Revolution#122, March 9, 2008

From A World to Win News Service

A Look Behind the Violence in Kenya

February 18, 2008. A World to Win News Service. The bitter infighting within the Kenyan ruling classes over who will rule over the people for the next five years in no way represents the interests of poor Kenyans of any of the country’s more than 40 ethnic groups. Yet as has happened in past elections there, the leaders of the different political parties rapidly whipped up sections of the people of different ethnic origins who corresponded in part to their electoral base. This unleashed a spiral of violence and chain of contradictory events that most often set the masses of poor people against each other in devastating scenes of looting, burning and bloodshed and left more than a thousand people dead after one month. Mostly it was poor Kenyans who had nothing in common with the leaders.

Western imperialist commentators expressed great surprise that what they considered their stable and peaceful outpost in East Africa could blow up in the violent way that it has since the presidential and legislative elections at the end of December 2007. But this social explosion hardly came out of nowhere. Not only had the masses of Kenyans been regular targets of state violence, including at least 500 killed in the year preceding the elections, but the rage that erupted after the incumbent Mwai Kibaki government rigged its “victory,” just when so many had pinned their hopes on change, had been building up along numerous political and social fault lines for decades. There is the spark and then there are the underlying causes. This was a powder keg sitting on chronic poverty, joblessness, housing shortages, overcrowded settlements and filthy slums with little infrastructure.

Two-thirds of Nairobi’s population of three million live in ten foul slums. A million are crowded into the notorious Kibera slum alone, ten minutes from the gleaming downtown financial district. But despite its large educated middle class and urban centers, Kenya is still an agrarian country. Seventy percent of the population is involved in agriculture-related activities, most with tiny plots of land. Large numbers remain landless or labor as under-paid farmworkers on large coffee, tea and other plantations owned by wealthy Kenyans or white settlers producing for export. In Kenya, where life expectancy is at 48 years, over 60 percent of the people live on $1 to $2 a day. Land pressures have intensified because of the scarcity of jobs—unemployment is over 40 percent. Several months beforehand, reports from revolutionary sympathizers in Kenya predicted the elections would trigger this explosion, and others have pointed out that if it hadn’t been the elections, it would have been something else:

“The situation [in June 2007] is getting out of hand. It’s like people are rising up against each other after being misused by our so-called leaders; and it’s getting nastier, because they label us criminals, whereas the system knows it’s a social and economic problem. Besides the gangs, other groups are forming up in the name of protecting their interests, mostly on land issues along tribal lines. Of course it’s all being related to the elections, but only time will tell. I hope there’s a way to get hold of our youths in a structured manner and to convince them that there is another way out.”

In fact it seems that the violence was partly spontaneous and partly organized—by both sides. The Kenyan state has ruled with a particularly brutal hand since independence, despite its recent reputation as a democratic model of sorts in Africa since Kibaki took power in 2002. After the December elections, his government immediately shifted onto a “national security” footing, banning public demonstrations (to thwart the opposition especially), partially muzzling the media, and most of all, giving free rein to the police and special forces to attack the people, including “shoot to kill” orders. Known Kikuyu gangs were spotted wearing police uniforms and carrying police guns. The army was called out. In the western part of the country, troops from pro-Kibaki Uganda disguised as Kenyan police were seen shooting at people considered opposition supporters. In early January, youth living in the ethnically mixed slum of Kibera—for which the other main presidential candidate, Raila Odinga, a Luo, was the MP, and where demonstrations and fighting broke out with a fury—ripped up tracks of the railroad that runs through Kibera to Kampala. They explained that they didn’t want the government bringing soldiers from Uganda to kill them. Kibaki’s police gunned down six of them that day.

While Kibaki’s stealing the election clearly ignited the violence and massive outpouring of protest, it also seems likely from reports from Kenya that the opposition forces grouped primarily around the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) had prepared to some extent for the possibility that Odinga might be defeated. In addition to cores of semi-organized youth, others quickly emerged in this situation in which the indiscriminate lashing out at other people on the basis of ethnicity was at first openly encouraged by the leaders at the top, who themselves were engaging in a vicious rivalry and expected the masses to follow as pawns in a combat by proxy.

