In the wake of the eruption of violence in Kenya, sociology professor and director of the African studies program David Wiley sat down with five local Kenyan Ph.D. students to discuss the situation. One student, hailing from an area where some of the violence has been the worst, turned to Wiley and said, “You know, the problem is that there are two big tribes in Africa: the rich and the poor.”
This may be the truest statement about the continent, despite all the talk of ethnic tension and tribal violence that normally perpetuates the headlines of the major national newspapers when something bad happens in Africa. It is most often that the roots of Africa’s problems arise simply because many people live on a day-to-day survival basis, and Kenya is no exception.
On the surface, the current violence in Kenya directly stems from the Dec. 27, 2007 election, which ended with Mwai Kibaki being sworn in for a second term as president. The announcement of his presidency came amidst a swirl of allegations that the election was rigged, and his opposition, Raila Odinga, refused to accept the results and interrupted the official announcement. A few days later, Kibaki began filling his Cabinet with allies, and after originally agreeing to talks, Odinga rejected the offer to meet with the president. Both sides have yet to meet.
Leading up to the election, most of Kibaki’s Cabinet had been swept from power, and multitudes of Kenyans turned up to vote in the second biggest multiparty vote since Kenya gained its independence. According to Wiley, the turnout for the election may be why so many Kenyans were disgruntled when the results were revealed. “There’s widespread consensus that the president’s election commission mishandled and probably rigged the reporting of the results,” he said. “All across Africa, people want the right to control who governs them, and after that, for it to turn out to have been rigged, there’s a huge amount of anger all across the country.”
This anger manifested itself in violence that has left more than 800 dead and more than 300,000 Kenyans displaced from their homes, according to the most recent reports at time of publication. Churches destroyed, roadblocks set up by violent youth gangs, fleeing Kenyans thrown into rivers – all have made for sensational headlines about a country that has long been known for its peaceful democracy, despite being surrounded by countries torn apart by civil war.
“We never felt anything. Maybe we took it for granted and it was always there, but Kenya is generally peaceful,” said Betty Okwako, a native of Kenya teaching a class in teacher education. “I never would have imagined something like this would have happened.”
Okwako has relatives in Kenya and knows people who are displaced, and some of her extended family members are in areas where violence is occurring. “It’s really distracting,” Okwako said. “When it will end, I don’t know. I worry about my family and friends and everybody back home.”
She has good reason to worry, according to the news headlines that have been reaching the United States. “Tribalism tears up social fabric,” reads one headline. “Death toll mounts in Kenya riots,” reads another. Some articles have compared the violence to that in Rwanda in 1994, and the question of a Kenyan civil war has been thrown into the ring. Like most conflicts in Africa, it all boils down to tribal violence that pits Kibaki’s Kikuyu supporters against Odinga’s allies, who are all decidedly not Kikuyu and instead belong to one of four other major ethnic identities. According to Wiley, however, it’s not as bad as some of the articles make it seem, and tribal violence is a poor way of describing the conflict.
“The articles kind of make things seem worse in Kenya than they are. Most of the major tour operators are continuing to operate their tours in Kenya,” Wiley said. “There’s a normalcy the headlines don’t catch.” The headlines also do not seem to catch the fact that the violence is not widespread across the large country.
Zoology professor Kay Holekamp leads a summer study abroad program in Kenya and described the violence as occurring in pockets. “Right now the violence is being perpetuated by a sort of lowlife individuals, but the rest of the population, although unhappy – like Americans in the Bush/Gore election – doesn’t burn down buildings for that,” Holekamp said.
[logan2]There is no doubt things are suddenly worse off in Kenya, but the reasons for it are much more complex than just tribal violence or frustration at a failed election. Wiley teaches his students there are no tribes in Africa. “Tribes have a sense of the primordial identities of natives in the jungle,” Wiley said. “That concept was invented by European colonists.”
Instead, Wiley looks at Kenyans – and all humans from different countries – in the context of both ethnicity and language. Carolyn Logan, an assistant professor of political science, supports Wiley’s view. “It’s not ancient tribal hatreds. It’s a much more complicated situation than that, and that’s the most important thing that’s really being missed in the general coverage of it,” Logan said. “Kenyans have been living side by side with people of these different ethnic groups for a long time.”
The current violence instead has its origins in Kenya’s political history, which has often exploited ethnic identities. “It’s how politicians use their power and manipulate ethnic differences that cause what’s going on,” said Logan.
