Welcome to the Roundtable, a forum for incisive commentary and analysis
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
By Edna Simbi
Edna Simbi is a student at Columbia University studying receiving degrees in international relations, affairs, and security policy.
On December 30, 2007, the Electoral Commission of Kenya, an independent body whose members are appointed by the president, announced the results of a highly contested election. During the election, two major tribes, the Kikuyu and Luo, led by their respective tribal leaders, Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, accused each other of electoral fraud with each camp claiming to have won the elections. Immediately after announcement of the results, Kibaki was hastily sworn into office in a secret ceremony. Soon after, violent protests, lootings and killings, rocked the country.
Since independence, Kenya had been largely peaceful, so what caused the 2007 post-election violence? The violence is significant because it is representative of broader groups, and increasing instances of dissension after 2007 seem to have the potential to foment future violence. My thesis is that Kenya’s new democracy after only 44 years of independence was too fragile and was still an anocracy—a political system that is half democratic and half authoritarian—and the violence was facilitated by identity politics and elite instrumentalization, all of which were legacies of colonialism.
Even though identity based explanations can help explain the violence in Kenya, they do not fully explain what else caused the post election violence. The “what else” are legacies of colonialism and elite instrumentalization which both worked to facilitate the violence.
The primordial view sees identities as set in stone and defines ethnic groups as innately at odds with “others” because it is inherently in their nature. We see the concept of the “other” where ethnic groups rely on kinship ties to define outsiders. The constructivist, however, defines identity as malleable, changing and socially constructed. From Samuel Huntington’s perspective in his book Clash of Civilizations, the Kikuyu and Luo fought because it is in their nature to do so since the world is divided into cultural clusters that are incompatible.  While this might explain why people fight, it does not explain the sudden violence between the Luo and Kikuyu, who had previously peacefully coexisted for 44 years. The primordial identity explanation also fails to look at how the elite manipulated the citizens to perpetuate the violence and instead opts for an easy way out to explain that the two groups fought because it is in their nature to be savage and brutal.
The constructivist-based identity explanation, on the other hand, helps us better understand identity as contributing to the violence through elite instrumentalization. In Kenya, the two elite political leaders set groups against each other by emphasizing post independence political and ancient hatred between the two founding fathers: Jomo Kenyatta (Kikuyu) and Jaramogi Oginga (Luo), in order to mobilize support among their respective followers. Historically, Kenyatta and Oginga were bitter political rivals due to conflicting political and ideological goals. The Kikuyus felt that the presidency was theirs by right; after all, it was the Kikuyu-led Mau Mau rebellion that had assured Kenya’s independence. This in turn created tension among the Luo, who were excluded from political leadership. Some Kikuyu leaders using political rallies as a platform to mobilize support, declaring that the presidential motorcade would “never cross River Chania”(a Kikuyu district).  The Luo reacted by constructing stereotypes of the Kikuyu that dehumanized them as killing machines in order to justify the violence against them.
However, identity politics do not fully explain the violence in Kenya for two reasons: it does not explain why the other 40 tribes in Kenya followed the two leaders with whom they had no ethnic affiliations. It also assumes that the elites who mobilized their followers along ethnic lines all had the same goals, while in Kenya’s case, they had different goals for wanting political power: the Kikuyu wanted land, the Luos wanted a decentralized government. Therefore, to help us better understand the violence, we must examine how colonial legacies constructed identities and created a weak and anocratic state which was manipulated by the elite to mobilize followers.
Kenya’s colonial history gave rise to a form of ethnic nationalism that was accentuated by the fear that different ethnic tribes aroused in each other. Colonizers created tribal identities to deflect anger from the colonial administration by creating the idea of “others” and this colonial past has Kenyans falling back on stereotypes of “us” vs. “them.” Post independence, these ethnic identities took on a more sinister dimension where instances of bias and prejudice resulted in governments preferring and polarizing districts and peoples through the inherited indirect rule that gave tribal chiefs power. Mahmood Mamdani refers to this form of indirect rule as “decentralized despotism,” a form of power that excluded “others.”  Even though legacies of colonialism are only one of the many reasons for violence, this institutional legacy did not disappear with independence. Kenya opted for minimalist reforms, retained the dual system, and while this deracialized the country, it did not democratize the system of decentralized despotism. De jure, leaders of Kikuyu and Luo sided with the democratic tradition based on the elections and other freedoms for Kenyans. De facto, it was about tribalism, and decentralized despotism, on both sides of the conflict. These tribal ethnic tensions took the form of inequality, election fraud, and limited (in the Luo) or unlimited (in the Kikuyu) access to political resources. In effect, colonialism created ethnic discrimination that gave one group unequal advantage over the other and that was manipulated by the elite instrumentalization under the guise of identity politics.
The regime type most linked to violence and civil wars is transitional democracies—that is, those moving from dictatorships to democracies . This is because the relationship between democracy and peace is not a continuum but rather, an asymmetrical process. Countries in transition are more war prone, and Kenya was no exception after only 44 years of independence. It was by tapping into the anocratic government that the intense domestic competition for power between the Luo and Kikuyu defied the state, which was not competent enough to regulate competition and mobilization of followers along racial, political, or ethnic lines. The elite therefore mobilized followers along ethnic identities and unified these groups against each other successfully and the manifestation was the 2007 post-election violence.
In order to understand what caused the violence, we must analyze the conflict as a cleavage of identity politics, regime type and colonial legacies. Only then will we be able to understand how colonialist constructed identities that the elite were able to manipulate in a weak anocratic state.
 Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
 Munene, Mugumo. "When a Police Chief Slapped Moi and Other Battles from the past." Nation Newspapers (Nairobi, Kenya), September 1, 2014.
 Mamdani, Mahmood. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.
 Autesserre, Severine. "How Regime Types Contribute to Violence." Lecture, Lecture, Diana Center Rm 504, New York, February 2015.
Photo Credit: Flickr User Defense Images
The opinions and views expressed through this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.