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The Blind Men and the Kenyan Elephant:
Nine Interpretations of the Violence in Kenya in Early 2008

By 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.

This post-election 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 others.

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 in Kenya.

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.

The difficulty 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 the land.

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 hospitalized.

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.

7. Centralized 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.