Kenya at 50: Unfulfilled promises, ethnic division but hope for a bright future

Kenya celebrated 50 years of independence of the UK in December 2013 © Elijah Mucha
Kenya celebrated 50 years of independence of the UK in December 2013 © Elijah Mucha

“We are yet to reach the promised land. We have missed opportunities in the last 50 years,” admitted Uhuru Kenyatta. The Kenyan President’s speech on 12 December 2013 celebrating the 50th anniversary of Kenya took place in front of 60,000 people in the national stadium, including 14 heads of states. You can see some amazing pictures from the ceremony on Thursday which reflects Kenya’s cultural diversity, may it be old or new, with more than 40 ethnic communities in this East African country. However, the promise of Uhuru’s father, Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta, has not been fulfilled yet, as he said 50 years ago that the new government would eliminate three great scourges – poverty, ignorance and disease. Ever since the population quadrupled to more than 43 millions but their voices and concerns still need to be heard.

If you are familiar with Kenya, watch the BBC’s 60 seconds on Kenya’s history to get a snapshot. Also check out some impressive data that The Guardian compiled on Kenya, although it is also a reminder that the 1990s have been a lost decade for this East African country. Or read the blog post of Liberty Kenya who presents in concise words what Kenya needs. I would like to reflect on Kenya’s difficult past and how it impacts the life of Kenyans 50 years after independence.

It is myths and imagined (hi)stories which have influenced the thinking of many Kenyans. The official public narrative portrays Kenya as a “shining star in Africa.” Kenya’s official history, as elsewhere on the continent, has indeed been dictated by its rulers rather than that by its people. That means a rather shiny history after independence is presented if any history at all. This is reflected in the state’s reluctance to allow historical research by professional historians as the access to archives is very difficult or impossible. That is probably no surprise considering the political elite’s involvement in corruption, intrigues, and even assassinations like one of Kenya’s brightest mind at the time, Tom Mboya. No one wants to present the skeletons in the closet.

However, history is very much present in the mind of the people, particularly the injustices from the past. Much is related to the question of land and the impact that the colonialists had on reallocating the people who had to work on farms and plantations. In fact, there is no dominating common and public narrative existing about Kenya’s past. On the contrary, the interpretation of history as well as the remembrance of the past is a contested field in Kenya with little consensus among the elite and competing narratives of the different ethnic groups. Thus, history and memory are characterized by an ethnic view and not one of a united country embedded in the regionalization process of a United States of East Africa.

Kenya's parliament based in Nairobi
Kenya’s parliament based in Nairobi

In contrast to many other African countries, Kenya has not experienced state collapse or military rule. At the same time, it has also hardly improved the living standard of the majority of the people or achieved much national pride as ethnic hatred is still very strong. In fact, for the majority of the people every today is a daily struggle of survival. A few powerful families, however, have been able to gain enormous wealth, particularly those close to political power. Kenya’s history is thus one of economic exploitation. Sporadic violence has happened throughout the past 50 years, but it was never as horrific as during the 2007/8 post-election violence. This was much related to the question of land, real or perceived injustices, as well as the broader issue of redistribution nurtured the belief of many communities that it is “their turn to eat,” particularly those who did not get their share of government access.

In 2007, Kenya was widely perceived as Africa’s emerging model of peaceful transition from a repressive one-party regime to a stable and liberal democracy. However, chaos and destruction on a massive scale left more than 1,000 people dead and several hundreds of thousands displaced in the aftermath of the Kenyan general elections in December 2007 and the following months. Kenya has a long history of economic deprivation and political violence going back to colonial times. Based on an “ethnic elite dictatorship,” the government of Kenya has deliberately used ethnic demonization, discrimination, and ethnic cleansing to strengthen the power of the political elite since independence in 1963. During the post-election violence it was again irresponsible politicians who used hate speech against other ethnic communities and incited violence. The result is that the current president and vice-president are indicted at the International Criminal Court (ICC), although in fact many more high-level politicians should be questioned at The Hague.

Monument of a Mau Mau fighter in front of the Hilton hotel in downtown Nairobi
Monument of a Mau Mau fighter in front of the Hilton hotel in downtown Nairobi

What is still missing for Kenya is the founding myth as it is so important for the creation of a country. In the post-colonial context it is often the independence fighters who successfully struggled against the colonial imperialists. However, Kenya’s “fighters for independence”, the Mau Mau are perceived as a problematic aspect in Kenya’s history instead of being national heroes. The events of the 1950s remain a threat to national cohesion as the Mau Mau are perceived to be solely Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic group with about 22% of the population, against the rest of the country. From all sides it is often an oversimplification of history and its complexity that has led to a historical amnesia among many Kenyans. The polarization of ethnicity exacerbates the selective use of the past and hinders a constructive and united way to agree on a past.

