The wave of violence crashing down on Kenya since the presidential election has pitted for the most part the Kikuyu against the Luo, two of the principal tribes in a country that counts 42 of them among its 34 million inhabitants.
Principal Kenyan ethnic groups:
Political support for the two candidates, however, is not entirely drawn along ethnic lines. Raila Odinga enjoys the support of Luos, but also other groups like the Luhyas, the second-largest tribe in the country. The BBC reports that in the country’s southwest, the Kalenjin, despite being represented by another candidate, sided with the Kikuyu.
Though the conflict appears to run along ethnic lines, it is strongly political. The two political candidates at the centre of the drama, the outgoing president, Mwai Kibaki, and his opponent, Raila Odinga, had in effect sealed a power-sharing pact at the time of the democratic transition that put an end to the dictatorship of Daniel Arap Moi in 2002.
Kibaki broke the pact when he became president by not naming Odinga as prime minister. Traditionally, the political domination of the Kikuyu — to which Jomo Kenyatta, considered to be the founder of the nation, belonged — is a source of resentment from other Kenyan tribes. Especially since, in a country where corruption is rampant, political power is often synonymous with economic power.
Economic factors also have their importance in the troubles that have come in the wake of the election. Though the country has experienced a respectable level of economic growth over the last few years (6.1% in 2006), for the most part Kenyans remain very poor, and persistent inequalities feed serious frustration among the population. Even though three out of four people work in agriculture, the activity represents only 20% of the gross domestic product.
Conflicts over property ownership, especially with regard to Mount Elgon, have been a subject for political manipulation for several decades.
Experts are divided on whether there is a real risk of an ethnic war. During a FRANCE 24 debate, Vincent Hugeux, a reporter and Africa specialist for the French weekly magazine L’Express, recalled the history of political violence in Kenya: “Forty percent of Kenyan voters vote in function of ethnicity. Kenya has a political history of violence. Let us recall the assassination of the foreign affairs minister [Robert Ouko], a Luo, in 1990; the failed coup d’état attempt which set off bloody clashes in 1982; and the responsibility of Daniel Arap Moi, who held the reins in an autocracy and always played on ethnic tensions in the Rift Valley, still the epicentre of violence today.”
According to Martha Stein-Sochas, deputy director of the Africa department for the French Development Agency, Kenya’s political culture can help the country get through the crisis: “There exists a culture of dialogue in Kenya. The discussions are certainly turbulent, but there is real debate in parliament. If these two political leaders, who know each other well, decide to take responsibility and reach out, it’s possible to overcome this crisis through dialogue.”