Men and the Kenyan Elephant:
Nine Interpretations of the Violence
in Kenya in Early 2008
David Zarembka, Coordinator
There is an Asian parable about blind men and the elephant that became
popular in the West through a 19th century poem by John Godfrey Saxe.
The tale involves a group of blind men who touch an elephant to learn
what it is like and each one touches a specific yet different part.
One man feels the side of the elephant while another touches the tusk.
When the men come together for discussion, they are in complete disagreement.
The story is often used to indicate that reality may be viewed differently
depending upon one's perspective, suggesting that what seems an absolute
truth may be relative due to the deceptive nature of half-truths.
Before we begin exploring the Kenyan elephant, I would like to put
the situation into context. I recently received an email from Hezron
Masitsa, the AVP-Coordinator in Nairobi. He wrote that a Kenyan named
Joran Shijenje had been shot and killed on his way home from work.
This story seemed like more of the same violence we had been hearing
about for months. However, the Kenyan Joran Shijenje had been shot
coming home from work in Baltimore, Maryland. During the two months
of conflict in Kenya when 1,000 to 1,500 were killed, there were 5,000
to 6,000 homicides in the United States. While the United States is
8.5 times more populous than Kenya, the violence has died down in Kenya,
while in March and April another 5,000 to 6,000 Americans were murdered,
and so on. So, the violence in Kenya, while shocking and unfathomable,
is similar to what many Americans live with every day.
It is also important
to put this information into context vis-à-vis
other African conflicts. While up to 1,500 people were killed in Kenya
in 60 days, compare this with 850,000 who died in the Rwandan genocide
in 100 days, 300,000 who died in 12 years of civil war in Burundi,
and the estimated 4,000,000 to 5,000,000 who have died in the eastern
Congo since 1996.
Until the violence broke out on December 27, 2007 Kenya was perceived
to be a stable country. After the Electoral Commission of Kenya announced
that President Mwai Kibaki was re-elected, the opposition felt that
the election had been stolen from them resulting in large-scale demonstrations,
looting, rioting, and police brutality in response.
conflict in Kenya can be interpreted in at least nine different ways.
You may find that you feel comfortable with one
or more of those interpretations and reject others. As you will see,
I have versions of the “elephant” that I believe more than
1. “Ancient Tribal Hatreds:” Almost all the international
coverage of the crisis in Kenya was based on the interpretation that
the conflict was due to “ancient tribal hatreds.” For example,
on January 27, the Rueters wire service distributed a picture of a
woman lying dead on the floor in a pool of blood with her baby boy
crying on a chair behind her. The caption read, “The body of
a woman lies on the floor as her child cries during ethnic clashes
in Naivasha…after members of Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki’s
Kikuyu tribe fought running battles with the Luos and Kalenjins who
back Kibaki’s rival Raila Odinga.” The problem with this
interpretation is that the woman, a Luo married to a Kikuyu, was killed
by the police. In fact 43% of those murdered in Kenya were killed by
the police and not in any ethnic fighting. Contrary to international
and Kenyan law, the police used live bullets against demonstrators,
rioters, and looters.
While the international media was focusing on those burnt to death
in a church outside of Eldoret, the Kenya media was focusing on those
killed and wounded by the police in Kisumu. Of the 82 people killed
in Kisumu, the home city of the Luo, no Kikuyu were killed by the Luo;
all were killed by the police. In fact the Luo and Luhya (the ethnic
group of most of the 139,000 Quakers in Kenya) do not kill people as
they believe that the spirit of someone killed would haunt the killer
with a guilty conscience. They may beat them and push them out of their
homes, but they do not kill them.
Raila Odinga says
that the election was not about ethnic divisions since many Kikuyu
voted for him including 3,000 in Mwai Kibaki’s
home constituency in Central Province. More to the point, one of his
daughter-in-laws is Kikuyu and there are many ethnically mixed marriages
To understand the
situation in Kenya as “ancient tribal hatreds” is
to understand World War I and World War II as “ancient tribal
hatreds” between the Germans on one side and the French, English,
and Russians on the other. This interpretation explains nothing.
2. Stolen election:
The second interpretation is that the conflict was a result of the
election being stolen by the Kibaki Government.
