The role of tribalism in Kenya’s presidential elections

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Kenyans go to the polls in August 8. Ethnicity and tribalism have played powerful roles in previous elections, which will be a decisive factor in the upcoming elections. Pundits say the politicians beat the drum while Kenyans dance to the tune.

Politics in Kenya has been characterized by ethnic tensions since independence in 1963. 2008 saw the demons of tribalism and ethnicity flare up after the disputed elections which left thousands of people dead and displaced.

The clash between the largest ethnic groups, the Kikuyus, Luos and Kalenjins, erupted following the declaration of Mwai Kibaki from the Kikuyu community as president despite accusations of rigging and electoral manipulation.

Ethnicity has never wholly been the challenge in Kenyan politics, the problem arises when politicians use it for their personal interests to create a divide which breeds tribalism.


Ethnicity in Kenya began in the colonial era. The British used the divide and rule method of governing from 1920-1963. For years, they played one side against the other especially the Kikuyus and Luos whom they considered a threat due to their large numbers.

Analysts have claimed that ethnicity was never a big issue until and during the fight for independence.

The first two political parties in Kenya – the Kenya Africa National Union (KANU) and the Kenyan African Democratic Development Union (KADDU) founded by Daniel Arap Moi a Kalenjin from Rift Valley, propelled ethnic politics in the country. KANU was a Kikuyu and Luo alliance party, while KADDU was comprised by smaller tribes who feared domination by KANU.

First president of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta (father of incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta) was accused of sidelining the Luos, in particular Jaromongi Odinga (father of opposition leader Raila Odinga) in favour of Moi who succeeded him as second president of Kenya.

During the 24 year period Moi was in office, he was accused of perpetuating politics of divide and rule as his presidency was marked by tribal animosities. The major outbreak was in 1992 with the Yolo clashes in the Rift Valley which left 5000 people dead and 75,000 displaced. The conflict was largely between the Kikuyu and Kalenji due to land conflict.

Current political environment

In the political sphere, leaders pander to their own tribe when they want support. They use their tribes as leverage to bargain for favours and positions in government.

The “big-five” tribes have determined who gets elected in Kenyan politics since independence owing to their numerical advantage. According to Kenya’s National Bureau of Statistics, the largest ethnic groups are the Kikuyu (6,622,576), the Luhya (5,338,666), the Kalenjin (4,976,328), the Luo (4,044,440) and the Kamba (3,893,157).

Majority of Luos support perennial opposition leader Raila Odinga, the Kambas support Kalonzo Musyoka. The Kalenjins support deputy president William Ruto, while the Kikuyus support President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Since independence, leaders fill the civil service and government positions with members of their tribes and those from other ethnic communities viewed as supporters of the government in power.

In the past, cabinets of presidents have had disproportionate numbers of members from their respective tribes.

Towards national reconciliation

Several attempts to kill the scourge of tribalism has not been easy. Commissions have been formed, songs composed, and wars fought. The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission was formed in 2008 after the 2007 post-election violence. Its report concluded that ethnic conflicts stemmed mostly from land inequality and regional imbalances.

A second commission, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission is still working on ending the divisions between Kenyans. Its core function is to address economic equality and opportunities for all, regardless of tribal affiliations.

Towards the future

Pundits have warned that Kenya is on a wrong track in the run-up to the August 8 elections. The recent alliances does nothing to reflect a change in past politics. The Jubilee Alliance of the incumbent president and deputy president is backed by the Kikuyus and the Kalenjins.

The opposition NASA alliance is no different. It is a union of tribes led by Raila Odinga (A Luo), Moses Wetangula (A Luhya), and Kalonzo Musyoka (A Kamba).

Ultimately, the elections will be decided based on personalities since elections have never been based on issues, ideologies or principles.

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