Kenyan National and Parliamentary Elections 2013: Will Tribal Violence Influence These Elections?

12 Nov

On March 4, 2012 Kenyans will trek to polling centers around the country to cast their votes in the national and parliamentary elections. The results of an October Gallup Opinion Poll identified that at least 25% of Kenyans expect the same level of violence they experienced during the 2007 elections to also occur during 2013 elections. The 2007 national and parliamentary elections caused an outbreak of tribal riots across the country that left more than 1,200 dead, several thousand wounded, and an estimated 600,000 people driven from their homes and living in nationally subsidized refugee camps. In an attempt to help defuse past tensions the Kenyan election board deliberately delayed the date of the next election from January 2013 to March of the same year. But has anything really changed? Are the 210 directly elected Ministers of Parliament serving in the Kenyan National Assembly conducting their newest reelection campaigns any differently?

According the latest estimate reported by the Kenyan Television Network (KTN) around 400 people have been killed in ethnic clashes so far this year. But KTN also reported a shift in the reason behind the latest tribal incidents. This time the fighting seems to be directly related to making money and the control of local natural resources rather than the age- old grudges that previously pitted one tribe against another. Although scrutinized in closer detail, many of those former arguments revolved around the illegal acquisition of land and water rights; whereas the violent outbreaks that took place in 2007 were all associated with the ousting the Kukuyu tribe from power and to decide which other of the largest tribes would get to dominate national politics for the next five years.

Yet by the end of August things between some tribes seemed to be heating up again. More than 30 people were killed in early September 2012 in southeastern Kenya as a result of tribal violence.

A mob of more than 300 people descended on the village of Kilelengwani armed with spears and machetes. Thirty-three men, women, and children were killed as a result of the mob’s actions including seven police officers sent to the Tana River area to keep the peace there. The Pokomo came to attack the Orma in their village after a similar attack by the Pokomo on the Orma less than a month before when over 50 people were killed as a result of the continuous dispute over grazing rights and access to water. The Pokomo claimed that Orma cattle had repeatedly strayed into farmlands owned by the Pokomos and destroyed their crops. While  Orma complained that the Pokomo’s fields extended up to the banks of the Tana River preventing the Orma’s herds from accessing the river to water their cattle

Then in late September Kenyan police were led to a mass grave in a remote area of the Tana River where over 100 bodies had been found buried in a mass grave. The grave site seemed to be the result of the heated skirmishes that had already broken out between the members of the Pokomo and Orma tribes as of August, 2012 over what many feel was a planned instigation led by a Member of Parliament as part of his reelection campaign. Only days later, Dhadho Godhana, assistant livestock minister and Member of Parliament for Galole, Tana River District was charged in a Kenyan court with the crime of: deliberate incitement to violence.

Historically these two tribes had gone to war against one other over land and water rights in the past but never on the scale or with the intensity of the violence that suddenly erupted this August. Traditionally, the Pokomo are farrmers and the Orma herders who graze their cattle and goats over territory claimed by the Pokomo. This has led to hard feelings and occasional incidents of bloodshed but not on the level of the killings discovered by the team of police assigned to uncover the bodies in the mass grave. According to the BBC this time the murders were fueled by the need to own the land as foreign investors began visiting this area in search of parcels of land to lease in order to establish large-scale cultivation projects such as the development of “biofuel” crops. This would eventually translate to large amounts of money in profits for the tribe that was able to gain control of the land around the Tana River delta. Since the Pokomo farmers physically occupy the fields they seemed to have the edge and had slowly begun to withhold the grazing rights to the land from the Orma. But by August their intentions had radically changed and they demonstrated on two occasions that they were determined to eradicate the Orma pastoralists who stood in their way.

