University of Memphis


In Kenya, violence has again erupted after a second presidential election was held on October 26th, decided once more in favor of incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta. On November 17, several were killed in clashes between opposition demonstrators and police as opposition leader Raila Odinga returned home from being out of the country following the second election (NPR). This showdown between candidates has been ongoing for several months and reflects the dynastic histories and expectations of the two men as well as the politics of ethnicity.

Kenya has been in electoral crisis for months. Raila Odinga challenged the legitimacy of the initial election results back in September, in which Kenyatta won by 1.4 million votes, (NY Times) leading the Supreme Court to nullify the election in a landmark decision, citing irregularities such as the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s (IEBC) refusal to provide the court access to its computer servers (CNN). Wafula Chebukati, the top elections official, gave warning that the elections commission could indeed be undermined and compromised by political interference. Other claims of electoral impartiality and death threats came from an election commissioner, who resigned and fled the country (NY Times). Following the election, immediate protests broke out from opposition supporters of the Raila Odinga’s National Super Alliance, leading to clashes with police and leaving 70 dead. Now, after a second contest in which Mr. Odinga announced he would not participate in the rerun just two weeks before the election date, violent demonstrations have once again flared after Mr. Kenyatta’s victory. Mr. Odinga claimed his opting out of the second election was due to a failure by IEBC to reform voting processes that had lead to foul play initially (CNN). Only a small percentage of those who initially voted turned out again (only 38% of the 19 million registered voters in Kenya) and it was overwhelmingly in favor of incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta – 98.25% (CNN).

So who are these men? First and foremost, they are legacies. Uhuru Kenyatta is the son of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president and anti-colonial activist (Economist). He is a former finance minister and ran for presidential office in the historic 2002 election that ousted dictator Daniel Arap Moi (Economist). His government heavily invested in infrastructure, including a new Chinese-built railway system that connects the Kenyan coast to Nairobi (Economist). Before being elected to his first term, Mr. Kenyatta was facing indictment by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity related to the ethnic and political horrific violence following the 2007 election that left roughly 1,500 dead (BBC). These charges were later dropped during Kenyatta’s presidency (BBC).   It was in this election that Mr. Odinga also ran and lost controversially to incumbent president Mwai Kibaki (who was supported by Kenyatta), escalating tension throughout the country to nearly all-out civil war (Al Jazeera). Raila Odinga, in similar dynastic fashion, is the son of Oginga Odinga – Kenya’s first vice-president under Jomo Kenyatta. After the 2007 violence, Odinga served as prime minister in the government of national unity (Economist). These two have been pitted against one another for some time now.

Perhaps more important than familial connections to power are the candidates’ ethnic identities. Kenyatta identifies with Kikuyu, which is the tribal majority in Kenya. Odinga identifies as Luo, which is the country’s third largest ethnic group. Kenyans usually vote along tribal lines, hoping for particular economic representation by specific groups (Economist). So the political tension that has existed between these two men and the murkiness and accused corruption that this election cycle has seen has, in turn, renewed ethnic tension between the Kikuyu and the Luo: those that were pitted against one another in the violence of 2007. The Kikuyu have been widely accused of accumulating all economic power in Kenya while the Luo have been increasingly marginalized (CNN). So this time around, Odinga’s supporters do not seem to be giving up. As economic disparities continue with the Kikuyu being referred to as the privileged class, mistrust of leading polities will too continue (Al Jazeera).

As of Sunday November 18, Raila Odinga had called for international intervention in the worsening electoral crisis that left 18 dead over the weekend (Newsy).   As Odinga arrived back into the country Friday and traveled from the Nairobi airport to town, it was reported that thousands of supporters arrived, surrounded, and followed his caravan as security forces tightened down. Chaos ensued as supporters set up roadblocks and lit cars on fire as police fired tear gas at random (NPR). Some claim the goal of the opposition has now shifted to simply the stepping down of President Kenyatta, but the country will know on Monday the Supreme Court’s decision whether or not to nullify the second election as well (NPR).

It seems that with the lengthy feud and familial dynastic power that Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga are still waging, combined with the volatility of ethnic classism and historic tribalism between the Kikuyu and the Luo people, democracy is currently in danger in Kenya with no clear end in sight.






  1. Dakota Fenn

    December 4, 2017 at 6:02 am

    I found your interpretation of the turmoil surrounding the elections in Kenya to be a helpful categorization of the different forces at play. When you mention the links between ethnic/tribal identity and economic incentives, I can’t help but be reminded of patronage networks that we’ve seen in so many other countries experiencing democratic troubles. Similarly, the notion of familial legacies and dynasties often plays a role in the propagation of these networks, as you touch on in your post. Given the recent decision of the Kenyan court to uphold the election results, I would be curious to hear your take on Kenyan democracy. Do you think that the court decision is emblematic of institutional ethnic and economic divisions, and thus part and parcel of the challenges facing Kenyan democracy? Or do you see this election and all elections in Kenya as fundamentally flawed because of the history of family dynasties and other factors you mentioned? Polarization could be another underlying force here as well-after all, we know that polarized groups self segregate and become further polarized over time. Moving forward, we’ll have to watch for the divides between political and ethnic groups becoming increasingly insurmountable, due to the long history you note in your post. While I agree with your assessment that democracy in Kenya is in jeopardy, I do think that we will have a better understanding of the threat posed after the inauguration and subsequent reaction of the population.

  2. Talia Brenner

    December 6, 2017 at 8:07 pm

    Do you consider this to be a case of ethnocracy? In a case study presentation on Israel, a student in my class defined ethnocracy as the institutionalized dominance of one ethnic group over another, with rights afforded to other groups based on contributions to the dominant power (as is the case with Palestinians in Israel).

    This case seems to meet the first part of the definition, if Luo people’s economic marginalization includes a definite degree of political disenfranchisement. Based on your description, this seems most likely. Since economic stratification mirrors ethnic divisions, it seems that the absence of class as a cross-cutting cleavage has only furthered group polarization between ethnic groups. As for the second part of the definition of ethnocracy, I am curious to know whether Kikuyu people are defined as ideal Kenyans. I see this factor as a necessary condition for the second part of the definition of ethnocracy, since there must be a default ethnicity for another ethnic group to be subordinated and thus defined by their contributions to the state.

    Ethnocracy is certainly a threat to democracy, since it subordinates a group of citizens based on a descriptive and static demographic. Just because this model likely fits the situation in Kenya, however, does not mean that it is necessarily the best way to describe democratic backsliding there. I wonder if theories of executive aggrandizement, for instance, are better descriptors.

Leave a Reply