On the election day of December 27, I was a poll observer in Lumakanda
where I live. The voting itself was excellent. People waited for an
hour or two in the sun to vote (the lines were much shorter in the
afternoon) and the voting for President, Member of Parliament (MP),
and the local county council was very orderly and well done. I watched
as the votes were counted and the observers from the various political
parties signed the results. It was in Nairobi during the tallying of
the votes from the polling stations that the fraud took place. As soon
as the results were announced, the appropriate form declaring Kibaki
the new President was taken to the State House by the Head of the Electoral
Commission. The Chief Justice just happened to be there to administer
the oath of office. Within one hour of the public announcement Kibaki
was sworn in for a second term—this is usually done a few days
later with foreign dignitaries present.
Those people who supported Raila Odinga and his Orange Democratic
Party (ODM) felt that the election had been stolen from them. They
had gone patiently and properly to the polls to vote and then the results
were manipulated. ODM planned a rally at Uhuru Park in Nairobi where
a million of his supporters were expected to attend. Although freedom
of assembly is one of the freedoms people have, the Government blocked
the park by ringing it with riot police who used tear gas, water cannons,
and live bullets to disperse those who were planning to attend. Naturally
many of the youth who were tear gassed rioted and, thus, began the
destruction in Nairobi. Other cities which were supposed to have demonstrations
had the same result. For some reason the authorities in Kapsabet, in
the volatile Rift Valley province, allowed a demonstration there which
went on peacefully. The demonstrators blew off steam, went home and
there was no violence.
The Government, again contrary to international standards, clamped
restrictions on the media. I had to listen to BBC (British Broadcasting
Corporation) to learn what was really happening in Kenya. Twice people
in the United States informed me of developments in Kenya before I
heard them here in Kenya myself.
with this interpretation is that, in a counterfactual world where
Raila Odinga became President, the problem would still
be the same—a sharply divided country—with only the faces
of power having changed.
3. Class warfare:
A third interpretation is class warfare. The election results were
no more than a trigger for decades-long tension due to
economic inequality. During the five years of the first Kibaki term
as President, after years of stagnation, the economy had grown robustly
reaching 7% in 2007. But this growth in income had almost exclusively
benefited the wealthy. Kenya (along with the United States) is a nation
with one of the highest rates of inequality in the world. Former President
Moi’s two sons are reported to have fortunes of over $500 million
and none of this was inherited since their father is still living.
Kenya is supposed to be a poor country yet the Kenyan elite is extremely
wealthy. Many of these elite are Kikuyu. So the average person, who
has no direct contact with the wealthy elite, took out their pent up
rage on their Kikuyu neighbors who, actually, were economically no
better off than they were.
Another aspect of this inequality is that Government funds, economic
development, and business opportunities were confined to Nairobi and
Central Province, the home area of the Kikuyu, while much of rest of
the country was starved for funds. People everywhere paid taxes which
were disproportionally spent in the center of the country. The violence
was a response to these economic injustices.
4. Youth rebellion: Another interpretation is that the violence was
a youth rebellion. Many youth felt alienated perceiving that they had
no stake in Kenyan society and no hope for a better future. While older
people tended to vote for Kibaki, the youth tended to vote for Raila.
I was at a meeting where two parents said that they had voted for Kibaki,
while their children had voted for Raila and this had created tensions
in the family. The youth who voted for Raila were voting for change
and a better future. They felt that their vote had been stolen from
them after they had gone naively, as it turned out, to the polls to
vote for change.
There is no doubt
that the newly elected members of parliament are much younger and
better educated than the previous parliament. Note
that in this election only 80 out of 222 MP’s were re-elected.
Many of those who lost were the old members who had been in government
and politics since the time of independence in 1963. The youth also
wanted change at the top—Kibaki is 76 while spring-chicken Raila
is a mere 62.
5. Land issues: Particularly in the Rift Valley, but also in other
parts of the country, there are issues over ownership and control of
land. When the British came to Kenya at the beginning of the twentieth
century, the Kalenjin and Maasai groups in the Rift valley gave military
opposition. As a result the British crushed them, which in those days
meant not only defeating the warriors in battle, but burning their
villages, killing their animals, and destroying their crops. The surviving
Maasai and Kalenjin were pushed north and south to the more agriculturally
marginal areas of the Rift Valley, leaving the fertile, well-watered
land in the middle mostly vacant.