The national languages of Kenya are English and Swahili. Of the 40 some different ethnic groups, this conflict mainly opposed Luos and Kalenjins against Kikuyus, and vice versa (13 percent, 12 percent and 22 percent of the population respectively). Kibaki is a Kikuyu. His predecessor, Daniel Arap Moi, is a Kalenjin. His opponent Odinga is a Luo. An important aspect of the corruption and bureaucrat capitalism concentrated in the neo-colonial state is the “tradition” of patronage, of hiring people from one’s ethnic base, handing out favors, grant money and contracts, as well as the key privilege of shadily arranged land acquisition to those with the right means and connections. Stemming from the colonial era and its ravages against the Kikuyu population located in the central provinces, Kikuyus became the backbone of the national independence movement, a section of which developed into the new ruling core of the neo-colonial state, dependent on imperialist capital. Beginning with the sell-out leadership of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, a “Kenyatta elite” based among Kikuyus prospered. They took over the central organs of power and urban centers and were rewarded with large tracts of land. So it was all too easy for the opposition to stoke the non-Kikuyu masses’ resentment that “Kikuyus have too long dominated Kenya and the spoils along with it—now it’s our turn,” just like the equally simplistic communal reaction against it among Kikuyus stirred up by Kibaki and his state guns and Mafia-type gang organizations. The class differences within these ethnic groups, the power relations and the ABCs of who exploits and oppresses the masses of poor people of all ethnic origins—are purposefully distorted and concealed by both sides.

The political crisis quickly became a social one, assuming humanitarian dimensions in both rural and urban areas and intensifying many of the same problems that had people at each other’s throats. Correspondents in Western Kenya wrote: “The town is paralyzed… children aren’t going to school because it’s not safe and even walking is a problem… There is no food, money and it’s very expensive to travel…” The few public vehicles on the road and reduced access to fuel have meant that transport fares have soared. Now basic goods have become scarce and tripled in price. Companies (including the nearly dead tourism industry) have closed, throwing thousands out of work while many thousands of others watched their means of livelihood go up in flames as their small farms and crops were burned, or their trading stalls and wares were looted or destroyed. Luo farmworkers from Western Kenya picking tea on the estates outside Nairobi were chased away and told to go “home.” Many people have never been to their so-called “ancestral home.” Over a quarter of a million people have been uprooted and displaced as the backward ideology takes hold, consolidating ethnic neighborhoods and areas of the countryside which had to some degree become ethnically mixed due to various waves of migration over the century and the workings of capital. The ruling class is not able to stop this reactionary process of rearranging society that it has unleashed and that has spun out of its control. To date it has mainly responded with further repression.

A lot of people hate this powerful dynamic that pits them against people they normally live with, and there have been reports of individuals opposing the wanton ethnic targeting and trying to stop the vicious and stupid acts of violence against their own friends and neighbors of other origins. But there is no evidence of an organized revolutionary force that has been able to set a different example and establish a different pole.

Illusions of Change Through National Presidential Elections

Within minutes of declaring himself the winner, President Kibaki scurried almost coup-like to reinstate himself and to select key cabinet posts for his cronies. The (pro-Kibaki) Kenyan Electoral Commission (KEC)’s surprise announcement that the vote count had radically shifted in favor of Kibaki at the very end (with votes outnumbering registered voters and other irregularities) provoked a cry of “foul play” that the government had stolen the elections, robbing the people of electing an alternative candidate of their choice, in fact one who campaigned on getting rid of corruption and giving a fair shake to everyone. As a Nairobi correspondent wrote, “The Kenyan people felt cheated, their rights denied and democracy thrown out of the window. Kenyans took to the streets en masse…”

This sentiment must be divided into contradictory facts: on the one hand, it is likely ODM supporters were cheated out of a clear Odinga win. And reports indicate there was probably vote rigging in both Kibaki and Odinga’s strong areas of support. While the ruling class refuses to risk a recount or repeat elections, UN intermediaries and most of the Western governments (bar George Bush, who rushed to legitimatize Kibaki) have more or less conceded that Odinga was ahead by as much as 2 percent. In addition his ODM won 99 seats in the legislative elections held at the same time, making it the largest single party, compared to Kibaki’s Party of National Unity winning only 43 seats.

