Ethnicity in Kenya

Writing in mid-2008 in the East African newspaper, not long after the post-election violence that year, Philip Ochieng wrote two powerful pieces deconstructing the concept of ethnicity.  The first of these was called “A Short History of Tribalism” and is reproduced below; the second one was called “How does it benefit anyone to be a Kikuyu or Luo?” which can be found online at this link

Ochieng’s articles remain very valid almost a decade after they were written…  they are quite long pieces but highly recommended reading


A Short history of Tribalism: Under one Roof  

By Phillip Ochieng in the East African, June 16-22, 2008

Writing in the New Yorker in 1990, Ray Bonner remarked that what Kenyans call “tribalism” is nothing but an irrational fear of the Kikuyu. Indeed, a study might reduce our “tribalism” to political rivalry between the elites of just two communities — Kikuyu and Luo.

That is the danger with competitive politics. Electioneering, in particular, can be so spectacular as to blind even the most intelligent commentator to an even more intense rivalry. I mean the silent agrarian conflict between two other communities —Kikuyu and Kalenjin.

Only on occasion — like last December and January — does such politics flare up violently enough to remind us, rudely, of what Comte de Saint Simon, the French philosopher, knew two centuries ago — that politics is but the “distilled expression” of economic interests.

More often than not, political clashes express the various class interests in a society. But in situations where ethnic consciousness still heavily outweighs national consciousness, the ethnic elites can, in self-pursuit, play their respective masses against each other. This is what we call “tribalism.”

As the events of December and January showed, tribalism is a deadly elite game in which the common people of all ethnic communities are the net losers. Those now suffering in the IDP camps know no tribes.

Indeed, most of them come from three communities whose elites are the key beneficiaries of the present coalition government — Luo, Kalenjin and Kikuyu —whose intense political and economic rivalry frequently threatens to dismember this country.

The question is: How did these rivalries come about? Why should there be a special political conflict between Kikuyu and Luo, and not between Luhya and Kamba, say, or a special agrarian enmity between Kikuyu and Kalenjin, and not between the equally contiguous Taita and Maasai?

This question is vitally important because, in the pre-colonial days, whenever such tribal warfare occurred, it took place between two independent entities. Admittedly, these entities were ethnic. But they were independent. They did not subsist under a common political roof.

Thus such an inter-tribal war is a war between politically independent states. Therefore, it can no more be called “tribalism” than the frequent Franco-German wars of the Middle Ages could be called tribalism. Such a conflict is said to be interstatal (even though each state was still ethnic).

Modern tribalism, on the other hand, is not rivalry between independent states but rivalry within the same state. For that reason our tribalism can be described as intrastatal. Intrastatal tribalism such as besets Africa is the product purely of European colonialism.

It is the Berlin Treaty of l885 by which hitherto independent ethnic entities were captured and lumped together within single colonies, these entities arriving there with hopelessly disparate fortunes in terms of social advance and economic-demographical strengths.

Tribalism as an intra-statal phenomenon is thus always a colonial creation. Lenin, who called it The National Question in his pamphlet of that title — since “nationality” was his word for “tribe” — was deeply worried by this disparateness with which the various ethnicities had been swallowed by Russia’s Romanov dynasty.

Nevertheless, one thing is clear. Intrastatal tribalism must thrive whenever the colonial regime, its creator, having not only deliberately failed to tackle the gross inequalities of fortune brought to the fore by lumping together various communities within the same political integument, then officially grants them “independence” and departs without giving them a further thought.

The dismemberment of Yugoslavia was a direct result of the disintegration of the Hapsburg Empire before it had even begun to think of solving the “national question” it had itself asked by lumping together various Balkan tribes within a single political entity.

The simmering war between Spain’s Aragonians and Castilians, on the one hand, and the Andalusians, Catalans and Basques on the other, is also to be traced to Vienna, the capital of the Hapsburgs. In The African Condition, Mazrui reports as follows concerning our continent:

“On balance, the three most basic levels of identity that the Western impact has deepened among Africans are first the identity of ‘tribe’ as the different groups have competed for scarce resources in new territories created by the West.

