Reading the Tea Leaves on the Kenyan Elections: Patterns of Violence and Political Alliances

Kenya’s national elections in March 2013 will signal the end of the coalition government that has been in power since April 2008 and will take place within a political structure fundamentally transformed by the passage in 2010 of a new constitution. But Kenyans’ hopes that the elections will herald a new political dispensation are likely to be frustrated. The political calculations of the two presidential frontrunners—Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta—and their three main challengers—Musalia Mudavadi, William Ruto, and Kalonzo Musyoka—represent the triumph of the old politics, based on neo-patrimonialism, clientage, and ethnic particularism. The March 2013 presidential election will more likely signal a “last Hurrah” of the old order than usher in the new Kenya so hoped for by civil society and the advocates of constitutional reform. The political spectrum is even more fragmented than in 2007, and the old system of ethnic “big men” still dominates the political scene, especially outside Nairobi, although, even there ethnic political calculations are likely to predominate. Indeed, Nairobi, Nakuru District, and Coast Province are potential centers of ethnic violence, especially if the presidential contest goes to a second round. Four months before the general election, Kenya looks even more divided and susceptible to outbreaks of violence than it did in 2007.

Patterns of Potential Violence

Civil society in Kenya and outside observers fear that violence in 2013 may well be worse than in the aftermath of the December 2007 elections. They are concentrating on the areas that were most affected during the last election, particularly in the environs of Eldoret in the northern region of the Rift Valley Province. This may prove a mistake. The kaleidoscope of Kenyan politics has moved on, and new alliances have formed. Among the most important is that between former adversaries First Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, and William Ruto, a Kalenjin, both of whom have been indicted by the International Criminal Court. Mr. Ruto reigns supreme in the northern Rift. As a result, the Kikuyu in the northern Rift districts of Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia are confident that he will minimize violence in this area, just as in 2002, when Ruto was Kenyatta’s campaign manager in his first bid for the presidency. Moreover, many Kikuyu moved out of the region after 2008—the 2009 census showed them forming only 10 percent of the population—although some have returned from the displacement camps.

The potential for violence next year seems highest in four areas. A first potential hotspot is in Nakuru County in central Rift Province. Kikuyu and Kalenjin leaders there have been unable to reach agreement on the division of the political spoils. The Kikuyu, who formed 57 percent of the area’s residents in 2009, are intent on the governorship, the Senate seat, and seven of the nine lower house constituencies, a demand that is totally unacceptable to local Kalenjin leaders. If the Kalenjin community’s demands are not met, the potential for violence is high in Nakuru town and in the two neighboring Mau escarpment constituencies (Molo, which is 70 percent Kikuyu and 30 percent Kalenjin, and Kuresoi, where the proportions are reversed) and in Rongai in the northern portion of Nakuru County, where the two communities are fairly evenly balanced.

A second potential hotspot is in Kenya’s main urban areas. Of particular concern are the poorer quarters of Nairobi, which were badly hit last time and will potentially be another center of clashes. Many of Nairobi’s slum areas have already become ethnically segregated, and many residents, anticipating violence, are planning to return to their rural homes during the election.

The remaining two centers of potential violence are new and are focused less on national-level politics and the contest between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta than on local parliamentary and county politics.

A third potential risk area is in Kenya’s northern reaches. The recent violence between the Pokomo and the Orma in the Tana River area in Coast Province demonstrates the destabilizing effect that drought—as well as an influx of small arms and al Shabaab influence from Somalia—has wrought on northern pastoralist areas along the Ethiopian and Somali borders. These incidents are not directly connected to national politics, but local candidates are using them to entrench their ethnic support. The Tana River violence, although technically occurring within Coast Province, signals potential problems throughout the semi-arid north. Al Shabaab attacks on police posts, chiefs, churches, and bars in this vast area are killing as many as 10 people per week, according to Kenyan press accounts. Conflict between the different communities over water and grazing grounds is a serious problem, especially since both sides are now armed with AK-47s rather than spears and pangas. Local politicians from the different ethnic communities will very likely politicize these divisions as the election approaches.

