KENYA: It's the economy, stupid (not "tribalism")
NAIROBI, 9 January 2008 (IRIN) - The wave of violence that engulfed Kenya
after the presidential election has been widely described as tribal or
ethnic in nature. But analysts in the east African country point to basic
economics as the true cause of the unrest.
Widespread violence and a humanitarian crisis were triggered by the 30
December announcement that incumbent Mwai Kibaki had won a hotly contested
presidential poll amid opposition claims of rigging and international
observers' reports of serious irregularities in the vote-tallying process.
"In the urban areas, there was a lot of senseless burning and looting, which
was people taking out their economic grievances during a leadership vacuum.
They just let loose and attacked any targets, burning their neighbours'
houses, regardless of whether they are PNU [Party of National Unity,
Kibaki's party] or ODM [Orange Democratic Movement, the opposition],"
Macharia Gaitho, a political columnist, told IRIN.
While specific ethnic groups - there are more than 40 in Kenya - were
targeted during the violence, the tensions that led to such clashes were not
the result of ethnicity per se, but, according an editorial in the Sunday
Nation newspaper, an almost inevitable consequence of the country's economic
system: "Kenya practises a brutal, inhuman brand of capitalism that
encourages a fierce competition for survival, wealth and power. Those who
can't compete successfully are allowed to live like animals in slums."
In Nairobi, more than 60 percent of the population live in slums, some of
which lie a stone's throw away from the city's most luxurious houses.
According to a report (Pulling Apart: Facts and Figures on Inequality in
Kenya) by the Nairobi-based Society for International Development (SID),
Kenya is the 10th most unequal country in the world in terms of wealth
disparities. Of Africa's 54 states, it is the fifth most unequal.
The 2004 report, using UN Development Programme figures, states that Kenya's
richest earn 56 times more than its poorest: the top 10 percent of the
population controls 42 percent of the country's wealth, while the bottom 10
percent own 0.76 percent.
Inequality pervades every aspect of Kenyans' lives, according to the report,
citing enormous disparities - both in the capital and at national level - in
almost every sphere of life: income; access to education, water and health;
life expectancy; and prevalence of HIV/AIDS.
A person born in the western Nyanza province, the bedrock of ODM support,
can expect to die 16 years younger than a fellow citizen in Central
province, Kibaki's home turf. Child immunisation rates in Nyanza are less
than half those in Central.
Another impoverished region is North Eastern province. While almost every
child in Central attends primary school, only one in three does in North
Eastern. More than nine out of very 10 women in North Eastern have no
education at all. In Central, the proportion is less than 3 percent. In
these two provinces, there is one doctor for 120,000 and 20,000
Critics of Kibaki, who came to power in 2002, accuse his government of
failing to address this inequality and of focusing instead on the economic
growth seen over the past five years. Before he came to power on a wave of
euphoria and hope after 24 years of rule under the autocratic Daniel arap
Moi, Kenya's growth stood at minus 1.6 percent. In 2007, it reached 5.5
percent and before the elections was predicted to hit 7 percent in 2008.
This growth has been concentrated in the service sector, with banks, tourism
and communications companies making big profits. Prices of shares and
property have also soared.
But rather than trickling down to the worst off, this boom appears to have
been very selective in its beneficiaries while the poor have seen the
purchasing power of their shilling shrink.
Before Kibaki came to power, "we used to buy sugar for 45 shillings", Agnes
Naliaka, a long-term resident of Nairobi's Kawangware slum, told IRIN. "Now
it's 65 shillings. A kilo of cooking fat was 50 shillings. Now it's over 100
shillings," she said, adding that rents in the slum had doubled over the
past five years.
For David Ndii, executive director of the Kenya Leadership Institute, "the
Kibaki government has been very cavalier about the treatment of the poor.
Hawkers' stalls were demolished and they were not given any alternatives.
Economic policies have not been pro-poor. This growth has been biased in
favour of profits as opposed to translated into jobs."
"When a poor economy starts to grow very fast like Kenya did, levels of
inequality rise," MJ Gitau, a SID programme officer and contributor to the
inequality report, told IRIN.
"You need assets and property rights to participate in economic production
and exchange. Only a few have assets, are educated, able to save and invest,
to take advantage of the high growth rates of the last few years. Those who
have, get more. Those who do not, lose the little they have," Gitau
Ethnicity came into play during the election violence because of the
widespread perception that those who fared best under Kibaki were his own
Kikuyu group, the country's largest, which dominated politics and the
economy both under his administration and that of founding president Jomo
However, Kibaki's party says poverty levels have fallen from 56 to 46
percent, lifting some two million people out of abject poverty, and that
more than 1.8 million jobs were created during his first five-year term.
"Our country is shining once again and I have ever bigger plans for the
development of the country during my second term. We are changing people's
lives for the better," Kibaki declared two weeks before polling day.
That is not how many Kenyans see it.
"People reacted like they did because they were hoping for change [after the
2002 election]. Kibaki came and promised many things which he didn't do,"
said Agnes of Kawangware slum.
Kenya's youth in particular, who make up a majority of the population - and
of those who rioted - feel the most let down. Improved education gave them
hope of a better life than their parents', hope that was dashed, according
to Kwamchetsi Makokha of Nairobi-based communications consultancy Form and
"Under colonialism, it was almost a slave labour system which grew up in the
early days of the coffee estates. After independence [in 1963], the white
master was simply replaced by the black master. A lot of young people who
got a bit of education could not see themselves working for pittances as
farm labourers. They started drifting to the cities where the opportunities
are not enough to accommodate all of them. You have this massive influx of
people who just can't find work," he told IRIN.
Nor can they find a political voice, he added. "The common Kenyan citizen
who does not have money or property does not have a say in how Kenya is
organised. They never have. It's always been about what car you drive, where
you live, and then you have more rights than other people."
Another ingredient in this combustible mix is corruption, which Kibaki
pledged to eradicate but which under his rule, according to analyst and
author Gerard Prunier, "reached new heights, matching some of the excesses
of the Moi years".
Observers hope that the explosion of anger and violence Kenya has witnessed
over the past week will shake the country's political leaders into resolving
not only the row over who one the election and how power should be shared
but also the country's deep inequalities.
"If anything positive is to come out of this electoral stalemate and the
criminal destruction that has visited it, one hopes it will have served as a
wake-up call to all Kenyans that the yawning gap between the middle class
and the poor is a powder keg just waiting to explode with the most grave
consequence," warned columnist Washington Akumu in the Nation.
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