“Secondly, there is the identity of the nation state as Africans go about calling themselves Nigerians or Kenyans as a result of boundaries created by the colonial powers.” The third concerns racism — that special disease of the European mind — which is, however, irrelevant here.

In Kenya, for instance, this objective pitting of “tribes” against other African “tribes” within a single colony was intensified through more subjective methods. For instance, white settlers simply appropriated highly fertile land from particular ethnic communities.

They then turned these into plantations, farms, ranches and parks, especially in what was to become known as White Highlands. This act affected mainly the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin. It naturally created landlessness among them and intense land hunger, where there had been none before.

It also produced a great army of young people who, because their families no longer had any land, found themselves idle. They thus became the first source of labour for the new white settler farms, plantations, ranches, households and urban administrative offices.

These idle youths also became the first source of a kind of crime and lumpenism hitherto unknown in our tribal societies — theft, robbery, begging, confidence trickery, mendicancy and prostitution.

However, even they soon proved inadequate as a source of cheap labour. So the colonial regime had to find other sources. They immediately found one by imposing a poll tax in cash on all adult male Africans.

To come by the cash — in a society which had not yet reached a cash economy — all young adult males were forced to leave their traditional bucolic settings to hire themselves out as labourers. Indigenous farming was thus hit very hard — in three ways.

First, all the best land had been forcibly taken by the whites. Africans remained only with marginal lands called “native reserves” (akin to the “reservations” into which the same Europeans had herded the Amerindians after robbing them of their lands and other property).

Second, the land was deprived of its most able-bodied traditional tillers who had now gone out to work for the settlers to earn cash to pay the tax for themselves and their fathers.

Third, because of the introduction of capitalist relations — with the individualism always concomitant with these — the communal spirit that had ensured self-sufficiency and individual social security had now been banished from the land and land rivalry began to affect peasant farming adversely.

Land hunger was thus introduced from outside. But, like most things, it had been introduced selectively, in accordance with which tribe had the most arable land — in Kenya’s case, the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin.

The Kikuyu were the worst hit because they were the most populous of Kenya’s ethnic groups and owned the best land, though with never as sprawling a reach as the land of the Kalenjin and the Maasai.

But even though the white settler farms attracted labour from the Luo, Luhya, Kisii, Kalenjin and other parts of Kenya, Kikuyu youths were the most numerous even in Nakuru District, the heart of white settler activity.

Nakuru is vital as the nucleus of a phenomenon to which January’s election catastrophes can be traced. I mean the rise and development of the squatter system, whereby a ranch or plantation owner would allow a few labourers and their families to “squat” permanently inside his establishment.

By 1941, squatters had become so numerous that the colonial government purchased 35,000 acres in Molo and Olenguruone to settle some.

The colonial regime neither foresaw (nor cared) that, after independence, leaders would claim that these had been Maasai or Kalenjin lands in pre-colonial times.

These were what, in 1992, became the most important “tribal clashes” areas as a result of political incitement by the Moi regime designed to stave off the reintroduction of the multiparty system — and again, at the beginning of this year, witnessed the worst of the post-election violence as a result of the Kalenjin-Luo perception that President Kibaki, a Kikuyu, had rigged himself back into State House.

Soon after 1941, the squatters began to spill over into Maasailand (North Narok), claiming rights of first occupancy but enjoying no title deeds.

By 1950, land tension between Maasai and Kikuyu squatters had become so taut that the colonial government began to evict squatters from Olenguruone to resettle them on the other side of the Rift Valley, at Yatta among the Akamba.

That was how matters stood until 1963 when Kenya became independent. In that year, the new Kenyatta government began to import more Kikuyus and Ndorobos into Molo and Olenguruone. But these were no longer ordinary or impoverished squatters.

Kenyatta was accused of favouring only individuals from his own Kiambu homeland. The fact that an area in Eldoret came to be known — rather unwisely — as Kiambaa, did not help matters. But it turns out that the rich individuals who benefited from personal links with him included members of other communities.

They bought huge chunks of land at Molo, Olenguruone, Narok, Kajiado and Burnt Forest and Kiambaa under the “willing-buyer-willing-seller” policy.

But it was very easy to hoodwink the Maasai — a pastoral community who up till then had had little use for crop agriculture — into throwing land away for a pittance.

By the time Kenyatta died, in 1978, the whole of Nakuru, Kajiado, Uasin Gishu, Trans Nzoia and much of Narok belonged to non-Maasai and non-Kalenjin tycoons. But they included European, Asian, Arab, Kisii, Luhya, Luo, Kamba, Somali and Meru settlers.

As long as Kenyatta still enjoyed universal support from Kenyans, there was no tribal tension as a result of this kind of land grabbing, and no land hunger was apparent. But soon the power clique around Kenyatta began to become bolder about their tribal interests

Land grabbing began to be talked about aloud not only in the Rift Valley, but along the Coast and in the hills of Taitaland. In the late 1970s, therefore, Vice-President Daniel arap Moi was constantly attacked by certain politicians from the Maasai and from his own Kalenjinland.

The vice-president and a Narok (Maasai) nationalist and lawmaker called Justus ole Tipis were constantly portrayed by their detractors as Kenyatta stooges. Very many prophets now emerged “in Israel” to campaign for Kalenjin and Maasai “land rights.”

They included the nationalist-linguist Dr Taita Toweett (Kipsigis), the lawyer-MP Jean Marie Seroney (Nandi), John Keen (Kajiado) and a hitherto unheard-of but vehement “Masaai spokesman” called William ole Ntimama.

Moi replaced Kenyatta in 1978 and, although he did not implement any policy of evicting outsiders owning land in Nakuru, Kericho, Uasin Gishu, Trans Nzoia, Narok and Kajiado, he certainly began to replace longstanding Kenyatta appointees with his own in all institutions.

Most affected were those connected with land, settlement, marketing boards, agricultural co-operatives and the public service in general. Concerning land, the emerging theme of the Moi years was not less but more intense grabbing in the areas enumerated above and also now the eastern parts of Kisumu District.

And “Moi’s men” were not necessarily all Kalenjin either. As Kikuyu during the Kenyatta era, however, Kalenjin during the Moi era were in the vanguard of snatching, even though Kikuyu individuals who were considered “loyal” to “Nyayo” continued to benefit greatly.

Soon, indeed, a quarrel began to simmer between Ntimama and Keen, on the one hand, and Prof George Saitoti, a Kikuyu-Maasai academic who joined the Cabinet in 1983 as finance minister and became vice-president in 1989 (being dropped in 1997 and re-appointed in 1998).

They accused Saitoti of mortgaging Kajiado’s best land to his “Kikuyu kinsmen” and other “expatriate cronies.” It was not until well into the 21st century that Ntimama confessed that he was himself not a Maasai but an “expatriate” (Meru) settler.

But, apparently, Moi’s “hawks” among what came to be called Kamatusa — the acronym for the Rift Valley’s Nilotic communities of Kalenjin, Maasai, Turkana and Samburu (the last one really is more an offshoot of the Maasai) still kept this trump card in their armoury.

It was at the beginning of the 1990s, when the multiparty momentum seemed unstoppable, that the Kamatusa blurted it out.

They were in power, they averred, and would allow multiparty politics only on condition that Kenya reverted to the majimboist system with which the country began its Independence in 1963.

In this confederal arrangement, the party with the electoral majority in each province would rule that province. With this in mind, the constitution was amended in 1991 to require a presidential candidate to win at least 25 per cent electoral support in at least five of the eight provinces before being declared the winner.

The opposition seemed unaware that was the intention of the amendment’s sponsors. Not until the beginning of 1992 did Kenyans begin to hear certain parts of the country being declared “Kanu Zones” — into which opponents of the ruling party should not dare to venture.

The assumption seemed to be that if multiparty politics were legalised — the national and international pressure for it being so great — then the Kamatusa party (Kanu) would carry the victory in the two Rift Valley provinces that the architects hoped to create by dividing that province into two.

It was assumed that they would also take such non-Kamatusa provinces as Eastern — Kamba, Meru and Embu (all Bantu) and Borana (Cushitic); Coast — Mijikenda and Taita-Taveta (both Bantu), Swahili (Semito-Bantu) and Arab (Semitic); North Eastern — Somali and others (Cushitic); and Western — the numerous Abaluhya (Bantu).