The first two post-independence presidents, Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, ruled Kenya for almost 40 years. Today, they are widely perceived within Kenya as political opportunists who thrived on the politics of ethnic division. Even when the Kalenjin community got the presidency with Moi, the “stolen land” of their ancestors was often not returned and Kikuyu, Luhya, and Luo settlements in the northern Rift Valley continued to exist. Instead of a steady and continuous integration of these different communities to one Kenyan people in Kenya’s Rift Valley, the memories of the past haunted Kenya. Violence took place throughout the 1990s when multi-party democracy was reintroduced as well as in the 2007/8 post-election violence. Instead of focusing on the differences, it would be possible to learn about commonalities and overcome myths about other ethnicities. Such efforts have happened in the past, but often it has been only based on a rather superficial level.

Although Kenya has been experiencing a democratic transition since 2002, politicians have continued to fuel hatred against other ethnic communities during their election campaigns as a means remain in power. Thus, the process of nation-building has often been undermined by the instrumental use of ethnicity, and it is yet hard to find a common Kenyan identity, not least because of the favoritism of the elite to their own ethnic group which consequently tends to think that it could benefit because a man of their ethnicity has power.

The manipulation of ethnic identities for the private interest of ethnic leaders and politicians has torn Kenya apart. The root causes of the prevailing ethno-political competition, discrimination, and violence include a wide variety of explanations for what are behind the electoral violence in Kenya: power hungry “big men,” socio-economic inequality, tribalism, widespread corruption, rigged elections linked with an incompetent election monitoring body, land disputes, agitation by the media, hate speech, marginalized youth linked with a high unemployed rate, extra-judicial killings, the failure of redistribution, spillover effects of climate change, an ineffective justice system, an all-powerful executive branch of government, weak state institutions, and over-centralization.

Writing messages of peace in a shopping mall in Eldoret in the northern Rift Valley in March 2013
Writing messages of peace in a shopping mall in Eldoret in the northern Rift Valley in March 2013

Many of these challenges have been addressed by the new constitution which was seen as a mere necessity after the post-election violence and passed successfully in a referendum in 2010. Instead of serving politicians, on paper the constitution should help that politicians have to serve the people. However, the implementation of this, in fact, world-wide praised document still remains to be seen. Certainly, this document is a good basis for change although the political elite have already tried hard to tear it apart, as the fuss has recently shown about the media bill that was introduced by parliamentarians.

After the chaos and massacres in 2008, numerous initiatives and organizations have started projects in order to prevent another outbreak of violence during the next general elections in March 2013. While many of these efforts are creative and involve various conflict prevention and peacebuilding methods, it is crucial for conflict resolution practitioners to understand why Kenyan politicians can easily misuse ideas of ethnicity to incite violence. Indeed, the 2013 election were relatively peaceful and with Uhuru Kenyatta, a son of the first president was elected. Uhuru means freedom or independence in Kiswahili, thus it was more than appropriate that he led the celebrations of 50 years of independence.

Various conflict prevention and peacebuilding projects like Sisi ni Amani have been started in the years since the National Accord was signed in April 2008 in order to prevent future violence. Some of these projects have addressed the root causes of potential conflict in Kenya, but methods of dealing with ethnic hatred that fuels violence is still not fully understood and often viable criticism against decision-makers is labeled as ethnic criticism. However, it is attempts like the national effort to help the communities in the North of Kenya who faced a famine in the summer of 2011 or recently during the Westgate attack in September 2013. The wish would be that not only during the time of crisis the Kenyan people will hold together, that it is not a foreign enemy like Somali Islamists that unites Kenyans. Rather, it should be a positive

There is much hope that Kenya is going to look like that in the 50 years, a future full of technology and development. To reach that point though, many obstacles need to be overcome. First and foremost, Kenya will need a change to overcome ethnic hatred. Second, and very much intertwined with the first point, inclusive development has to lift up many more out of poverty and provide jobs, not only in the informal sector. Third, although Kenya is already the economic powerhouse in the region, it needs many reforms to overcome the rampant corruption, increase education standards and continue to be the driver of East African integration. Kenya is a fantastic with fantastic people with so much potential. This potential should be finally used, and should be open for each and every Kenyan and not just for some. This is certainly the wish for the next 50 years when Kenya will celebrate its centennial.

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