The wave of violence that engulfed Kenya after the presidential election has been widely described as tribal or ethnic in nature. But analysts in the east African country point to basic economics as the true cause of the unrest.
Widespread violence and a humanitarian crisis were triggered by the 30 December announcement that incumbent Mwai Kibaki had won a hotly contested presidential poll amid opposition claims of rigging and international observers’ reports of serious irregularities in the vote-tallying process.
“In the urban areas, there was a lot of senseless burning and looting, which was people taking out their economic grievances during a leadership vacuum. They just let loose and attacked any targets, burning their neighbours’ houses, regardless of whether they are PNU [Party of National Unity, Kibaki’s party] or ODM [Orange Democratic Movement, the opposition],” Macharia Gaitho, a political columnist, told IRIN.
While specific ethnic groups - there are more than 40 in Kenya - were targeted during the violence, the tensions that led to such clashes were not the result of ethnicity per se, but, according an editorial in the Sunday Nation newspaper, an almost inevitable consequence of the country’s economic system: “Kenya practises a brutal, inhuman brand of capitalism that encourages a fierce competition for survival, wealth and power. Those who can’t compete successfully are allowed to live like animals in slums.”
In Nairobi, more than 60 percent of the population live in slums, some of which lie a stone’s throw away from the city’s most luxurious houses.
According to a report (Pulling Apart: Facts and Figures on Inequality in Kenya) by the Nairobi-based Society for International Development (SID), Kenya is the 10th most unequal country in the world in terms of wealth disparities. Of Africa’s 54 states, it is the fifth most unequal.
The 2004 report, using UN Development Programme figures, states that Kenya’s richest earn 56 times more than its poorest: the top 10 percent of the population controls 42 percent of the country’s wealth, while the bottom 10 percent own 0.76 percent.
Inequality pervades every aspect of Kenyans’ lives, according to the report, citing enormous disparities - both in the capital and at national level - in almost every sphere of life: income; access to education, water and health; life expectancy; and prevalence of HIV/AIDS.
A person born in the western Nyanza Province, the bedrock of ODM support, can expect to die 16 years younger than a fellow citizen in Central Province, Kibaki’s home turf. Child immunisation rates in Nyanza are less than half those in Central.
Another impoverished region is North Eastern Province. While almost every child in Central attends primary school, only one in three does in North Eastern. More than nine out of every 10 women in North Eastern have no education at all. In Central, the proportion is less than 3 percent. In these two provinces, there is one doctor for 120,000 and 20,000 respectively.
Critics of Kibaki, who came to power in 2002, accuse his government of failing to address this inequality and of focusing instead on the economic growth seen over the past five years. Before he came to power on a wave of euphoria and hope after 24 years of rule under the autocratic Daniel arap Moi, Kenya’s growth stood at minus 1.6 percent. In 2007, it reached 5.5 percent and before the elections was predicted to hit 7 percent in 2008.
This growth has been concentrated in the service sector, with banks, tourism and communications companies making big profits. Prices of shares and property have also soared.
But rather than trickling down to the worst off, this boom appears to have been very selective in its beneficiaries while the poor have seen the purchasing power of their shilling shrink.
Before Kibaki came to power, “we used to buy sugar for 45 shillings”, Agnes Naliaka, a long-term resident of Nairobi’s Kawangware slum, told IRIN. “Now it’s 65 shillings. A kilo of cooking fat was 50 shillings. Now it’s over 100 shillings,” she said, adding that rents in the slum had doubled over the past five years.
For David Ndii, executive director of the Kenya Leadership Institute, “the Kibaki government has been very cavalier about the treatment of the poor. Hawkers’ stalls were demolished and they were not given any alternatives. Economic policies have not been pro-poor. This growth has been biased in favour of profits as opposed to translated into jobs.”
When a poor economy starts to grow very fast like Kenya did, levels of inequality rise,” MJ Gitau, a SID programme officer and contributor to the inequality report, told IRIN.
“You need assets and property rights to participate in economic production and exchange. Only a few have assets, are educated, able to save and invest, to take advantage of the high growth rates of the last few years. Those who have, get more. Those who do not, lose the little they have,” Gitau explained.
Ethnicity came into play during the election violence because of the widespread perception that those who fared best under Kibaki were his own Kikuyu group, the country’s largest, which dominated politics and the economy both under his administration and that of founding president Jomo Kenyatta.
However, Kibaki’s party says poverty levels have fallen from 56 to 46 percent, lifting some two million people out of abject poverty, and that more than 1.8 million jobs were created during his first five-year term.
“Our country is shining once again and I have ever bigger plans for the development of the country during my second term. We are changing people’s lives for the better,” Kibaki declared two weeks before polling day.
Photo: Allan Gichigi/IRIN
|People queuing up in their hundreds to vote in the 2007 general elections in Kenya|
That is not how many Kenyans see it.
“People reacted like they did because they were hoping for change [after the 2002 election]. Kibaki came and promised many things which he didn’t do,” said Agnes of Kawangware slum.
Kenya’s youth in particular, who make up a majority of the population - and of those who rioted - feel the most let down. Improved education gave them hope of a better life than their parents’, hope that was dashed, according to Kwamchetsi Makokha of Nairobi-based communications consultancy Form and Content.
“Under colonialism, it was almost a slave labour system which grew up in the early days of the coffee estates. After independence [in 1963], the white master was simply replaced by the black master. A lot of young people who got a bit of education could not see themselves working for pittances as farm labourers. They started drifting to the cities where the opportunities are not enough to accommodate all of them. You have this massive influx of people who just can’t find work,” he told IRIN.
Nor can they find a political voice, he added. “The common Kenyan citizen who does not have money or property does not have a say in how Kenya is organised. They never have. It’s always been about what car you drive, where you live, and then you have more rights than other people.”
Another ingredient in this combustible mix is corruption, which Kibaki pledged to eradicate but which under his rule, according to analyst and author Gerard Prunier, “reached new heights, matching some of the excesses of the Moi years”.
Observers hope that the explosion of anger and violence Kenya has witnessed over the past week will shake the country’s political leaders into resolving not only the row over who won the election and how power should be shared but also the country’s deep inequalities.
“If anything positive is to come out of this electoral stalemate and the criminal destruction that has visited it, one hopes it will have served as a wake-up call to all Kenyans that the yawning gap between the middle class and the poor is a powder keg just waiting to explode with the most grave consequence,” warned columnist Washington Akumu in the Nation.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions