Inequality, Not Identity, Fuels Violence in Kenya
Posted on: Wednesday, February 6, 2008
From day-one of the crisis that has gripped Kenya this year, much of the mainstream media has been quick to label the violence "tribal warfare," while the top US envoy to Africa called the Kenyan clashes "ethnic cleansing." The problem with those terms is that they don't actually explain anything. Yet many people hear the words "tribal warfare" or "ethnic cleansing" and assume that people's identity is the root of the violence in Kenya.
We live in a time when the notion of a "clash of civilizations" passes for political science and an us-versus-them mentality ("you're either with us or with the terrorists") is the basis of super-power foreign policy. The crudeness of those ideas makes it hard to remember that, while identity can be mobilized in the service of hatred, a person's "tribe," ethnicity, or religion does not cause or motivate violence.
So what does? In the case of Kenya, tribal categories are a short-hand for describing people's unequal access to political power and economic resources.
Since Kenya won independence from Britain in 1963, a small Kikuyu elite has dominated government and business opportunities. Meanwhile, most Kenyans have been dangerously impoverished by the debt crisis that began in the late 1970s. Like many countries throughout the Global South, Kenya was forced to sell off state-owned assets like major transport and telecommunications systems and to cut government spending to repay loans to big banks and rich governments (mostly in the US and Europe). As a result, millions of Kenyans have been denied basic resources and services, like health care, clean water, education, and decent housing.
When Mwai Kibaki was elected in 2002, he promised to share power and resources more equitably. Instead, he allowed Kikuyu elites to keep control of the country's wealth and governing institutions. That betrayal galvanized support for Raila Odinga's opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), especially among the poor. In December 2007, Kibaki's party rigged national elections to prevent the ODM from unseating him and disseminating political power and access to basic economic resources more broadly.
Those are the real grievances fueling the violence today. They have their roots not in any "ancient tribal rivalries," but in government policies meant to enrich a few at the expense of the majority. Kenya's poor majority includes members of the Luo, Luhya, and Kalenjin tribes, who initiated the protests in December, and most Kikuyus, who are not part of the governing clique but have been scapegoated in the crisis.
Thinking of Kenya's conflict as a class war rather than a tribal war reveals those aspects of the crisis that are about material things: a fight over access to farmland, housing, and clean water. But that explanation alone misses a more complex reality. Because identity is fluid, partial, and somewhat subjective, tribal or ethnic divisions can be calcified, even created, when identity is invoked to mobilize people for political ends. Both Kibaki and Odinga are guilty of goading people to violence in this way. And every time the BBC or the Washington Post utters the words "tribal warfare," they help propel the self-fulfilling logic of identity-based violence. It's a dangerous game: once violence is unleashed, it takes on its own momentum. We've seen that dynamic to grave effect in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sudan. And that may be what we're witnessing in Kenya now, as protest over a disputed election seems to have morphed into something uglier and more dangerous.
The way that people define a crisis shapes which solutions they choose. That's why a lasting solution to the crisis in Kenya requires junking the hollow concept of "tribal warfare." Tackling the poverty and inequality that politicians have perpetuated by manipulating ethnicity may prove a lot tougher than resolving an electoral blow-out. But there are Kenyans who are paving the way forward.
On January 25, the "Kenyan Women's Consultation Group" addressed peace mediators Kofi Annan, Graça Machel, and Benjamin Mkapa. The women call for "comprehensive constitutional reform that would ensure equitable distribution of national resources," as part of their far-reaching peace proposal. Like many progressive Kenyans, the Women's Consultation Group recognizes that while inequality in Kenya runs along tribal lines, it's the inequality, not the tribal identity, that is fueling the violence today.
By Yifat Susskind, Communications Director
Those of us who are not in immediate danger from the crisis have the opportunity to lend support to the quarter of a million Kenyans who have been displaced since December. Women and their children, who make up roughly 85 percent of those who have been driven from their homes, are struggling to find food, fresh water, and medical care. Sexual assaults have skyrocketed during this crisis and a nation-wide media black-out only adds to the chaos and atmosphere of impunity.
Archives"Press Room" Home September 2014 August 2014 July 2014 June 2014 May 2014 April 2014 March 2014 February 2014 January 2014 December 2013 November 2013 October 2013 September 2013 August 2013 July 2013 June 2013 May 2013 April 2013 March 2013 February 2013 January 2013 December 2012 November 2012 October 2012 September 2012 August 2012 July 2012 June 2012 May 2012 April 2012 March 2012 February 2012 January 2012 December 2011 November 2011 October 2011 September 2011 August 2011 July 2011 June 2011 May 2011 April 2011 March 2011 February 2011 January 2011 December 2010 November 2010 October 2010 September 2010 August 2010 July 2010 June 2010 May 2010 April 2010 March 2010 February 2010 January 2010 December 2009 November 2009 October 2009 September 2009 August 2009 July 2009 June 2009 May 2009 April 2009 March 2009 February 2009 January 2009 December 2008 November 2008 October 2008 September 2008 August 2008 July 2008 June 2008 May 2008 April 2008 March 2008 February 2008 January 2008 December 2007 November 2007 October 2007 September 2007 August 2007 June 2007 May 2007 April 2007 March 2007 February 2007 January 2007 December 2006 November 2006 October 2006 September 2006 July 2006 June 2006 April 2006 March 2006 January 2006 December 2005 November 2005 September 2005 August 2005 July 2005 April 2005 March 2005 November 2004 October 2004 April 2004 March 2004 January 2004 December 2003 October 2003 September 2003 June 2003 April 2003 January 2003 September 2002 June 2002 January 2002 November 2001 October 2001 September 2001 August 2001 January 2001
MADRE & Our Partners Make News
Peru TV slammed by UN as racial stereotypes paraded for cheap laughs (The Guardian, September 3, 2014)
In Iraq, women 'are the battlefield' (Women Under Siege , August 12, 2014)
Haitian woman faces death threats for speaking out about violence against women (WBEZ Worldview, July 16, 2014)
Media Spotlight Turns Away from Iraq, as Concerns Mount Over Human Rights and Political Stalemate (Uprising Radio, July 11, 2014)
Iraq: The women left behind (Aljazeera, July 3, 2014)