The final potential center of violence is in Mombasa in southern Coast Province, particularly in Kwale and Kilifi counties. This region is a tinderbox with its own political logic, driven essentially by conflict between the indigenous Mijikenda ethnic communities and “up-country” immigrants (mainly Kamba, Kikuyu, and Luo). Up-country residents dominate not only many of the higher paid jobs but all forms of formal sector employment, and up-country “big men” own the hotels along the coast and the large-scale sisal plantations, which the local Mijikenda squatters claim were illegally taken from them. Landless, poorly educated, and frequently unemployed Mijikenda youths may well support the call of the Mombasa Republic Council, an armed militia group, for secession. Their grievances are compounded by the fact that many of them are Muslims. The Muslim community believes that its members are treated as second-class citizens in a Christian, up-country-dominated Kenya, and their grievances have been compounded by Kenya’s subsidiary role in the “war on terror.” These Coast problems have little to do with national-level politics, but the Mombasa Republic Council and al Shabaab may well seize on the heightened tensions of the election period to launch attacks and to excite violence against up-country residents.

The National Contest: Shifting Alliances

On the national level, two broad political groupings have emerged, centered around Prime Minister Raila Odinga and the First Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta.

The last year has not been kind to Raila Odinga. Twelve months ago, he was the front-runner in Kenya’s presidential election stakes with the possibility of triumphing in the first round. Today, accused by his former policy adviser of corruption, nepotism, and even of orchestrating postelection ethnic violence in the central Rift Valley in early 2008, and having lost the support of Musalia Mudavadi, his erstwhile vice presidential running mate, Odinga’s campaign is in trouble. This is not to say that he will not become Kenya’s next president. In many ways, he remains the most likely individual to succeed Mwai Kibaki in State House. But his support had declined over the last 12 months.

Odinga’s advantage lies in the fractured and uninspired opposition. Uhuru Kenyatta, his main opponent, the son of the country’s first president, and currently the first deputy prime minister, has failed to gain much traction outside his own Kikuyu community and the neighboring Embu and Meru. Recent opinion polls by the National Democratic Institute and Gallup suggest that the election is close and that if only registered voters are counted, the contest narrows even further with Odinga leading Kenyatta by 27.6 percent to 24.2 percent. Kenyatta has abandoned the old ruling party KANU for the newly launched TNA (The National Alliance), distancing himself from the era of former president Daniel arap Moi. He has hired a firm of British election consultants at the cost of $16 million, but he has not yet categorically announced that he will indeed be a candidate.

Kenyatta’s advisers remain divided. The older cohort of wealthy Kikuyu business leaders, mainly in their 60s and 70s, suspect that a third Kikuyu president cannot be elected and that other ethnic communities must be given a chance to hold the presidency. Jomo Kenyatta (Uhuru’s father) and current President Mwai Kibaki—both Kikuyu—have held power for 25 of the 49 years since independence in 1963. Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin, ruled for the other 24. Now is the time, many assert, for a Luo (Odinga), a Luhya (Second Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi), or a Kamba (Vice President Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka) to take the reins. Kenyatta, they caution, might be unelectable, incapable of drawing voters beyond his Kikuyu, Embu, and Meru bailiwick on the slopes of Mount Kenya. This so-called GEMA or Mount Kenya coalition comprises about 30 percent of Kenya’s population and, even given a high differential turnout for the region’s favorite son, is unlikely to comprise more than 35 percent of the total vote.

The Kikuyu old guard has not thrown its support and financial backing behind Kenyatta, and its members are exploring other ways to undermine Odinga. Some are supporting Raphael Tuju, a Luo advertising executive and former cabinet minister, in the hope that he will attract votes away from Odinga, but so far Tuju has gained little traction. Most are waiting to see whether Kenyatta decides to run, but some are convinced that he is unelectable and that a vote for Uhuru is in reality a vote for Raila. If Kenyatta stands for election, he is almost certain to come second in the first round on March 4 and to go forward into a second-round runoff a month later. But Odinga is almost certain to win a second round, with 60 percent of the vote to Kenyatta’s 40 percent. The bulk of supporters of the minor candidates—who should win at least 30 percent between them in the first round—are likely to split two-to-one in favor of Odinga in the second round. Even if Kenyatta were ahead on March 4, which is improbable, he would almost certainly lose the second contest. A number of prominent Kikuyu are attempting to persuade Kenyatta to stand down and to throw his support behind Mudavadi, his vice presidential running-mate in the 2002 election.

A year ago, Musalia Mudavadi was a firm ally of Raila Odinga, who helped him resurrect his political career after the debacle of 2002. Going forward, he may prove a formidable challenger. The Abaluhya, Mudavadi’s ethnic community, are the country’s second-largest ethnic group, with some 19 percent of the population. But as a merger of 14 sub-ethnicities that came together only in the 1930s, they have historically been fragmented. The Bukusu, from the northern Bungoma District in Western Province and Trans Nzoia in Rift Valley Province, are the largest sub-group, making up some 40 percent of the Abaluhya community. The Bukusu have always been inclined to go their own way and have little love for Mudavadi, a Maragoli from Vihiga in the south. Most Bukusu favor Eugene Wamalwa. If Kenyatta remains in the contest, then Mudavadi and Wamalwa will probably split the Abaluhya vote. But if Kenyatta were to withdraw, the whole community would likely rally round Mudavadi in order to propel him into the presidency. Most Mount Kenya (GEMA) voters would probably accept Mudavadi as the next best thing to Kenyatta. A former foreign minister and minister of finance in the 1990s, he is considered competent if not very charismatic, and he has the additional advantage of being acceptable to former president arap Moi and his sons, who are now in control of KANU. Thus, competing on his own against Kenyatta, Mudavadi has little support—gaining only 7.4 percent in the Gallup opinion poll. But as Kenyatta’s preferred candidate, he would run close to Odinga and could even win, attracting voters who would never cast their ballots in favor of Kenyatta.

The Kikuyu old guard insists that if Kenyatta is serious about protecting Kikuyu economic interests and preventing Odinga with his redistributionist policies capturing State House, then he had better withdraw and throw his support behind Mudavadi. A number of younger Kikuyu businessmen, mainly in their 30s and 40s—that is, members of Kenyatta’s own age cohort—take a different view. They insist that he must contest the election and must adopt any means to win—including ethnic oathing (pledging allegiance to the Kikuyu candidate) and ballot stuffing. In fact, oathing of rural Kikuyus started eight months ago.

But Kenya has changed. The middle class is far more numerous and independently wealthy, and civil society, despite its decline in recent years, remains far more influential and organized than in the 1960s and 1970s. The tactics of the 1960s will no longer work. It is interesting to note that the Kenyatta campaign has clearly lost the support of Maina Njenga and the original leadership of the Mungiki movement. Mungiki is many different things. In part it is a Kikuyu-based organized crime movement, but it remains true to its founding as a revivalist Kikuyu religious group, eschewing the corruption and materialism of the modern world, with appeals to githaka na wiathi (land and morality), defending the traditional moral economy of precapitalist society, which an earlier generation of Kikuyu have-nots, the Mau Mau, had sought to protect in the 1950s. The Kenyatta family, which acquired large swathes of land during Jomo Kenyatta’s presidency, is deemed to have deserted these principles and to be unworthy of support.

As a result, Njenga and his new political movement, MKenya-Supreme, has formed an alliance with Odinga’s ODM. Consequently, the ODM branch in Murang’a, in the Kikuyu heartland, endorsed the MKenya-Supreme candidate in by-elections in the Murang’a constituency of Kangema—the former seat of Kikuyu hardliner John Michuki; and conversely, MKenya-Supreme supported ODM in former security minister George Saitoti’s ex-seat in Kajiado North, immediately to the south of Nairobi. Mungiki chairman Njenga has also brought Odinga into contact with the widows of Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi and murdered radical politician J.M. Kariuki, both considered Kikuyu luminaries. The prime minister opened a new hospital in Kariuki’s memory and promised that the government would establish a museum to commemorate the fight of the two men and other Kikuyu radicals for independence. Njenga, along with one of Kariuki’s daughters who works for the ODM Secretariat, travelled with Odinga through Nyandarua District. The district—Njenga’s home region—in colonial times was part of the White Highlands, the European farming zone, and landless Kikuyu were only settled there in the 1960s. The infrastructure remains underdeveloped, the transport of goods to market remains difficult, and local residents feel neglected, despite the fact that the current political boss of the district is Cabinet Minister Amos Kimunya, the partner of President Kibaki’s daughter.

