in yesterday’s New York Times
describes an expanding campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Kikuyu tribe in western Kenya
. We’ve seen this story before. In my 2006 book States, Scarcity, and Civil Strife in the Developing World
, I explained how rapid population growth, environmental degradation, and historical land grievances collided with multi-party elections in the early 1990s to provide opportunities for Kenyan elites to gain power and wealth by violently mobilizing ethnic groups against one another. The ensuing violence pitted the Kalenjin and other smaller tribal communities engaged in pastoral activities against the Kikuyu, Luo, and other traditional farming communities in the fertile Rift Valley, leaving more than a thousand Kenyans dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.
Sound familiar? Demographically and environmentally induced ethnic land competition—at the heart of the 1990s conflicts—remains problematic today. Deep-seated grievances emanating from struggles over scarce farmland provide ample opportunities for elites across the political spectrum to mobilize tribal supporters to engage in violence and ethnic land cleansing during times of electoral instability—especially in rural areas, where strong group identification facilitates such mobilization. This didn’t happen during the last presidential election, in 2002, because elites bought into the democratic process and the elections were viewed as fair. In addition, the Kenyan Electoral Commission and the international community, in an effort to prevent a repeat of the strife in 1992 and 1997, closely scrutinized electoral behavior in 2002.
This time, the apparent rigging of the election by the Kibaki regime—which many minority tribes view as having used its political power to unfairly benefit its own Kikuyu tribe—unleashed the latent grievances against the Kikuyu still present in Kenyan society. “You have to understand that these issues are much deeper than ethnic,” Maina Kiai, chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, told the Times. “They are political…they go back to land.”
Colin Kahl is an assistant professor in the Security Studies Program at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a regular ECSP contributor.