The multiparty campaign gained even more vigour with the assassination of foreign minister Robert Ouko and the preventive detention of Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia and Raila Odinga in connection with the July 7 (Saba Saba) political riots organised by Kikuyu and Luo multiparty activists.

At first Moi and Kanu resisted the campaign with what looked like success, with the support they received from certain intellectuals and media people — including myself — who argued that in a society that was still basically tribal, a multiplicity of parties was bound to culminate in perilous tribal war-formations.

Moreover, the coeval collapse of the Soviet Union enabled the United States and other Western countries to peg aid more consistently on “pluralism.” This was what finally forced Moi to bow, late in 1991, to the pressure for multiparty politics and Section 2a of the Constitution that had created Kenya a “one-party” state was repealed.

As philosophies go, then, the demand for majimboism was deja vu. It was a return to the pre-1963 days when precisely this coalescence of small tribes sought just such a system as a safeguard against what they thought would be tyranny by the Kikuyu and the Luo, united in the still highly nationalist Kanu launched by Tom Mboya, James Gichuru and Jaramogi Odinga in 1960.

For in the early 1990s, just as in the early 1960s, this was exactly how Kenya’s ethnic communities aligned themselves, except that in the ‘90s the roles had been reversed. In the 1960s, majimboists were the ones in opposition and the Luo-Kikuyu alliance would soon be the ruling Kanu group.

But by the 1990s, by a cruel twist of history, the small tribes had invaded Kanu, turned it inside out, retaining only the name, so that the majimboists of the ‘60s were now the ruling clique.

And what looked like a Kikuyu-Luo alliance of individuals whom Moi had slowly removed from positions of influence in the government was now the opposition, demanding the multiparty system.

This was not really because they were interested in democracy but only because they had been silenced from within the single ruling party and had no way of making themselves heard within.

Formation of other parties was now the only way out for them.

The cry that certain zones belonged to Kanu was, therefore, essentially a cry against the Kikuyu and the Luo and anybody seen to be associated with them. The cry, thus, began to be accompanied by more sinister ones.

For instance, anonymous leaflets were being dropped throughout Nakuru, Narok and Uasin Gishu, and in neighbouring Kisii, Kisumu, Kakamega, Kericho, Bungoma and Trans Nzoia — namely, in Kamatusa areas or in areas which, although inhabited by non-Kamatusa peoples, were deemed by the Kamatusa ideologists to have belonged to their forefathers.

The essential message was that the non-Kamatusa should decamp immediately or face death. Many of the leaflets were signed only by a mysterious group called “Kalenjin Warriors.”

Very soon, tribal clashes erupted in precisely those areas. The Kalenjin detractors had two claims: One that “tribal cleansing” was what was afoot; the other that Moi had deliberately instigated the clashes to prove to the Western world and the local multiparty advocates his earlier argument – borrowed and oversimplified from my Kenya Times article — that a multiparty system was a licence to ethnic violence.

Given its colonial origins, however, tribal violence is always objectively potential in African countries. As Mao Zedong used to say, any little spark can cause a prairie fire. This potential conflagration will always be there as long as the Berlin system remains.

But this does not mean that Kenya’s tribal clashes of the 1990s and of 2008 had no subjective causes, that they were not deliberately instigated by politicians as a method of making political capital. In the ‘90s, it seemed clear, the original instigators were certain Kamatusa advocates of majimbo.

However, in retaliation, certain opposition leaders — especially among the Kikuyu living in the tribally intense areas — organised their own tribal attacks aimed equally at garnering political capital.

It seems certain, however, that the “Kalenjin Warriors” never existed, even though some anti-Moi politicians claimed — only to eat their words later — that such warriors had even penetrated deep into Central Province itself and were raping and otherwise terrorising Kikuyu housewives and disorganising schools.

It seems that both this penetration and the “Kalenjin Warriors” were deliberate fiction by anti-Moi elements aimed at uniting people against him.

The fact remains, however, that the subjective causes — incitement by politicians — were themselves possible only because of the existence of the objective cause — the colonially created land conflict.


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