Logan cited the Kenyan elections of 1992 and 1997, where there was evidence of politicians trying to mobilize groups around issues and displacing people from certain ethnic groups so they could not vote. However, when the 2002 elections rolled around, Logan said there was more unity in the country. Kibaki was elected for his first term as president with a large majority and public support. “When Kibaki was elected, he was received very euphorically because Kenyans were glad to be done with the Moi era,” said Logan, referring to Daniel arap Moi, Kibaki’s predecessor. But many were soon disappointed, she added. “After having extremely high expectations for new change, Kenyans have gotten the same old, same old from the administration.”
When elected president, Kibaki promised the creation of a prime ministerial post that would go to Odinga and the reformation of the constitution. When these promises yielded no results, Kenyans fell back on their ethnic identities, according to Logan. “But ethnic identities aren’t in any sense what has caused the violence. Political betrayal is what’s caused the violence,” Logan said. “If Kibaki had been a different ethnic group, we would still be facing many of the same things.”
Along with political betrayal and corruption, the roots of the violence also include Kenya’s continual struggle against poverty. Many of the people involved in the violence are from the slums of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. “The violence you see is the anger of the poor,” Wiley said. “They don’t have the resources that the wealthier people get.”
This poverty has long been a part of the country, according to Jeanne Gazel, director of the Multi-Racial Unity Living Experience (MRULE) program at MSU. A group of her ISS students founded Family of Strength Organization (FOSO) three years ago to provide support for Kenya. “The roots of these problems (poverty, disease, education systems that aren’t adequate and poor health care) are in the colonial past,” Gazel said. “Those cards were dealt throughout the entire continent, and it’s a struggle to come back.”
And currently the Kikuyu, Kibaki’s ethnic group, are dominating the wealth of the country. “Since Kibaki came to power, the Kenyan economy has done quite well on a macro scale, but too much of that is going to cronies and not trickling down to people at the bottom end of the scale,” Logan said. “The people supporting Odinga rate their economic status much worse than those aligned with Kibaki.” She also said it is the poor that feel they have less to lose by participating in acts of violence simply because they don’t have jobs or possessions to lose.
Many of the Kenyans living along poverty’s lines carried high expectations for the election, believing if their leader, Odinga, was to be elected, their lives would be different. “There’s no proof that the opposition leader will make it better, but they think he will because they’re coming from the perspective of have-not,” Gazel said.
And in a country that has prided itself on being more democratically stable than the surrounding countries, the possibility of a rigged election gives even more incentive to turn to violence. Logan, who has participated in surveys of the country, said one of the things she’s seen in the data is how much the quality of elections matter to people’s perceptions of how democratic their country is. “Having an election that’s so widely seen as flawed is problematic for the long-term development of democracy in the country,” Logan said.
In order to restore faith in Kenyan democracy, its people need to know their votes were counted, Wiley said. The end of the violence also depends on international help, which the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union have all been eager to give. Well-respected international figures, such as the South African peace activist Desmond Tutu, also have been going to Kenya to encourage people to solve the problem peacefully. However, according to Logan, “ultimately it’s got to come from the Kenyans and be a Kenyan political solution.” This would mean talks between the two opposing leaders and finding some sort of compromise, an idea that makes sense to many people.
“At the end of the day, it’s up to those two people,” Okwako said. “People just need to step down and let the legitimate person lead who’s supposed to lead.”
[gazel]Before that happens, though, students in Gazel’s FOSO are doing their best to raise money to send to Kenya, holding fundraising events such as a 5K walk/run. FOSO works closely with the group Kenyan Orphans Rural Development Programme (KORDP), a group that is continuing its work despite the violence. “We can’t solve their political strife – just support the Kenyans in the hope that the political unrest will dissolve and democracy will flourish once again,” said Randi Schaefer, a business marketing and communication senior with a specialization in women, gender and social justice.
Members from FOSO also will be traveling to Kenya in the summer to continue their work there, and as of now, the program does not seem in danger of being canceled. Neither does Holekamp’s program, though she said she does worry about the university’s safety committee making a premature decision. “Their fear threshold is lower than mine,” Holekamp said. “I sure hope it works itself out quickly because I would hate [for] the university, in its nervousness, to cancel a course that all students love.”
Gazel is pulling for the Kenyans, too. “We’re going to hope that Kenyans pull it together because they’re wonderful people, building communities and addressing deeply rooted problems,” Gazel said. “It’s not going to all go up in smoke because of this election.” All eyes will remain on Kenya in anticipation, hoping they’ll put out the fire, fueled by class and cultural differences, soon.

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