Although Prime Minister Odinga was greeted by vast crowds in Njenga’s home base in Nyandarua, it remains uncertain how much support Mungiki can actually deliver from the Kikuyu rural poor to the Luo leader. The September 2012 by-elections in Kangema, Kajiado North, and Ndhiwa in Nyanza Province, and for a considerable number of local government positions throughout the country, in fact, suggested that Mungiki was unable to deliver the Kikuyu poor to an anti-Kenyatta ticket. Kenyatta’s new party—The National Alliance—swept to victory in both Kangema and Kajiado North, and it even made surprising inroads in the local government elections in the Luo heartland in Nyanza, coming second in every contested ward (although the ODM candidate captured 88 percent of the parliamentary vote in Ndhiwa in the Luo heartlands). On the basis of these results, one might conclude that Kenyatta’s colorful, high-tech campaign, backed by lots of money, is having more success at diverting Luo youths from Odinga, than the prime minister is having in detaching Kikuyu youths from Kenyatta. Odinga’s courtship of Njenga, the Mungiki “chairman,” may backfire, since Mungiki’s criminal activities have clearly alienated more poor Kikuyu than the group has attracted in both Kangema and Kajiado North.

As noted, Odinga has been seriously wounded by the defection of Mudavadi and the weakening of his position in Western Province and in the capital, where there are large numbers of Abaluhya voters. In his Luo-Nyanza bastion, he will almost certainly win 90 to 95 percent of the vote, and he seems set to win at least 30 to 40 percent of the vote everywhere else apart from the Mount Kenya region. None of the other candidates has this broad-based support. Most of them, including Kalenjin leader William Ruto and Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka of the Kamba, are essentially mono-ethnic candidates, whose appeal does not carry beyond the confines of their own ethnic constituencies. Ruto, according to Gallup, currently commands the support of 14.0 percent of registered voters, while Musyoka has 10.4 percent. Former cabinet minister Martha Karua and Assistant Minister Peter Kenneth, two Kikuyu challengers, are both widely respected. Karua’s performance in debates and at question time in the National Assembly, relayed on Bunge TV and other television channels, has gained her wide respect far beyond the confines of Kikuyuland, despite her reputation as a Kibaki hardliner during the 2008 postelection violence. Many acknowledge that she is the only candidate who would shake things up—the Margaret Thatcher of Kenya—but few are willing to vote for “a divorced woman who wears trousers,” and the Gallup poll gives her the support of only 4.9 percent of registered voters, while Peter Kenneth is favored by 1.9 percent.

Broadly, this cast of political characters signals that the March 2013 presidential election will be very much a campaign governed by the old political rules. This is also likely to be true of the elections for Parliament, the Senate, and the new county governors. There will be considerable change in the composition of Parliament, as roughly two-thirds of the members have lost their seats at every Kenyan election since 1969, but one must doubt if this will mean the infusion of new ideas and a more policy-driven agenda. Patronage-driven, ethnic-based politics continues to dominate virtually all facets of political life. The new Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission has lost much of its credibility in the last year and is undermined by factional divisions and allegations of corruption over the allocation of contracts. It will face the challenge in March 2013 of organizing six simultaneous but different elections—for president, the lower House, the Senate, for women’s representatives (and for youth and disabled voters), for county governors, and the local county assemblies. This is a quite unprecedented task for which the previous parliamentary and local government by-elections have provided little preparation. The new executive and legislature, moreover, will have to function according to the new constitution and a new set of political and legislative rules for which they both seem ill-prepared. There will be squabbles over the powers of the president and the legislature, between the center and the new counties, and especially over the formulation and control of the budget. Fiscal controls and macroeconomic management may well disintegrate. The elections of March-April 2013, whether they are marred by violence or not, seem set to be only the beginning of an extremely difficult period for Kenyans.

Civil society is attempting to tackle these issues, although it commands less credibility than previously, as its pro-ODM stance in the 2007–2008 election alienated pro-PNU supporters who make up half the nation. The influence of the international community has also diminished as aid has declined and Chinese influence has increased. Time, nevertheless, is working against the old political order, and there is hope that the elections in 2018 or 2023 will usher in an era of reform, as a younger, better-educated cohort replaces the old guard. Quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy may mitigate some of the worst election excesses, but the political establishment on both sides of the Kenyatta-Odinga divide will not take well to preaching. The United States must adopt a more careful and nuanced style. Kenyans will probably muddle through the 2013 presidential election. The vast majority do not want to see a repetition of the ethnic violence of 2008, but those with nothing to lose—unemployed youths in Nairobi, al Shabaab in the semiarid North, and the Mombasa Republican Council and advocates of secession in Mombasa and its hinterland—may be less constrained. The international community, moreover, needs to think more seriously about what will happen after March-April 2013, when Kenyans begin to realize the enormous challenges of implementing their new, hard-won, constitution.

David W. Throup is a senior associate with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

David W. Throup