Tribal violence also broke out in the western part of Kenya. In the lakeside city of Kisumu, crowds of people hit the streets Monday morning, October 29th after they learned that a local politician, Shem Onyango Kwega, had been murdered by members of a local gang but word on the street was that the killers had been hired by another political party in Kisumu to assassinate him. Kwega was shot and killed as he drove his car through the city accompanied by his wife who was also shot but did not die of her wounds and is recuperating in a local hospital. Kwega was a well-liked man around town, Chairman of the ODM party and had made several public  statements recently that he was considering running for office himself very soon.  As the confrontation became more violent two protesters were killed and five more people wounded as the police tried to subdue the residents of the Kondele slum.

The Kenyan government has made a serious attempt to curtail tribal violence during the next election. Government regulators have worked with the local phone networks such as Safaricom to prohibit political parties from sending out bulk text messages without prior approval. During the last election “hate messages” targeting specific tribes were sent out by competing political parties regularly and were known to contribute to the 2007 violence.

Charges by the International Criminal Court (ICC) have also limited the actions of politicians who were known to have goaded their supporters into acts of physical aggression. Two presidential candidates at the time, Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Jomo Kenyatta and William Ruto, face charges by the ICC for their alleged role in promoting the use of violence during the previous election. Uhuru Kenyatta had been charged by the ICC with creating and supporting the gangs of “Mungiki”, a  Kukuyu secret organization of young men who terroized Nairobi and the surrounding districts prior to the 2007 election.  

The 2013 national election will pit Uhuru Kenyatta, a member of the Kukuyu tribe against Raila Odinga, a member of the Luo tribe. Both men are the sons of Kenya’s two most important political families and will be  vying to replace President Mwai Kibaki, who will retire from public office in the Spring of 2013.

Odinga now serves as prime minister of Kenya in a power-sharing agreement after he accused Kibaki of rigging the last election. Kisumu erupted in violence after his constiuents heard the news that Odinga had not won the election.

Uhuru Kenyatta is heir to the dynasty left by Kenya’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta who wrestled Kenya away from British control but managed to leave his son as the richest man in Kenya and one of its largest landowners.

Violence and corruption has been part of Kenya’s political heritage from the beginning and politicians have been allowed to use voters throughout their districts to achieve both their personal and political goals for a very long time. As Kenya’s new constitution gives the country’s districts a greater autonomy this could help to polarize rather than blend traditional tribal districts together. There are still sections of the country where Kenyans who were born into one tribe would not be allowed to settle in districts controlled by another more intolerant tribe. These families might be tolerated for a time but would definitely feel like outsiders, even threatened with death when tribal events such as elections rolled around again. Hundreds of Kukuyu familes had their houses burned to the ground by members of the Luo tribe during the 2007 elections. Many of these families remain homeless and are still living in refugee camps financed by the Kenyan goverment.

According to the latest World Bank fiscal report on the economy of Kenya, the government increased interest rates and lowered the fiscal deficit by curbing expenditures.  These actions helped to stabilize the economy.  Kenya’s economy is gradually recovering and is expected to grow by 5% this year, but additional external shocks such as the massive upheaval of businesses and exports, especially the tourism industry which were all negatively impacted by the demonstrations and violence during the election of 2007could place East Africa’s largest economy in jeopardy.

The latest opinion poll by Infotrak released on November 10th, 2012 showed that Prime Minister Raila Odinga is the front runner for president with 35 % of the country’s voters ready to vote for him compared to the 24% who prefer Deputy Prime Minister, Uhuru Kenyatta but neither man is in the position yet to win the presidency without help. Asked if Kenya is moving in the right direction, 49 % of respondents disagreed, saying the cost of living standards has gone up, corruption has increased, and unemployment is high.

Hopefully for the benefit of the entire country, the Prime Ministers will uphold their pledges and agree to run peaceful campaigns and that these most recent incidents of tribal violence will end by the time the 2013 elections come round. Maybe then, Kenyans will begin to vote as citizens of Kenya and not exercise their democratic rights constricted by the political affiliations of the tribes into which they were born.

Kat Nickerson     Kingston, RI       USA

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