2013 and 2017 elections; they were relatively peaceful compared with earlier ones, albeit still contested. Before that, in 2002, ethnic violence was not on the cards as the two opposing candidates were both Kikuyu.
One factor explaining the comparatively peaceful elections of 2013 and 2017, was the defensive alliance of Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, and William Ruto, a Kalenjin to run for president and deputy president. The ICC had accused both of organizing violent ethnic attacks against each other’s communities amounting to crimes against humanity in the 2007-8 violence. Their unusual pact and local efforts at peacekeeping dampened the incentives for targeted ethnic violence in both elections.
Issues and Dynamics
With Kenya gearing up for its seventh multi-party election on August 9th, important questions arise concerning the role of ethnicity and violence: if they will reassert themselves, or if the dynamics have changed.
Recent events suggest new twists in our understanding of both factors. President Kenyatta and Deputy President Ruto have become antagonists, while still part of the same government. The catalyst for the breakup was a surprising 2018 ‘handshake’ between Kenyatta and his long-standing political opponent, Raila Odinga, followed by a failed initiative to increase the size of the executive and “co-opt ethnic elites” before 2022. Since then, Kenyatta has continued to support Odinga, a Luo and his former opponent, if not his nemesis in the last three elections, rather than his deputy, also an ex-ally of Odinga’s in the 2007 election. Ruto felt betrayed by the ‘handshake’ given the agreement behind Kenyatta’s and Ruto’s 2013 anti-ICC alliance: that Kenyatta would support Ruto for president in 2022. Kenyatta, in turn, was put off by Ruto’s premature campaigning for the presidency and attacks on him, including in his Kikuyu heartland of Central Province.
Given these political upsets, and the fact that this is the first time ever when there is no Kikuyu candidate for president, how should one view ethnicity and violence as factors going into the August 2022 elections? What has changed and what has remained the same?
Ethnicity is not fixed or primordial but malleable. Individuals are members of large ethnic groups, subsets of that, and clans which become politically salient at different times, in different contexts, often because of their size.
In Kenya, colonialism wed geography to ethnicity and cemented its salience. Freedom of movement was restricted, and individuals mostly were confined to their home areas. Kenyans were forbidden from forming national political parties until the 1950s. The legacy of this period has given politics a strong regional and ethnic thrust. Parties are largely non-programmatic and substantively indistinguishable, with their heads viewed as chief ethnics in charge and ethnicity a reliable predictor of voting patterns.
To win the presidency under the current rules, a candidate must gain 50% plus 1 of the popular vote and in no less than 24 of Kenya’s 47 counties. This entails creating cross-ethnic alliances. Studiesshow that communities with co-ethnics in power at all levels receive more public goods than those with non-co-ethnics. Individuals support their own partly for this reason and to avert losses including land, trade licenses, and life. Given past political retribution and violence against non-co-ethnics, voters also feel safer electing a co-ethnic or at least being part of a winning coalition where they are protected. Leaders, in turn, fear loss and have been willing to use violence to gain or retain power rather than cede it to ethnic others. Who wins the presidency matters a lot. Kenya is statist with a high level of economic and political dependency on the state. Notwithstanding the presence of a vibrant private sector, individuals still need state support on many matters and fear being locked out or punished if they don’t have it. Hence, the perceived need to control the state, which also has been a source of elite accumulation, and to have a trusted co-ethnic in charge.
Kenyatta and Odinga are now allies. Ruto is challenging President Kenyatta in his home area while continuing as his deputy. This unheard-of situation raises questions, including whether past ethnic patterns have been upended or are just continuing in another form.
A late July TIFA opinion poll revealed a close contest with Odinga at 46.7% to Ruto’s 44.4%, within the 2.16% margin of error and too close to call. Additionally, a declining but significant number of “undecideds/refuse to answer” (5.2% and 1.6%) could affect the outcome if they vote, as could two minor parties, now polling at 1.9%. Recent modelling (by Charles Hornsby, a Kenyan election specialist), based on past ethnic voting patterns, gives the election to Ruto, 52% to 48%, but with enough contingencies to make the outcome uncertain.
The unpredictability of ethnicity in the 2022 elections is well-illustrated by the changing dynamics of Central Province, long a pro-Kikuyu, anti-Luo stronghold. Odinga expects to lose Central Province to Ruto for a variety of reasons. Kenyatta is supporting Odinga, yet his constituents may vote for Ruto, meaning against the preferences of their own co-ethnic president, who is not running. Although this raises questions about the continued salience of co-ethnicity in politics, ethnic arithmetic is still alive and well. To cement Kikuyu support in vote rich Central Province and elsewhere, Odinga appointed Martha Karua, a law-and-order Kikuyu, as his deputy, while Ruto chose Rigathi Gachagua, also a Kikuyu, and recently convicted of corruption.