On the other hand, who do these candidates of the ruling class really represent? How different is Kenya from other oppressed countries in which the bureaucrat capitalist politicians running the state and closely tied to imperialist interests always rig their political rule through elections, in the sense that one or another representative from that class is designed to win? Whether they do it fairly or not is quite secondary to which class is in power. While corruption is a symptom of the problem, is it really the heart of the matter? Elections are always contests between different sections of the reactionary classes, not between the powerful and the ruled over. They are the means by which this bureaucrat bourgeoisie and its allies holds onto political power and denies it to the people it governs. Often this takes place in cooperation —but sometimes in contention—with the more traditional and semi-feudal political forces. Kenya has all the democratic trappings of a model neo-colony serving imperialist interests, backed by a strong police force, army and several special paramilitary forces: a constitution, a parliament recently upgraded to multi-party status and a powerful presidency (with no prime minister). Beyond the role of commander in chief, the president can dissolve parliament, essentially controls the courts, and appoints the electoral commission that counts his votes!

Every single one of the institutions reflecting the so-called “rule of law” so highly vaunted in the West that have governed and suppressed the masses through a centralized and repressive state apparatus since independence is under dispute in the current political crisis. Many Kenyan writers objecting to the “foul play” in the elections, even progressive ones acknowledging social classes and dissecting the problems underneath the surface, look to reforming these instruments which they see functioning in a smoother way in the global “North” in order to make them more transparent and democratic in appearance, as though that would guarantee the people had some kind of real political power, or as though that would change the nature of the state and its class rule over and against the poor.

One reason ordinary people and many radical intellectuals alike feel powerless is they don’t see any material basis for breaking away from the current system or that the masses themselves can become a politicized army for revolution rather than reaction. New Democratic Revolution proposed by Mao, as a stage leading to socialism in countries under imperialist domination, puts forward exactly this: building a new type of democracy—and radically different state—based on a completely different kind of political power, led by the working class in alliance with the peasants and others and increasingly drawing in the broader masses into administering and transforming society. Taking over the land and giving it to those who till it and can feed the people and develop the nation on that basis. That becomes the material grounds upon which an independent society—severed from the dripping jaws of imperialism—can be created; but the new democratic revolution and land to the tiller is still rooted in capitalism. To be other than a new exploitative system, it must open the door to socialism and communism, which continues the struggle to empower the disempowered masses and eliminate backward ideas and social relations, especially the dog-eat-dog, “look out for yourself” outlook that capital promotes while extracting the people’s blood to ensure its survival.

The Political Representatives of the Kenyan Ruling Class

Who is this class that keeps re-“electing” itself while constantly promising more democracy? Not coincidentally, the three leading presidential families since independence—those of Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Arap Moi, and Mwai Kibaki—are by far the biggest owners of Kenya’s arable land. The families are not only prominent members of the ruling oligarchy, but among its wealthiest, having amassed fortunes through their parasitic position in the state, access to outside capital, business investments, and not least, lots of foreign aid money that has continually flowed in to help “keep Kenya stable.” The despised tyrant Moi committed an endless list of crimes during his repressive rule that lasted 24 years thanks to brute force and Western support. Aside from outlandish and open corruption, he is remembered especially for his ruthless treatment of any opposition—whether for human rights, or even for multi-partyism. In the early 1990s, Moi armed warriors from his Kalenjin ethnic group to kill more than 1,500 small farmers—mostly Kikuyus as well as Luos and Luhyas—in the Rift Valley it used to occupy, while 300,000 others were displaced over a three-year period. This state manipulation of ethnic divisions in order to destabilize and hold onto power is classic and puts the larger scale events of January 2008 into perspective.

A political activist in Nairobi wrote that after Kibaki finally wrested power away from Moi in 2002, having campaigned on promises of transparency and more democracy, his government also tried to stop human rights efforts, declaring it a settled question. Rather than fighting corruption, Kibaki also was steeped in a number of scandals involving international deals, as well as reinforcing his own Kikuyu elite.

