Monday Mayhem in Kenya Raises Specter of Ethnic Strife

  • Main opposition demands resignation of electoral commission
  • Protests don’t yet pose major risk to economy, Exotix says

Nairobi residents have a new reason to dread the start of the working week: street demonstrations.

In recent weeks, the center of Kenya’s traffic-choked capital has become a battleground each Monday as opposition supporters demanding the resignation of the nation’s electoral commission clash with riot police armed with wooden clubs, teargas and water cannons. The unrest has spread to several other cities, and Nation Media Group and other local news outlets have reported that three people were shot dead, a toll the government disputes.

Unrest in the streets of the Kibera slum in Nairobi, on May 23.

Photographer: Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images

With presidential elections scheduled for August 2017, the clashes have evoked memories of the political and ethnic conflict that erupted after a disputed vote in 2007 and claimed at least 1,100 lives. Nineteen of Kenya’s 47 districts are at risk of election-related violence, the government’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission said in a report last month. Kenya has more than 40 ethnic groups, the largest being the Kikuyu followed by the Luhya, Kalenjins and the Luo. 

Ethnic Undertones

“Deep-rooted ethnic undertones are already at play,” Samuel Mohochi, executive director of the International Commission of Jurists’ Kenya chapter, said by phone from Nairobi. “There are accusations that police are targeting the Luo community, for example. All parties are taking a hard-line position.”

Ongoing political turmoil threatens to derail Kenya’s economy, one of a handful in sub-Saharan Africa that’s booming as it benefits from low oil prices, a stable exchange rate and slowing inflation. Last week, Dennis Awori, chairman of the Kenya Private Sector Alliance, a business lobby group, warned that the protests were damaging the country’s image and scaring tourists away. 

The International Monetary Fund expects Kenya’s economy to expand 6 percent this year and 6.1 percent in 2017, which would make it one of sub-Saharan Africa’s top five performers. The economy, East Africa’s largest, grew 5.6 percent last year, as an expansion of agriculture, manufacturing and construction offset a slowdown in tourism. Kenya is the world’s biggest exporter of black tea.

Kenyatta Challenge

President Uhuru Kenyatta, who teamed up with one-time rival Deputy President William Ruto to win power in 2013 under the banner of the Jubilee Alliance, will seek a second term in next year’s vote. Kenyatta, 54, is a Kikuyu, while Ruto, 49, is from the Kalenjin community. Both men were charged by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity for targeting each others’ groups after the 2007 vote. Kenyatta and Ruto denied any wrongdoing and the cases were dropped for a lack of evidence.

Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, a 71-year-old Luo who heads the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy, or CORD, poses the biggest challenge to Kenyatta’s rule. He claims he was robbed of victory in 2007 and 2013 elections because of alleged rigging and says next year’s contest also won’t be fair because the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission isn’t impartial and the voters’ roll is defective.

Forty-four percent of 1,035 eligible voters surveyed by Consumer Insight said they had no faith in the commission’s ability to carry out free and fair elections because it was corrupt and inept, and did a bad job during the previous vote, the Daily Nation reported May 16. Forty-three percent of respondents expressed confidence in the electoral body, the Nairobi-based newspaper said.

Hate Speech

CORD spokesman Dennis Onyango accuses the police of deliberately sowing ethnic divisions, as he says they did after the 2007 vote. The Coalition for Constitution Implementation, a Nairobi-based lobby group, has urged the government to act against what it described in a May 22 statement as “systematic tribal mobilization and hate speech by politicians.”

CORD wants a peaceful resolution to the dispute about the electoral body, Onyango said.

“We have tried pushing changes through parliament and they have been blocked,” Onyango said by phone from Nairobi. “Our last line of defense is protests. We are not going to elections with the IEBC as currently constituted.”

The opposition suspended its weekly protests on May 25 to allow talks to take place, while warning they’ll resume and be intensified next week if its concerns aren’t addressed. Kenyatta says he doesn’t have the power to remove the commission.

Due Process

“The IEBC has rights; they have to be subjected to due process,” government spokesman Eric Kiraithe said by phone from Nairobi on May 26. “If the opposition realizes it has no chance of winning, they must not declare chaos. It’s not the IEBC which has created a situation where Kenyans vote along ethnic lines.”

The standoff can still be resolved peacefully, according to Muhammad Fraser-Rahim, Africa programs officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.

“The government has the situation contained, but at the same time the protests have spread outside of Nairobi,” he said by phone. “If there is an increase and intensification of the protests for another six months, Kenya is going to face a very difficult situation.”

Political Risk

Political risk remains relatively low by Kenyan standards, given that the Jubilee coalition is unified while CORD is facing divisions over issues such as its choice of presidential candidate, according to London-based Exotix Partners LLP.

The protests are an attempt by the opposition to galvanize support and aren’t reflective of the country’s overall security situation, said Ahmed Salim, a Dubai-based analyst with Teneo Intelligence.

CORD “views some of the structural and leadership challenges that the IEBC has faced as an appropriate issue to latch on,” Salim said. “In looking to create the narrative that the IEBC is biased, the opposition is setting the stage for them to dispute the 2017 election outcome,” increasing the probability of further unrest after the vote, he said.

Violence could intensify if the opposition’s concerns aren’t addressed and thus far the government has been playing hardball, according to the International Commission of Jurists’ Mohochi.

Some Jubilee leaders “have indicated they will mobilize supporters to run counter-demonstrations against CORD,” he said. “If that happens that will be a perfect recipe for anarchy and chaos.”

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