Kenya: why elite cohesion is more important than ethnicity to political stability

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) shakes hands with the opposition coalition leader Raila Odinga to symbolise a truce in March 2018. Simon Maina/AFP via Getty Images

Kenyan politics is often depicted as a battle between different ethnic “Big Men” who can mobilise their supporters with a click of their fingers. The ability of successive generations of the Kenyatta family to rally the support of the Kikuyu community, and of Odingas to command the loyalty of Luos, means that it is also seen to be dominated by a small number of dynasties – a Game of Thrones, if you will.

But this is a gross over simplification. Our new Handbook of Kenyan Politics – which features 50 chapters on different aspects of political life – tells a very different story. Ethnic leaders often fail to carry the support of their own group, either because they are not seen to have the community’s interest at heart, or because a rival appears to have a more credible chance of winning power.

And while the role of ethnicity is overstated, class is much more important than is commonly thought. Class here might more accurately be called elite cohesion, given the lack of clearly demarcated social classes.

This finding might surprise some readers, but while ethnicity clearly shapes how people think and vote it is the degree of elite cohesion that determines whether the country is politically stable or not.

The long period of relative stability in the country from the 1970s to the early 1990s was founded on the willingness of members of the elite from different ethnic groups to put aside their differences and use their influence to demobilise movements and militias that might otherwise have threatened the status quo.

They did so to protect the highly unequal political and economic system on which their own privileged positions depend. It is when this elite pact ruptures, as it did around the 2007 general elections, that violence and unrest come to the fore.

Kenya is not alone. In general, we are far too quick to jump to “ethnic” explanations, and far too slow to recognise the way that elites collude to preserve their privileges. Our book sheds light on how this happened in Kenya.

How ethnicity matters

The classic view of Kenyan politics as an ethnic census runs something like this. First, power is secured by, and used to the advantage of, the president’s own ethnic group. This generate a “winner-takes-all” logic.

Second, the knowledge that losing power means losing access to resources increases the stakes of political competition and hence the purported drive to stick together along ethnic lines.

Third, heated and controversial elections increase the divisions within Kenyan society, further strengthening ethnic identities.

Parts of this story are certainly true. Successive governments have tended to favour their own. Voting patterns, too, reveal clear ethnic patterns, and the last three elections have been extremely divisive. But the reality is more complicated.

Politicians can’t simply rely on the support of co-ethnics. Many ethnic groups actually split their vote between two or more candidates. This means that politicians must persuade voters to support them. In doing this, they often face stiff competition both from within and without their own ethnic group. As a result, they have to demonstrate that they are willing to fight for their community, have a good track record on development, and can be trusted.

An example of what can happen if leaders don’t pay attention to these rules is the fate of Luhya leader Musalia Mudavadi in the 2013 presidential election. Having left Raila Odinga’s opposition alliance in the hope of being picked as the presidential candidate with the support of the then president Mwai Kibaki, Mudavadi was humiliated when key Kibaki allies changed their minds at the last minute and formed the new Jubilee Alliance.

In the end Mudavadi stood on his own. But his reputation was fatally tarnished because he was not seen to be a credible candidate, or to have been true to his own ethnic group. As a result, his own community turned its back on him, with more Luhyas voting for Odinga – a Luo – than for their “own man”.

Mutual economic interests

The chapters in the book also highlight the fact that ethnic differences have not prevented the emergence of a self-conscious political and economic elite that is capable of coordinating its actions to maintain the system on which its privileges depend.

As Kenyan political scientist Nicholas Nyangira argued in the 1980s, the route to power in Kenya involves first establishing control over an ethnic group – and then bargaining with other members of the elite for acceptance, using one’s support base as leverage.

Once part of the elite, leaders have typically used their influence over their own communities to demobilise and co-opt protest movements and militias. Even after some of the most heated periods of inter-elite struggle, such as the ultimately unsuccessful efforts of some Kikuyu leaders to prevent Daniel arap Moi – a Kalenjin – from replacing Jomo Kenyatta as president after his death in 1978, members of the elite came back together to stabilise the system.

Whenever this elite pact has ruptured, the consequence has been major political instability. In 2007, for example, the controversy over who had won flawed presidential elections resulted in leaders who had previously controlled their communities instead calling on them to take to the streets. Along with a heavy handed state response, this resulted in the death of over 1,000 people and the displacement of almost 700,000 more.

Yet even in these most tense and dangerous of moments, the elite found a way to come back together. The violence in 2007 was ended by a power-sharing agreement that brought all major leaders into the government.

Another dangerous political stand-off following controversial elections in 2017 was resolved when, to the surprise of many, the two main candidates – Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta – publicly shook hands and announced that they had buried the hatchet.

The role of inequality

It is clear from these events that Kenya will remain politically stable so long as the mutual economic interests of the elite outweigh their ethnic differences.

What’s equally true is that the country will simultaneously remain incredibly unequal.

According to Oxfam less than 0.1% of the population – just 8,300 people – owned more wealth than the bottom 99.9% in 2018. While a dynamic economy is projected to create around 7,500 millionaires over the next 10 years, Kenya currently features the eighth highest number of people living in extreme poverty in the world.

In addition to paying themselves some of the highest salaries earned by any politicians in the world, Kenyan leaders use their control over the legislature to set low taxes – the highest rate of income tax is just 30% – and to give tax exemptions to politically connected companies.

Because it determines whether ethnic tensions are contained or exacerbated, and keeps millions in poverty, elite cohesion, much like ethnicity, is a matter of life and death.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 105,300 academics and researchers from 3,358 institutions.

Register now