Competition Provides the Potential for the Politicisation of Ethnicity and
Ethnicised Conflict-The Kenyan Case


essay examines into the theoretical understanding of how the electoral
competition triggers the politicisation of ethnicity and ethnicised conflict in
Kenya.  It critically explores the
behaviours how the political elites use the ethnicity as a tool of mobilising
the electorates to achieve political and economic objectives. Furthermore, the
essay scrutinises how Kenya’s democratic elections have given momentum of the
politicisation of ethnicity and how it has created a sense of mistrust and national
division among the diverse ethnic communities in Kenya and its aftermath during
the 2007 post-election crisis.

Key word: Electoral competition, Politicised
ethnicity, Ethnicised Conflict, Kenya

count: 4000


studies suggest that ethnic identities are influential motivators of the
behaviour of the political elites as well as electorates in Africa. The fact
that racial identities become systematically more important to people at the
time that competitive elections are being held suggests that ethnicity plays a
role in the struggle for political power (Eifert, 2010). However, Miguel
(2004) argues that it is not ethnicity per se but the role of ethnicity in the
political process, i.e., the politicisation of ethnicity, which explains social
conflict and democratic breakdowns. 


understanding the African ethnic communities’ make-up, it is hard to study the
behaviour of the political elites who justify their excessive use of ethnicity
(or tribalism) as a means to reach their political ends. The usage of ethnicity
in a political and social life is chief reason that contributed to the demise
and dissolution of many African states since independence. 


heart of this essay lies with the definition of the concept of ‘ethnicity’
which is controversial in the African. Brown defines an ethnic group as those
people who have the similar ancestral roots who share distinctive features
relating to language, religion and homeland origin (Brown, 2000).


Ethnicity is a
category of people who identify with each other based on similarities, such as
common language, ancestral, social, cultural, or national experiences. Unlike
other social groups (wealth, age, hobbies), ethnicity is often an inherited
status based on the society in which a person lives.1

such similar features has not, historically, been associated with negative
connotation or identification. Ethnic connection by communal groups, Young
tells us, is a natural condition, and not a social pathology. He points out
that such identification can undoubtedly provide a sense of unity in the face
of a persistently globalising marketplace. Gulliver (1969), on the contrary,
defines the ideology of ethnicity as “the loyalties and identification of
people engaged in conflict”. It suggests, Gulliver adds, divisiveness and insincere
partisanship.  What is more, I should
add, it connotes group antipathy against others. Ethnicity manifests hatred,
suspicion, greed and distrust (Oyugi, 1997).


this essay,  the term ‘political ethnicity’
will be used throughout which means the tendency among political elites to
mobilise ethnicity for political ends. It is imperative to draw a line between
ethnicity or tribalism in its standard practice, which is, the group of people
sharing similar consciousness based on language, culture or shared ancestral
heritage (Ajulu, 2002).


political ethnicity is the deliberate politicisation and mobilisation of these
“consciousness ” to achieve certain political and economic objectives.
Goulbourne (as cited in Markakis 1996) refers to ethnic mobilisation as “a
situation in which leaders seek to transform characteristics deemed ethnic into
political currency” to achieve several or specific ends. (Ajulu, 2002)


this essay, however, I argue that the electoral competition provides the
potential for the politicisation of ethnicity and ethnicised conflict citing
living examples from Kenya’s post-independence. The ethnic violence, which has
characterised much of the period of multi-party politics in Kenya, are not
tribal conflicts in the primordial sense; rather, these creates politically
organised conflicts designed to reach political, and ultimately economic,
advantages (Ajulu, 2002).


essay will proceed as follows: an in-depth analysis the behaviour of the
electorates and the key reasons that drove the Kenyan politicians to compete
for elections on ethnic lines and finally, the implications this competition
had on Kenya’s 2007 post-election violence.


Politicisation of Ethnicity during
electoral competition

This section critically points out the
main reasons that drove the Kenyan politicians to compete for elections on
ethnic lines.

A few academic literature is available
to explain the main reasons of politicisation of ethnicity in Africa during the
electoral competition and the evidence available primarily focus upon the
ethnic structures, i.e. the number and size of ethnic groups (Webera, 2009).


The African countries with few and
major ethnic groups are seen to be naturally gifted with support groups large
enough to win a majority in elections. Hence, these countries are anticipated
to organise electorates along ethnic lines, and thus, ethnicity arises as a
salient political identity.


On the contrary, in countries with many
small ethnic groups, political parties seem in need to endorse national
programs to appeal for sizable amounts of voters. The ethnic structure argument
is, though, challenged by the political ethnographic literature emphasising the
uncertainty and contextual character of ethnic identity and thereby rejecting a
direct link between genetic structures and the usefulness of ethnicity for
political mobilisation (cf. Schultz,1984; Widlok, 1996; and Elwert, 2002).


politics literature emphasise that the political elites play a crucial role in
promoting ethnicity during their struggle for political power. The politicians
find it beneficial to “play the ethnic card” as a means of mobilising
supporters to attain or retain political control (e.g., Bates 1983; Ferree
2006; Posner 2005; Young 1965, 1976). Nevertheless, this turns to be a reality
during the periods preceding and following election campaigns than at other
times since the elections are the turning points for political changes to take
place. These efforts are also particularly vital during election campaigns and
the political benefit to be gained by mobilising supporters will be utmost. Thus,
to the extent that politicians’ ethnic calls make ethnicity more salient for electorates,
and to the extent that, once created salient, ethnic identities take some time
to return to normality.


fact that Kenya is a country where more than 42 different ethnic groups are
living together, the political elites are inspired to divide up the supporters
and mobilise through ethnic lines. The ethnic groups neither are in fighting
with each other nor pose a threat to the country’s peace and tranquillity merely
because they have different cultural and linguistic attributes. Repeated
hostility among ethnic groups in Kenya was the consequence of the
politicisation of ethnicity. Postcolonial leaders have not promoted a national
civic culture within the country’s body politic because those at the centre of
power pursued narrow-minded, sectarian and self-serving interests (Kwatemba,


political situation since the rebirth of multi-partisan politics in 1992 has
seen the promotion of ethnic values and ethnic conflict as the key instruments
of political contestation. Political parties have been organised along ethnic
identities and state-power aggressively contested by mobilised ethnicity (Ajulu, 2002).


The political ethnicity has a long
history in Kenya, triggered by grievances over uneven distribution of resources
such as land and public employment. For instance, Kikuyu ethnic group were favoured
politically and economically by both the British colonial administration and
successive presidents, particularly, Kenyatta and Kibaki, against smaller
ethnic groups, including Luhya, Luo, Kalenjin and others (CSIS, 2009).
The two presidents were both from the same ethnic community and promoted their
ethnic interests rather than the national interests.  As such, CSIS (2009) reports that ethnicity has
remained the critical axis on which Kenyan politicians mobilise their
supporters, and the success of elections are determined by ethnic calculus
rather than performance or national vision.


happened in 2007 election is a testimonial evidence that the Kenyan politicians
played out their political competitions mainly on ethnic lines. As such or
because of the fact, the ethnicity remains a crucial motivator in the Kenyan
political life. Manson (2007) explains that Kenyan political elites had no
better alternatives to mobilise their supporters rather than using empty
promises such as “if you
help your kinsmen you will survive; we will give you jobs, opportunities and
education” to capture the attention of the voters. Responding to these
promises, a large number of voters overwhelmingly supported presidential
candidates from their ethnic community, expecting that the respective would
best serve their interests.


Such political behaviours are not only
prevailing in Kenya but are also correct in most African states. African
political elites will only appeal for voters to support members of their ethnic
groups if they believe that such promises will resonate, which in turn will
depend on voters’ beliefs about how patronage is channelled in Africa.
Similarly, although most citizens do not need to be reminded that their ethnic
connection with the election’s winner is likely to affect the level of
resources they will receive in the election’s aftermath, politicians’ ethnic
appeals almost certainly reinforce such expectations. The result is an
equilibrium in which expectations of ethnic favouritism by voters generate
ethnic appeals by politicians which, in turn, reinforce voters’ expectations of
ethnic favouritism (Manson,2007).


Because this mutually reinforcing
process is motivated by the competition for political power, it makes perfect
sense that it should cause ethnicity to become more salient in proximity to
competitive elections, since this is the time when political power is most
clearly at stake.