One writer, P.T. Zeleza, refers to the “promiscuity” of the Kenyan political class: “Most of the major figures in the leading political parties served in both the Moi and Kibaki governments. Their politics do not differ in significant ways.” The two main presidential candidates today, Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga both belong to the class of Kenya’s millionaires, but represent somewhat different sections of the ruling elite. Both Kibaki and Odinga have been accused of questionable land sales. Odinga’s ODM is actually a coalition of three slightly different political strands, but together is composed of some of the wealthiest people in the country. The Odinga family itself owns Spectre International, a molasses manufacturer, in conjunction with a multinational petroleum and diamond mining company. Although a very rich fellow, Odinga, educated in the former East Germany, championed “people power” in his electoral campaign, riding on his credentials as son of the independence movement and pro-Soviet leader Oginga Odinga. Raila Odinga’s speeches spoke to Kenya’s deep poverty and social problems and called for a new start for the nation. Millions of ordinary and middle-class Kenyans had invested much hope that he would clean up corruption as he promised and usher in long-awaited democratic reforms and freedoms. Although Odinga is Luo, he built a coalition against Kibaki’s party based on “change” and across ethnic lines. In other words, many Kikuyus who formed much of Kibaki’s support base in general, voted along with other non-Luos for this “change” and for Odinga. Part of his appeal is that he promises to rescue the people from the system and its current chief servant, Kibaki. But like all demagogues, he does so without arming the people with an understanding of the workings of the system, and rather stirs up people’s anger at exclusion from “the national cake” along ethnic lines. As one pan-Africanist writer put it, “Rather than building people power, he is consolidating neo-liberal democracy, using the people as a battering ram” against his opponent.

The candidates’ platforms are in essence remarkably similar, however, with continued economic dependency on and service to the West in the name of “development” as the cornerstone. Among other things, this means that agricultural production, for example, is geared towards export and the world market rather than the country’s own needs. Two-thirds of Kenya’s flowers and vegetables are sold in Europe and are the second largest source of foreign currency, after the huge safari tourism industry. Kibaki claims a six percent growth rate since he took power. As numerous commentators on Kenya have noted, this growth rate in reality translates into an increasing gap between rich and poor. In addition to the small strata of superrich at the top of the wealth pyramid, some sections of the middle class have benefited from Kenya’s close ties to imperialism and the uneven development it has spawned, while others find themselves increasingly sidelined.

Land, Colonialism, Divide and Rule

The ethnic aspect of this conflict among the masses is inseparable from the longstanding unresolved and very sharp land question in Kenya, which was at the heart of the struggle for national independence against Great Britain.

After the British arrived at the end of the nineteenth century, they moved out the nomadic pastoralists—the Kalenjins and Maasai—from the rich land in Kenya’s central highlands that form part of the long Rift Valley, designating that area as the “White Highlands,” targeting it as prime agricultural land for their colonial farms. The tiny area the Maasai were confined to continues to fuel their resentment against farmers in the Rift and the Kalenjins, who were pushed back to Western Kenya in the vicinity of Lake Victoria, have repeatedly raided the Rift area to drive Kikuyu farmers out. The Kikuyu people were traditionally crop growers and lived in the Mount Kenya and central areas. Thus they came into direct confrontation with the British, who as in some of their other colonies, set up Native Reserves for the Kikuyu peasants, as well as smaller ones for the Luos in Nyanza province in the west, and the Lamu on the eastern coast.

The British created a system of chiefs and headmen, previously not part of the Kikuyu social organization, in order to divide them and build up a section they could rely upon. These loyalist enforcers recruited agricultural labor for the settler plantations and collected the infamous “hut tax” introduced in British colonies to force independent peasants into wage labor or semi-proletarian positions and facilitate appropriating their land as the colonial economy expanded.

By the early 1950s, a movement had grown up among landless peasants and squatters thrown off the European farms, and other strata, based largely but not exclusively among the Kikuyu in Central Kenya. The “Mau Mau” uprising from 1952 to 1960 arose out of the twin demands for land and freedom from British rule. It was brutally repressed, with tens of thousands killed and hundreds of thousands detained and tortured in British “work camps.”

The famous cry from Kenya, Uhuru! (Freedom! in Swahili) rang throughout the European colonies in Africa fighting for national liberation in the 1960s. Soon the refrain became “Not yet Uhuru,” as Kenya’s dreams for political independence became little more than a formal transition to comprador rule. Eventually street names were changed to include some of the best-known nationalist heroes, but the Mau Mau history was distorted and effectively buried. Surviving political prisoners languished in Moi’s jails. Those who became part of Jomo Kenyatta’s betrayal after the colonialists released him in 1959 to assume a willing role as charismatic leader of neo–colonial transition from direct British rule were handsomely rewarded after formal independence in 1963. Some European farms were sold back to the government at market prices (Britain picking up the tab), making it possible to offer the “Kenyatta elite,” as it was called, land for nominal sums, along with numerous other privileges. Some poor Kikuyu peasant farmers and tenants kicked out by the new owners formed cooperative buying societies and purchased smaller tracts of land in the Rift Valley (which the Kalenjins consider to be their land), responding to Kenyatta’s populist call (mainly to Kikuyus) to “go back to the land.” Over time, however, many small farmers of all ethnic groups have been driven off the land and into the peri-urban slums of Nairobi and other cities, or to the large shack settlements in rural towns like Nakura, where some of the recent violent clashes took place.