In this fertile,
and now ethnically cleansed region, the British created the “white highlands,” giving large estates to British
settlers. We are not talking about the small bits of land given to
American settlers when they settled the West. Karen Blixen, the author
of Out of Africa, had 6,000 acres. Others were given 10,000, 20,000,
and even 100,000 acres. This in a country where there is only 1.5 arable
acres per person. The Mau-Mau rebellion of the 1950’s was partly
a protest against this great inequality.
When Kenya gained
independence in 1963 the Kalenjin and Maasai thought that the lands
seized from them would be returned. What actually happened
was that many of these large estates were transferred from the departing
British settlers to the new ruling Kenyan elite who were mostly the
loyalist supporters of the British during the Mau-Mau rebellion. Others
of the estates were bought up by land companies and sold off as small
plots to those who could afford them—in most cases this meant
the Kikuyu from Central Province rather than the original owners of
These land issues have not been resolved, but allowed to fester. In
the 1992 elections there was violence in the Rift Valley which killed
an estimated 1,000 people and Kenyans in Lumakanda tell me that it
was even worse than this recent round of violence. At the time of the
1997 election there was additional violence. On Mount Elgon since June
2006, over 500 people had been killed over a land dispute among two
clans. There had been other deadly disputes in Molo, Rongai, Laikipia,
and elsewhere. The election results triggered additional violence in
all these areas.
6. Violence as usual: Although Kenya, unlike many of its neighbors,
had the reputation of being a peaceful, calm country, I had always
considered it otherwise. On May 5, 1969, I was in Kenya when the powerful
Minister for Economic Development, Tom Mboya, a Luo, was assassinated.
Kenya felt then just as it did during this crisis. The glue that had
been holding the country together was no longer working. One feared
that the country would descend into chaos. The difference this time
was cell phones and the internet. In 1969 we had to rely solely on
rumor. This time we could contact people we knew in other parts of
the country by calling or texting with our cell phones to ask what
was happening. Then we could make reports to the outside world, as
I did, of the events as we saw them.
The campaign period
leading up to December 27 was also very violent. At least 25 people
were killed. An assistant minister was found with “traditional
weapons” (machetes, bows and arrows, clubs, etc) in his Government-sponsored
vehicle and nothing happened to him (although he did lose the election).
A prominent Minister in the Kibaki Government who had controlled the
Kisii area for decades was shown on TV talking to the leader of a gang
who had a bow and arrow in his hand. Two minutes later the gang leader
attacked members of the opposition who were alighting from a helicopter.
One of the major leaders of the opposition descending from the helicopter,
William Ruto, was put in the hospital for a week or more. Again nothing
happened to this Minister (although he too also lost the election).
At the local level, our electrician was the leader for the ODM Youth
in Lugari District. While putting up posters of their candidate he
and four other youth, were attacked by youth supporting a rival candidate.
He had to go to the hospital for treatment and two of his friends were
Lastly, almost every few days one reads in the newspapers of people
killed by mob justice. I have seen this myself in Nariobi where a large
crowd runs after an alleged thief who survives only if the police are
able to rescue him. This occurs because the police are corrupt and
when people turn in a thief, within a day or two he has paid a bribe
and is out on the streets again. The attitude that makes this acceptable
is the same attitude that allows a person to attack a neighbor because
they happen to be from a different ethnic group.
government: The nature of colonial rule is that everything is controlled
by the colonial power from the center. Consequently,
when the British gave Kenya independence it also gave them a very strong
central government. When Jomo Kenyatta was president this centralization
was increased as he was an icon that could not be challenged. As a
result in Kenya the President controls not only the executive branch,
but also the judicial branch, the legislature, the electoral commission,
the police, and the army. For example, President Kibaki appointed all
22 members of the Electoral Commission of Kenya – the same commission
that announced that he had won the December 27 election.
A result of this
highly centralized government is that winning the election becomes
crucial as the candidates either win “everything” or
nothing. It also dictates that the control of wealth and power goes
to the group that controls the presidency. Kenyatta was a Kikuyu and
he started the trend to reward the Kikuyu over others. When Kenyatta
died, Daniel arap Moi became president and he quickly accommodated
himself with the Kikuyu elite power structure and maintained power
for twenty-four years until Kibaki defeated him in the 2002 election.
Part of Kibaki’s platform during this election, where he was
supported by the Luo and other ethnic groups, was to decentralize the
government and make the distribution of resources more equitable. But
as soon as he gained control of this centralized power, he refused
to give it up. As a referendum on centralized power, Raila won six
of the eight provinces, 99 members of parliament, and control of almost
all the cities outside of Central and Eastern provinces which were
won by Kibaki. So the violence was a demand for “devolution” of
power, as it is being called.
8. International Community: We must not let the international community
off the hook. I will give three examples of how actions of the international
community have adversely affected the situation in Kenya.
The first is birth control. In 1980 when there was a big debate about
abortion in the United States, the Reagan administration cut off funds
for family planning accusing them of promoting abortion. In Kenya this
came to mean opposition to birth control. When I was in Kenya in 1970
in Machakos District, the family planning clinic had three people for
a population of almost one million. At that time Kenya had one of the
highest birth rates in the world. It was the large number of children
born during this time who grew up to become the disenfranchised youth
who participated in the violence after the election.
The second is the
structural adjustment program placed on Kenya in the 1980’s by the International Monetary Fund.This meant that
the Kenyan Government could not increase the number of public servants,
including teachers. So as the population of school aged children was
increasing rapidly, the number of teachers was not. Moreover, in 2003,
the Kibaki government declared free primary school education and about
one million additional children showed up for school. The result is
classes of up to 100 students with few resources for their education.
So the large group of children born in the 1960’s, 70’s,
and 80’s did not receive adequate education.
Lastly there is
the issue of corruption. The centralized form of government in Kenya
also allows for gigantic corruption at the center. Kenya is
known as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The former
dictator of Zaire (now the Congo) is reported to have said, “I
know I am corrupt, but who is corrupting me?” This question can
be applied to Kenya as well. International partners —corporations,
governments, NGO’s, and UN agencies, were involved in almost
every case of grand corruption in Kenya. I will give one example.
Safaricom is the
most profitable company in East Africa with 10 million cell phone
subscribers. At one time it was wholly owned by the Kenyan
Government. A few years ago they sold 30% of the shares to Vodafone,
a large British telecommunications company. Later it came out that
the Government had only 65% of the shares left because another 5% had
been given to a mysterious company called Mobitelea Ventures. The public
does not know who the officers or shareholders of this company are.
It is therefore assumed that this was the “bribe” that
Vodafone paid Kenyan officials and politicians for buying the Safaricom
shares. The Kenyan Government is now selling off another 25% of their
holdings in Safaricom in by far the largest sale of any government
parastatal in Kenyan history. There are 10 billion shares at 5/- each
($800 million) and this is so large that it may disrupt the Kenyan
economy, raise interest rates, strengthen the Kenyan shilling against
the dollar (making imports more expensive for everyone), and depress
the other shares on the Nairobi stock exchange.
9. Spiritual/religious: The zeitgeist of modern Kenyan society is
Hobbesian economics -- if everyone does things in their own (and family,
clan, and tribal) interest, society will function for the best. This
has long ago been determined to mean that the fortunate few exploit
the many for their own interest. Among the middle and upper classes
in Kenya personal and family greed is more important than societal
prosperity. This is true from the rulers at the top to those at the
bottom who believe that stepping on others is a way to get ahead. Rather
than praising Kikuyu for their hard work and emulating their success,
the violence after the election was an attempt to bring down to the
level of everyone else those who were perceived to have succeeded.
The Biblical injunctions
to love one’s neighbor, to do unto
others as you would have them do unto you, have been ignored. A few
weeks after the violence began I heard a sermon at the Lumakanda Friends
Church in which it was stated that a true Christian would never loot
property, burn a home, or kill someone—and this was from a woman
who had to move out of her house in Eldoret because it was owned by
a Kikuyu. I have heard that this message was preached in many other
churches of all denominations at this time.
So you may select
those interpretations that seem most logical to you. I would say
that a solution to the violence will require much
more than a political settlement by the two sides. Rather it will necesitate
a major restructuring of Kenyan society that addresses the underlying
causes mentioned above. Kenyans are well aware of these issues and
the need for corrective action. Unfortunately in the past whenever
there has been a crisis in Kenya, the tendency has been to ignore the
underlying causes as the country returned to “normal.” But “normal” in
Kenya has meant allowing pressure to build up beneath the surface.
Pressure which will eventually explode into violence again unless these
issues are addressed. It is still too early to determine if fundamental
changes will be made this time or if all will soon be “back to
normal”; if there will be significant improvements for all, or
another round of violence, perhaps during the next election in 2012.