Ethnicity versus Class
Ruto has appealed to Kenyans as a ‘hustler’, a self-made man who can improve the lives of ordinary people and is fighting against the old wealthy ‘dynasties’ of the past, meaning Kenyatta, whose father was president, and Odinga, whose father was vice-president. Ruto has been courting voters for the last five years including but not limited to Central Province. He is a populist and an engaging speaker who often skirts the truth but connects with the crowd. His wealth cannot be explained as the upward mobility of a self-made man born poor, but instead is largely thought to come from the state and other questionable ventures, including Moi’s YK92 fundraising scheme. Ruto’s target is youth, certain elites who have received funds from him or hope to, and the disenchanted poor looking for better lives. However, only 39% of youth, who also have ethnic identities, are registered to vote.
Ruto’s following in the Kikuyu heartland of Central Province has an ethnic rationale, even if it is a counter-intuitive one, and different from the past. Some Kikuyus believe that Kenyatta made a deal with Ruto in 2013 to support him for the presidency and should not go back on it. Often accused of being untrustworthy, and underhanded, while perceiving themselves as serious, hard-working and entrepreneurial, some Kikuyu feel that Kenyatta’s support of Odinga rather than Ruto cements the perception of unreliability and could make life more difficult for them in business and politics. They fear ethnic retaliation from Ruto should he not get into power, including in the Rift where he was accused of violent crimes leading to Kikuyu deaths, displacement, and injury in 2007-8. They worry that the existing fragile peace may not hold if Ruto is defeated, and they will suffer economically because of Kenyatta’s about-face.
Others are in favour of Ruto as payback for Kenyatta allegedly not adequately supporting his own co-ethnics. They point to measures such as Kenyatta’s crackdown on illegally imported Chinese goods which they sold, the importation of eggs cheaper than locally produced ones, and the low price of milk, which is controlled by the monopoly buyer Brookside, owned by the Kenyatta family. Is this then a sign of co-ethnic vengeance, the rise of class-based thinking, or something particular to this election where for the first time no Kikuyu is running for president and both candidates have been or are part of the current administration?
Another reason given for Central Province’s turn to Ruto is the historic demonization of Odinga, both politically and culturally. Politically, Kikuyu leaders have attacked Odinga and his father as dangerous radicals who have threatened their power since the 1960s. Kikuyu constituents now say “the Kenyattas told us Odinga was the devil for years and that we should not vote for him, so why are they now telling us to do so?”. Additionally, many Kikuyu still view all Luo as ‘boys’ rather than men because they are uncircumcised and would be unwilling to vote for Odinga on those grounds alone, a clear indication of the power of negative ethnicity.
Against this scenario, other Kikuyu and many individuals from various ethnic groups support Odinga as someone who has fought for democracy and human rights, has suffered for justice since the 1990s, and whom they allege was rigged out of wins in his four previous runs for president. They distrust Ruto, blame him for the 2007-8 electoral violence in the Rift and don’t rule out a repeat blowback. They fear Ruto will repress basic freedoms, dissent, and the press, and could engage in retribution against Kenyatta and other wealthy ethnic elites. Hence, they support Odinga both in and outside his Nyanza heartland.
Beyond Mount Kenya’s Kikuyus, the Kalenjin Rift and Luo Nyanza (three of Kenya’s “Big Five” ethnic groups), the Kamba’s Kalonzo Musyoka has been weaned back into the Odinga camp with promises of cabinet appointments, while leaders of Kenya’s Western Luhya have mostly decamped to Ruto saying they found Odinga untrustworthy in the last election, and as likely because Odinga did not appoint Musalia Mudavadi as his running mate.
The more general question is whether constituents in all parts of the country, much of which is not ethnically homogenous and consists of over 40 ethnic groups, will continue to vote with their ethnic chiefs or will go their own way based on economic and other interests. Also at issue is turnout, which could make the difference between a first-round win and a run-off.
Prospects of Violence
Large-scale electoral violence in 2022 seems unlikely. The presidential contenders have few incentives to organize and instigate violence and risk inviting another ICC intervention. Already, Paul Gicheru, a Kikuyu lawyer and long-standing Ruto associate, is in the dock, awaiting the ICC’s ruling on alleged ICC witness tampering charges implicating Ruto.
It seems equally unlikely that ordinary Kenyans would participate in organized violence to get their candidate into power. Many are fed up with Kenya’s debt, corruption, and their resulting downward mobility, while cynically apathetic about the old guard’s infighting for power. Others disdain violence, as many suffered, and participants gained nothing by following their co-ethnic instigators in 2007-8. Furthermore, while Kenya still has numerous gangs, the former leader of the ethnic organisation Mungiki, Maina Ngenga, who spearheaded retaliatory violence in the Rift, has aged into the establishment and is now running for senator in Laikipia, with Odinga’s support.
This does not preclude sporadic violence around the election or long protracted legal battles over the results, which could be contested given the low trust in institutions, including the underfunded election authority, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). Unsettling charges of a deep state, rigging, and conditional acceptance of the results already abound. A close election also could go to a run-off if the two minor parties with presidential candidates syphon off enough votes and neither of the two main candidates meets the threshold for a first-round win. A prolonged election could stoke ethnic tensions and anxieties about violence, which is never completely off the table. Studies show that repeat violence is more likely in countries that have experienced it.