Democratization and ethnic violence in Kenya: electoral cycles and shifting identities GaBr Ielle l yNCh a Nd d av I d M . a Nd erS oN
Kenya’s contested General Election of 27 December 2007 was followed by an unprecedented level of violence that led to the death of over 1,000 and the displacement of almost 700,000 people within two months. The epicentre was the Rift Valley Province – home of the former “White Highlands” – where over half of the casualties and 62 per cent of displacement occurred (Lynch 2009). The speed with which this seemingly peaceful country began to burn, and the level of inter-communal hatred displayed, shocked many Kenyans and observers. However, Kenya’s reputation of calm hid a more disturbing reality in which political contests, local land or border disputes, and localized displacements have frequently been marked by violence (Branch 2011). The most notable precursor was the “ethnic clashes” of 1991 to 1993, when around 1,500 people were killed and 300,000 displaced in and around Rift Valley Province (Africa Watch 1993: 1). However, over the two years prior to the elections of 2007, Mount Elgon on the Kenya-Uganda border also suffered from high levels of violence resulting in over 600 deaths. Mount Elgon provides an excellent (if extreme) example of the way in which the return to multi-party politics in Africa has galvanized and strengthened debates around ethnic citizenship, belonging and autochthony (Ceuppens and Geschiere 2005; Geschiere and Jackson 2006; Geschiere 2009). Violence has been used on Mount Elgon to assert rights to the ownership and political control of territory, with political actors and their followers manipulating ethnic signifiers and historical narratives to justify their actions. Over time, local disputes here shifted from a conflict between Sabaot (a subgroup of the larger Kalenjin) and Bukusu (a subgroup of the larger Luhya) to one between Sabaot-speakers. The Kenya media came to view this internecine Sabaot struggle as a conflict between two clans – Mosop and Soy – but it will become clear that Mosop and Soy are not clans. Furthermore, members of the Bok subgroup of the larger Sabaot alliance (or Soy) emerged as both the principal perpetrators and the victims. This is not, then, a classic “ethnic conflict” but something more nuanced. In the process of this struggle, narratives of ethnic citizenship of belonging have become increasingly unstable and localized. Land disputes lie at the heart of the conflict, pre-dating the transitional politics of the 1990s. In a situation where the state has not enforced the rule of law, democratic processes have fuelled violence, as
communities have resorted to undemocratic methods to “protect” their perceived interests against those whom they believed would exploit or exclude them, politicians have sought to mobilize ethnic support bases, and local terror and criminal expropriation have contributed to an escalation of the violence. Democratic electoral politics is not the cause of this violence, but multi-party elections have become a recurrent catalyst. Two important lessons emerge from this case. First, in line with Daniel Posner’s (2007) findings, the shift from a single-party to a multi-party system and other institutional changes (for example, the redrawing of district boundaries) have altered the identity cleavages around which political mobilization revolves. Going beyond Posner, however, while the identity referent may change, the issues of contention may not. In the case of Mount Elgon, the historically contentious questions of landownership and belonging remain core issues over which groups mobilize. Elections have become the means by which to advance land interests: concomitantly, land and ethnic identities have become tools in the hands of political elites. Second, elections have not reduced violence here but merely redirected it. When the issues are as emotionally intense as the politics of belonging and rights to land, and when elections are introduced without additional institutions to support a functioning democracy, election periods become vulnerable to inter-group violence.