It may be that the political meaning of the recent violence in Kenya will exceed the explanatory capabilities of the news media, but the question itself has not yet adequately been posed. In place of a serious engagement with the crisis, coverage of the events has been characterized by genuine shock that this could have happened in Kenya. This has typically been accompanied by the deployment of the bankrupt trope of tribalism by way of explanation. But what these responses have failed to recognize or reckon with are the apolitical character of Kenyan politics, the dialectic in Kenya of ethnicity and politics, and the inability of the Kenyan state to deal with violent historical trauma. Although an exploration of these elements may not bring the political meaning of Kenya’s recent violence to light, it may help us to ask the question properly.
This most recent round of election violence began in early January with the announcement that President Mwai Kibaki, formerly of National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), currently of Party of National Unity (PNU), had defeated Raila Odinga, leader of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). What was left out of the discussion of ruling and opposition parties, however, is that there is no political spectrum in which they may be contextualized. There is no room for a ‘Left’ or a ‘Right’ in a form of politics based solely on the consumption and redistribution of wealth in the form of property, employment, cash, or beer. Political parties themselves have begun to resemble the segmentary lineage structures of British social anthropology. Politicians will split from older, well-established parties to form new ones in which they and their close associates occupy higher, more lucrative positions. The desire for an elevated position in a party of one’s own is in tension, however, with the desire to access the more substantial resources (financial and personal) of the older party. During the months leading up to the recent election a number of new parties were created, liquidated, and recombined in rapid succession as career politicians jockeyed for position. Neither PNU nor ODM, the ruling and opposition parties at the time of the most recent election, existed during the previous election. Several candidates who stood in this election as members of ODM had been prominent members of Daniel T. arap Moi’s dictatorship before Kibaki came to power in 2002. The profusion of parties in the 1990s at the insistence of Western creditors must be seen in this light and not be mistaken for increasing democratization. What ODM opposes, in short, is not PNU’s policies; their own would be identical, the only difference being the beneficiaries. That difference is the result of an historical dialectic of ethnicity and politics that can only be outlined here.
The beneficiaries of a politician’s redistributive policies tend to be their own constituency exclusively. This is the understanding between voters and candidates, and any politician who is unwilling or unable to steal enough to redistribute to their constituency is soon replaced. The constituency, especially in local elections, frequently belongs to the same ethnic group as its elected representative. Although ethnicity cannot be said to determine whom one votes for, it can easily take on a certain significance during election campaigns. But if ethnicity influences political allegiances, politics must be understood to have a profound effect on ethnic allegiances. During the Mau Mau war and the State of Emergency between 1952 and 1960, the Kalenjin ethnicity was consciously created out of a number of smaller tribes by the British government in an effort to consolidate an anti-Gikuyu power bloc in western Kenya. And in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, President Jomo Kenyatta led an oathing campaign among Gikuyus in central Kenya in response to the creation of a rival political party, the Kenya People’s Union (KPU), by several Luo politicians who had split from his own Kenya African National Union (KANU).
Kenya’s most violent historical crisis, the Mau Mau rebellion, lay precisely at this nexus of ethnicity and politics. Mau Mau was as much a struggle over what it meant to be a Gikuyu as it was a war for “land and freedom.” Its violence, moreover, was profoundly existential rather than political. To the degree that Mau Mau’s violence was aimed at “freedom” (and whether this was the case is debatable), the question “what kind of freedom?” was never deliberated, and when the political crisis ended and Kenya gained independence in 1963, the political meaning of Mau Mau remained unclear. Kenyatta would later say, famously, “we all fought for freedom,” but official efforts to repress Mau Mau from the national consciousness have only resulted in a compulsion to repeat its violence in new forms. In the final years of the Moi regime, for example, a neotraditional Gikuyu organization called Mungiki appeared, styling itself after Mau Mau and shaking down commuter taxi routes, charging Nairobi slum residents protection fees, and operating as a militia-for-hire for Gikuyu politicians in opposition parties. In western Kenya more recently, the Sabaot Land Defense Force, operating from the forests of Mt. Elgon near the Uganda border, has set itself up as a parallel state, forcing residents to pay taxes to support its fight, again, for land and freedom. And one need only look at the pictures of rioters in the recent election violence posing for the cameras with machetes and homemade weapons to identify a national compulsion to repeat the violence of Mau Mau. Beyond that, in the accusations and counter-accusations of “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” by politicians, one detects a perverse fantasy of eradication. These accusations of genocide, it must be remembered, were not aimed at provoking western intervention. Both sides insisted throughout the crisis that the situation would be resolved domestically, proudly reminding western commentators that Kenya was no longer anyone’s colony. Also, the claims of genocide were not the basis of calls for retaliatory violence or “defense.” Thus the question becomes, why might one claim for oneself the status of a victim of genocide if not for outside help or to justify one’s own actions?
Further complicating the question is the dramatic rise in ethno-nationalist sentiment in the wake of the violence, which was itself far from a spontaneous eruption of ethnic hatred. The politicians’ mutual accusations of genocide are accurate to the extent that they implicate each other and each other’s militias for funding and carrying out the violence. But both the willingness of groups of young men to participate in the initial clashes and the ex post facto characterizations of Gikuyus, which have begun to approach the depths of 20th Century anti-Semitism in their vulgarity, must be understood to be part of the same phenomenon. Neither can be accounted for by something so banal as unemployment and each has taken place despite the mediation of one’s daily interactions with members of other ethnicities and political affiliations. The introduction of capitalist political, economic, and social forms under colonialism that freed Kenyans from dense and corrosive networks of obligation also produced new forms of uncertainty, dependence, and violence. The events surrounding the recent election must be understood with these latter forms in mind. The political meaning of the post-election violence cannot be accounted for by the claim that Kalenjins, Luos and Gikuyus were killing each other because they could not see through the ancient mist of tribalism. The situation is more upsetting than that. Kenyans were killing each other and burning each other’s homes precisely because they knew it was wrong, and that they were getting away with it.