The link between political competition
and ethnic identification is characterised by a second sort of equilibrium as
well. Rational politicians should target their ethnic appeals to the voters
they believe will be most receptive to them. Thus if we can identify the kinds
of voters that politicians should be seeking to mobilise, we should expect to
find higher levels of ethnic identification among these voters than others (Eifert, 2010).


most often voiced argument why ethnicity is a politically salient factor in
Kenya, as Webera (2009) argues, refers to the country’s ethnic structure, i.e.
the number and size of ethnic groups. A politician is seen to build his support
base from specific ethnic groups and to distribute resources that he accessed
through his political position to his co-ethnics. The ethnic group that forms
the support base must, therefore, be large enough to constitute a winning


Ethnicity drives voting behaviour in Kenya since
decolonisation. Archer (2007) argues that
there is a common belief in Kenya that at the end of the day it is nevertheless
safer to vote for somebody from their tribe. The rationale seems to be that if
there somehow should be the slightest possibility for them to get a job or to
be granted a loan, it would have to be in a situation where their tribe has
power over state resources. The case of
Kikuyus who overwhelmingly emphasised securing property rights and on less
redistributionist policies is an excellent example in this regard.


to Archer (2007), Kenyans, in general, lose faith in a neutral state and to a
certain extent in politician’s altogether. The concentration of power around
the president, however, made many Kenyans believe that politicians from their
ethnic group have to be in high office in order both to embezzle public funds
and secure benefits while keeping the other ethnic groups away from taking
jobs, land and entitlements


of the Kenyan presidents promoted ethnic interests and hence the solidarity of
the diverse ethnic groups were hardly created. For instance, the three
presidents – Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi, and Mwai Kibaki – have all used
ethnopolitics as a political strategy during their time in office, which in
three instances has ended with severe political violence. This is exemplified
by the fact that Kenya’s ethnic communities were not equally represented in the
government and some ethnic groups, for instance, Kikuyus and Kalenjins who are
the tribes of President Kenyatta and Moi respectively has been given more than
their share of ‘the national cake’.


Moreover, a deliberate re-grouping of
ethnic subgroups comes from Kenya’s first and third president, Kenyatta and
Kibaki. These Presidents are members of the Kikuyu ethnic group. However, the
Kikuyu are not sufficiently large to constitute a winning majority by themselves.
Census data on ethnic groups shows that only 21 percent of the Kenyan
population identify themselves as being Kikuyu (Kenya, 1994).To attract a winning
majority, the Kikuyu politicians used various Kikuyu’s cousin ethnic groups,
namely the Embu and Meru to form a more significant support base (the Gikuyu,
Embu, Meru Association (GEMA); Ogot, 2005; p.338)8 9. Only after the inclusion
of the Embu and Meru into the wider super-tribe GEMA, did this ethnic support
base add up to around 27 percent of the total population (Kenya, 1994).


Kibaki, for example, has left no stone unturned to maintain power whatsoever
means. His power greediness was attributed to the death of more than 1,000
people and some 350,000 displaced in just a matter of weeks. With this move, he
favoured his ethnic group Kikuyus and gave them a head start in economic
development while ignoring his main rivalry Odinga’s tribe, Luo.


competition for and control over the allocation of resources is amongst the
most significant contributing factors resulting in the continued politicisation
of ethnicity in Kenya (Wanjiku, 2017). For example, Oyugi(1997) argues
that, during the 1997 elections, the Kikuyus (the ethnic group of
President Kibaki) believed that the capture of the state by the opposition
would at once mean the loss of economic privilege, which they had enjoyed for
over decades. Similarly, every major ethnic actor believed that their party’s
victory would end their relative deprivation. These perceptions were
functionally conflictual and added fuel to the 2007’s post-election violence.


According to Crawford (1998), resource scarcity
may tempt the political elite to privilege particular groups because they no
longer can afford to uphold general welfare policies and because patronage
networks as allocative mechanisms require few transaction costs.  Much of the grievance that is at present felt in Kenya against the
Kikuyu, President Kibaki’s ethnic group, stems from the deep-rooted conviction
that after independence the Kikuyus were unrightfully given land. The majority
of the ethnic violence after the election in 2007 broke off precisely in the
areas where Kikuyus were resettled after the independence (Konrad Adenauer
Foundation, Dialogue Africa Foundation Trust, 2009; p.58-65).


support the notion that ethnic tensions stem from unequal wealth distribution
(cf. Gurr, 1970). In particular, consumption of wealth by one ethnic group and
exclusion from the prosperity of other tribes is viewed to increase the
consciousness of one’s own ethnic identity. In agricultural societies, such as
Kenya, access to wealth is mainly achieved through access to land and farming.
Hence, unequal distribution of property is seen to increase the likelihood of
ethnic conflicts and the pronouncement of ethnic identities (Amisi, 2009;


importantly, many African scholars hold the view that the ethnic division in
Kenya did not begin with presidents mentioned above but is primarily attributed
to the colonial administration. Kwatemba (2008) points out that Kenya was the
invention of the British colony, who deliberately invented territory, brought
together different ethnic communities, some of which had little or nothing in
common culturally. Other communities were mutually hostile. This does not mean
that cultural homogeneity is a threat to the
ethnic coexistence.  Kwatembe(2008) firmly
believes that the culturally diverse ethnic societies will be in violent
conflict unless the politicians make an intentional endeavour to disrupt the
trust and confidence betwee (Kwatemba, 2008)


The colonial penetration of Kenya and
its uneven impact on different ethnic groups set the stage for the
politicisation of ethnicity after independence. The Luhya, Luo and Kikuyu
communities accessed education earlier than the nomadic and pastoral
communities owing to contact with the missionaries (Ajulu, 2002).It was therefore not
coincidental that members of these communities featured prominently in Kenya’s
post-colonial politics and dominated the bureaucracy.


Colonial control through indirect rule,
uneven development of capitalism and, consequently, competition for resources
merely accentuated rivalry and politicised ethnic consciousness (Ajulu, 2002). The problem of
ethnicity, having emerged during the colonial period, has been progressively
accentuated since independence with the emergence of ethnicity as a factor in
national politics. Ethnicity in Kenya became a widespread concern as early as
during the colonial period but was accentuated in the post-independence period
during the implementation of the policy of Africanization. Ethnic tensions
developed especially around the structure of access to economic opportunities
and redistribution of some of the land formerly owned by the white settlers (Oyugi, 2002).


The Post-2007 Electoral and Political Crisis

That ethnicity was the salient force
behind the post-election violence in 2007-2008 is apparent. The post-election
violence serves as an example of the state of the political system in Kenya.
Being a pluralistic society with 42 ethnic groups, politics- all those
activities which are directly or indirectly associated with the seizure, consolidation
and use of state power- has over time and for various reasons been ‘ethnicised’ (Wanjiku,

had relatively enjoyed uninterrupted peace since 1963 when it gained its
independence from Great Britain. As Kwatemeba (2008) points out this was a
remarkable achievement given that the country has had its fair share of
turbulent times. However, many analysts predicted that Kenya would be leapt
into ethnicised violence in 2007 because the political parties had ethnic
motives and the politicians mobilised their supporters through racial lines.
This has made the electoral competition between the parties more difficult as
each had the active support of their ethnic-based supporters who could not
accept defeat whatsoever hence the country was plunged into deadly violence.


more than anything else the elections proved that Kenya’s nation-state is exceptionally
fragile. The 2007 misfortune was a strong indictment of the postcolonial
leadership for having gambled with ethnicity among Kenya’s 42-odd disparate
ethnic groups (Archer, 2007).


was left with deep scars by the violence that erupted in the aftermath of the
disputed Presidential election of 27 December 2007. In just a matter of weeks,
Kenya was plunged into ethnic chaos which made them lose their democratic credentials
and relative peace over the years (Gutiérrez-Romero, 2007).




has been necessary to trace this historical perspective to reveal the complex
transactions between electoral politics and ethnicity in Kenya. Quite clearly,
ethnic cleavages and political conflicts have been at their most volatile
during the periods of election campaigns (Ajulu, 2002).


reasonably view Kenya’s 2007 election as a prime example of ethnic-based politics.
The Kikuyu, Luo, and Kamba voters supported their co-ethnic presidential
candidates at overwhelming rates. Ethnic orientations mould much of Kenya’s
political life and remain critically important to its politics, economics, and
society today. At first blush, ethnicity seemed to account for vote patterns
and the chaos that followed the announcement of the questionable results (Gibson, 2015).



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