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Kenyatta confirmed as Kenyan president but ethnic politics remain

By Gabrielle Lynch

On Saturday 30 March 2013, Kenya’s Supreme Court unanimously decided that Kenya’s presidential election — which had been held on 4 March — was conducted in a free, fair, transparent and credible manner, and that Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto of the Jubilee Alliance were validly elected. Raila Odinga of the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD) publicly disagreed with the court’s findings, but emphasised the supremacy of the constitution and wished Kenyatta and Ruto luck in implementing the 2010 constitution. Raila’s decision to seek legal redress for alleged electoral manipulation, rather than to call for mass action, and his respect for the court’s ruling stands in stark contrast to 2007 when a disputed election triggered unprecedented violence. The 2013 election and its aftermath were generally peaceful with the notable exceptions of attacks on state security personnel at the Coast the night before the election and a harsh state security response to violent demonstrations in parts of Nyanza Province and Nairobi following the reading of the Supreme Court’s verdict.

The 2013 election reveals a strong commitment to peace amongst Kenyans, which is fuelled by people’s experiences of the 2007/8 post-election crisis that — at least for a time — seemed to threaten to throw the country into civil war, and by a strong “peace narrative,” which has been fostered by church leaders, civil society organisations, and politicians. However, it also reflects a profound sense of disillusionment and impotence amongst many Kenyans. Demonstrations were banned on the basis that they “inevitably” lead to violence. Strategically located state security personnel rendered public protest an incredibly dangerous option. Meanwhile the emphasis on “peace” made people cautious of highlighting problems lest they be labelled as warmongers.

But as well as differences, there are also strong continuities between 2007 and 2013. One is the ongoing political salience of ethnic identities and narratives of difference, competition, marginalisation, and particular suffering, which pose significant challenges for the Jubilee Alliance moving forward.

The prominence of ethnic identities was reflected in pronounced ethnic voting patterns (the vast majority of Kikuyu and Kalenjin voted for the Jubilee Alliance, and the majority of Luo voted for CORD), but also in vicious debates on social media sites following the announcement of the results and public responses to the Supreme Court’s decision. Thus, while Uhuru announced that his government would work with and serve all Kenyans, the perception on the ground is clearly different. Many Jubilee supporters in Kalenjin and Kikuyu-dominated areas, for example, celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision by holding up loaves of bread and declaring that while in the coalition government they had had to share a loaf, they now had the whole thing!

The challenge of communal narratives and perceptions includes the difficulty of working with those ethnic groups who predominately supported Raila and CORD, such as the Luo and coastal communities. First, these communities have strong narratives of marginalisation and past suffering at the hands of previous ethnically-biased (and Kikuyu and Kalenjin-headed) regimes. Second, there is a strong perception within these communities that the Kikuyu and Kalenjin have benefited from the “fruits of Uhuru [independence]” more than other Kenyans and are unable to allow others to govern. Finally, many people from these communities firmly believe that the 2013 election was marked by gross irregularities, that the election should have gone to a run-off, and that their vote has once again been stolen. This poses a challenge to the new government as people tend to focus in on evidence that reinforces existing narratives. Many CORD supporters are already talking about boycotting the next presidential election, and such narratives and perceptions can further fuel a sense of ethnic difference and competition — and perhaps future conflict.

However, inter-ethnic tension and violence is not inevitable and people will be closely watching how the new Jubilee government includes members of all communities and how devolution plays out in practice: whether it serves to bring government closer to the people and a fairer distribution of resources, or whether it is marked by conflicts between the centre and the counties, different power brokers at the county level, and self-perceived “locals” and “outsiders” in cosmopolitan counties.

Second, while the Kalenjin and Kikuyu came together behind the Jubilee Alliance, it is clear that ethnic stereotypes, narratives of difference, competition, and mistrust continue to be a feature of day-to-day relations at the local level. In turn, there is a fear among many members of the Kalenjin community that their support for Uhuru’s presidency may be “betrayed” with potential “evidence” including a failure to fully share government positions and resources, and possible scenarios at the International Criminal Court (ICC) where both Uhuru and Ruto face charges of crimes against humanity. However, there is nothing inevitable about the collapse of the Jubilee Alliance, especially since Uhuru’s TNA party needs Raila’s URP party if it is to continue to enjoy a majority in the National Assembly and Senate.

In short, the new Jubilee government lacks legitimacy in many parts of the country and faces the possibility of internal divisions — two challenges that are both characterised by (among other things) strong ethnic narratives of difference, competition, marginalisation, betrayal, and particular suffering. Other challenges include Uhuru and Ruto’s cases at the ICC, the delivery of campaign promises, the government’s relations with civil society organisations who opposed Uhuru and Ruto’s candidacy and petitioned their victory, and government relations with the international community. Many countries having congratulated Uhuru on his victory, while simultaneously emphasising the need for Kenya to continue to comply with its international obligations, such as the ICC.

Gabrielle Lynch is an Associate Professor of Comparative Politics, Department of Politics and International Studies at University of Warwick. Her article “Becoming indigenous in the pursuit of justice: The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Endorois” was recently included in a virtual issue on Kenya from African Affairs.

African Affairs is published on behalf of the Royal African Society and is the top ranked journal in African Studies. It is an inter-disciplinary journal, with a focus on the politics and international relations of sub-Saharan Africa. It also includes sociology, anthropology, economics, and to the extent that articles inform debates on contemporary Africa, history, literature, art, music and more.

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  1. […] campaigned vigorously against the constitution at the time of the referendum. Though the President, Uhuru Kenyatta, has insisted that he is committed to implementing the new constitution fully — and has been […]

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