Only about 17 percent of Kenya’s surface area is suitable for rain-fed agriculture. The other 80 percent is arid or semi-arid. Most people have access to less than a hectare and more than 13 percent are landless. In 2008, the class and ethnic distribution of land ownership has not shifted much since independence 45 years ago. A small class of large landowners control over 65 percent of the arable land in Kenya, according to the Kenya Land Alliance. Most of the tea and coffee estates around Nairobi are owned by the same political class sitting in parliament either today or at some time since independence. In addition, among the 30,000 remaining white settlers (along with 32,000 British expatriates who have returned to Kenya to live), several hundred still hold large tracts of land, or operate farms in conjunction with Kenyan businessmen. The stench of apartheid-like social relations from the colonial era is somewhat masked by the black elite, but is not hard to miss in the luxury world of the white-owned farms and private game reserves: a prominent landowner, the descendent of one of the main British aristocratic families, shot and killed two Kenyans crossing his property in the space of one year. Despite mass outrage, he was twice freed by the courts. There are also a number of absentee Arab landowners and “developers” living in Middle East or elsewhere.

Although the relatively privileged position of Kikuyus, which has its material roots in sections of Kikuyus being connected to the central government and key circuits of the economy, including one of its pillars—land ownership—many of the Rift valley farmers are small producers, some at subsistence level. Many poor Kikuyus also live in the slums, rural settlements and near the flower and other export crop farms as agricultural labor.

There is also a significant degree of separation between the African masses and mainly middle-class Indians, who as merchants have developed control over whole sections of commercial trade, become urban landlords, bankers and hold key positions in the development of tourism on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast, with a role in the dispossession of the Lamu people there. Some have become millionaire businessmen, like the owner of the huge supermarket chains and also joined ruling party politics.

An Imperialist-Brokered “Peace”?

Kenya is an important military and political regional outpost for the West and for the British and U.S. imperialists in particular. With modern port facilities and airport, it occupies a key geo-strategic position near the Indian Ocean and the Horn. It was a major staging area for U.S. meddling in Soviet-influenced movements in the region during the Cold War. Kenya has increasingly agreed to play an important role in the U.S. “war against terrorism.” At America’s command, Kenyan troops dutifully prevented Somalis from entering the country during the recent conflict there. Kenya is also a haven to countless international NGOs and relief agencies, UN bodies and a host of overseas Christian missions and churches.

Over the past weeks, the European and U.S. imperialists rapidly intervened to set the rules for the struggle for control of the state concentrated in these elections. Although the situations are hardly the same, and their own hands are covered in the masses’ blood in those countries, Western governments through the U.S., UK, EU and UN have already announced they “won’t let Kenya go the way of Rwanda or Somalia,” by which they seem to mean open civil war.

As the imperialists send their negotiators (Rice and Annan, etc) to broker “peace” and “power sharing,” with the appearance of democratizing institutions in order to consolidate a fragmented state and to better silence especially the educated strata among the people, they along with their local comprador counterparts in Kenya should hold up a mirror: the ugliness of the past weeks is only as ugly as the system itself they constantly try to reinforce and make excuses for.

And, as they try to sum up the tremendous burden of betrayal of the independence movement, some young revolutionaries are looking towards how to get rid of this predator system altogether—a system that keeps the people poor and at each other’s throats. What would it take to envision a whole different and revolutionary society, where genuine national liberation is a first real step, instead of the mere formal independence that has been a means of further dividing—and ruling over—the oppressed?

This article benefited greatly from the input of several correspondents in Kenya, as well as that of numerous columnists and particularly the Pan-African news service Pambazuka, the Zeleza Post, and from a number of University of Nairobi academics.


A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world’s Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.

What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond