Ethnic Woes a Legacy of Colonialists’ Power Game


Kenya appears to be on the brink of an ethnically charged civil war following a disputed election on December 27.

President Kibaki was declared the winner of a second term after a vote that opposition candidate Mr Raila Odinga denounces as rigged and that European Union observers agree was seriously flawed.

As tens of thousands of Kenyans flee their homes and hundreds lie dead, part of the blame rests with Britain and its imperial legacy.

The immediate cause of the crisis was Kenya’s delicate ethnic balance.  In the bitter electoral contest, in which Raila promised to end ethnic favouritism and spread the country’s wealth more equitably, ethnicity was the deciding factor, and a marred victory on either side had always been likely to spark violence.

Both men are rich, elitist African politicians who have far more in common with each other than they do with their supporters; in their struggle over power, both are using their followers as proxies in a smoldering war.  Still, Raila has a point about vote tampering.

If you’re looking for the origins of Kenya’s ethnic tensions, look to its colonial past.  Far from leaving behind democratic institutions and cultures, Britain bequeathed to its former colonies corrupted and corruptible governments.  Colonial officials hand-picked political successors as they left in the wake of World War II, lavishing political and economic favours on their proteges.  This process created elites whose power extended into the post-colonial era.

Added to this was a distinctly colonial view of the rule of law, which saw the British leave behind legal systems that facilitated tyranny, oppression and poverty rather than open, accountable government.  And compounding these legacies was Britain’s famous imperial policy of “divide and rule,” playing one side off another, which often turned fluid groups of individuals into immutable ethnic units.

In many former colonies, the British picked favourites from among these newly solidified ethnic groups and left others out in the cold.  We are often told that age-old tribal hatreds drive today’s conflicts in Africa.  In fact, both ethnic conflict and its attendant grievances are colonial phenomena.

It’s no wonder that newly independent countries such as Kenya maintained and even deepened the old imperial heritage of authoritarianism and ethnic division.  The British had spent decades trying to keep the Luo and Kikuyu divided, quite rightly fearing that if the two groups ever united, their combined power could bring down the colonial order.  Indeed, a short-lived Luo-Kikuyu alliance in the late 1950s hastened Britain’s retreat from Kenya and forced the release of Jomo Kenyatta from a colonial detention camp.

But before their departure, the British schooled the future Kenyans on the lessons of a very British model of democratic elections.  Britain was determined to protect its economic and geopolitical interests during the decolonisation process, and it did most everything short of stuffing ballot boxes to do so.  That set dangerous precedents.

Among other manoeuvres, the British drew electoral boundaries to cut the representation of groups they thought might cause trouble and empowered the provincial administration to manipulate supposedly democratic outcomes.

Old habits die hard.  Three years after Kenya became independent in 1963, the Luo-Kikuyu alliance fell apart.  Kenyatta and his Kikuyu elite took over the State; Oginga Odinga formed an opposition party that was eventually quashed.  Kenyatta established a one-party State in 1969 and tossed the opposition, including Odinga, into detention, much as the British had done to him and his cronies during colonial rule in the 1950s.  The Kikuyu then enjoyed many of the country’s spoils.

The Kikuyu’s fortunes took a turn for the worse when Daniel arap Moi, a member of the Kalenjin ethnic minority, assumed dictatorial power in 1978.  He managed to hang on for more than two decades.  Western Kenya enjoyed the economic benefits of state largesse until 2002, at which point the pendulum again swung back to the Kikuyu, led by the incoming President Kibaki.

Fears of ethnic ascendancies, power-hungry political elites, undemocratic processes and institutions — all are hallmarks of today’s Kenya, just as they were during British colonial rule.  This does not excuse the undemocratic behaviour of President Kibaki, nor that of his opponent Raila, neither of whom is necessarily a true voice of the masses.  Nor does it excuse the horrific violence that has unfolded.

Rather, it suggests that the undemocratic historical trajectory that Kenya has been moving along was launched at the inception of British colonial rule more than a century ago.

In retrospect, the wonder is not that Kenya is descending into ethnic violence.  The wonder is that it didn’t happen sooner.

Caroline Elkins is an associate professor of African studies at Harvard University and the author of Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya.  This article first appeared in Pambazuka News on 10 January 2008.

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