Kenyan Ethnic Loyalties Trump Economic Policies in Vote

Mike Mwaura says he doesn’t care much about the policies of Kenya’s presidential candidates in March 4 elections. He wants a fellow ethnic Kikuyu to retain power to keep members of his tribe in important positions.

“We protect our own,” said Mwaura, a 35-year-old taxi driver in Nairobi, the capital. “A leader from another tribe could choose a new town clerk, and then our taxi licenses could be taken and replaced by his tribesmen.”

Next week’s presidential vote will be the first since disputed elections in 2007 triggered ethnic fighting in which more than 1,100 people died and another 350,000 fled their homes. The ballot will test the power of a 2010 constitution, drafted to decentralize power, create accountable government and prevent similar violence by sharing resources more equitably.

Growth in the world’s largest black-tea exporting nation slumped to 1.5 percent in 2008 from 7 percent a year earlier after the two-month conflict led to a collapse in agricultural output. The shilling plunged 8.5 percent against the dollar and the benchmark NSE 20 stock index fell 11 percent. The World Bank said protracted violence in this election would again damage the economy.

The presidential favorites, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, an ethnic Luo, and Deputy Premier Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, have proposed similar policies in their manifestos. While both men have vowed to reject messages with ethnic overtones on the campaign trail, they need support from their kinsmen to secure votes in a country where tribal loyalties have historically taken precedence over policy pronouncements.

Ethnic Numbers

“One of the major problems of today in Kenya and Africa is about ethnic numbers, and the way you get numbers is through mobilizing ‘one of your own,’” said Mzalendo Kibunjia, chairman of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, which was created by the government after the 2007-08 post-poll violence to promote national unity.

Kenyatta and Odinga, the sons of modern Kenya’s founding fathers, have promised to create 1 million jobs a year, increase security and implement land reforms. Public opinion polls show the two front-runners are in a dead heat and neither will win the majority of 50 percent plus one that’s required to avoid a runoff in April.

“When you come in as a president you surround yourself by your ethnic tribe, by giving them more jobs and opportunities,” Kibunjia said in an interview.


The Kenyan shilling advanced 0.3 percent to 85.85 per dollar by 5:18 p.m. in Nairobi, posting its biggest weekly increase in more than 14 months, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

More than 450 Kenyans have died in ethnic and politically motivated clashes since the beginning of 2012, according to the United Nations. Some of the most serious atrocities have occurred in the eastern Tana River Delta, where a politician was accused by the police of inciting violence between the Pokomo and Orma groups.

Tribal tensions in Kenya were heightened by so-called divide-and-rule policies adopted by British colonialists to create distrust among ethnic groups and undermine opposition to its authority, according to Dismas Mokua, deputy president at Sadiki East Africa, a political-risk advisory group.

At independence in 1963, Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta and his vice president, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, adopted “ethnically driven-politics” to defeat a party of smaller tribes, Mokua said. Oginga Odinga later fell out with Jomo Kenyatta and left the party, deepening divisions between the Luo and Kikuyu communities, he said.

Ethnic Groups

“They were the first leaders who planted that seed of destruction because they started organizing their politics around tribes,” Mokua said.

Kikuyus form the largest of Kenya’s 42 ethnic groups, accounting for 17 percent of the population, according to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. The next-biggest are the Luhya with 14 percent, the Kalenjin at 13 percent and the Luo with 10 percent.

Land has been one of the key causes of ethnic division since before independence. Disputes between herding and farming communities have been exacerbated by the concentration of large tracts of land in the hands of a few by both the colonial and Kenyatta governments. Politicians’ propensity to stoke the ethnic grievances in their areas has kept those tensions fresh in the minds of many Kenyans.

Land Wealth

“I believe that if my father stole money from you, passed it on to me, then it should be refunded,” said Michael Nyambury, a 49-year-old businessman who plans to vote for his Luo kinsman Odinga. “Land in African society is a symbol of wealth and it shows where we belong.”

Kenya has had only two presidents since Jomo Kenyatta died in office in 1978. Daniel Arap Moi, a Kalenjin, ruled until 2002, while his successor President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, is stepping down this year.

Uhuru Kenyatta, 51, is competing for the presidency with running mate William Ruto, a Kalenjin lawmaker. The two were rivals in the 2007 vote and were subsequently charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court for directing the clashes. Both deny the allegations.

The ICC charges may embolden Kenyatta and Ruto’s “fanatical followers” to vote for them to shut 68-year-old Odinga out, said Kibunjia.

Criminal Court

Peter Mwangi, an unemployed 40-year-old Kikuyu, dismisses the ICC charges as a political conspiracy being led by white foreigners, known by the Swahili term wazungu, trying to impose Odinga on the Kenyan electorate.

“The wazungu are using their messages and civil society to overthrow an Uhuru-Ruto presidency just like they did in Libya and Syria,” Mwangi said. “We don’t want to go back to those colonial times. Kenyans will elect who they want.”

Political leaders spoke out against tribalism in the country’s first-ever presidential debate in February. Kenyatta called it a “cancer” that creates conflict, while Odinga said its a “disease of the elite.” They said they plan to rise above tribalism with policies to fight unemployment and foster economic growth that will benefit the poor.

“For us young people, all we really care about is a leader with the vision to create jobs,” said Dennis Wafula, a 22-year-old member of the Luhya tribe, idling in Nairobi’s city center looking for odd jobs. “Elected or not, they will still go home every night and have a hot meal. I can’t say the same for myself.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.