Kenya: How far can the violence go?

Capitalist globalisation behind the catastrophe

How far can the violence go?

Over one month after the elections, daily violence in Kenya is increasing. More than 300,000 Kenyans have become refugees, many of them victims of ethnic cleansing, and more than a thousand have been killed by the police and in ethnic clashes. What is behind the social bomb exploding in Kenya, once "East Africa’s greatest hope"? How far can the violence go? What can negotiators or troops from the UN or the African Union achieve?

Over the weekend, 2-3 February, violence in the Rift Valley, northwest of the capital Nairobi, killed 74 people. Most of them were killed in fighting between the Kisii and Kalenjin communities, but also some 20 people were killed by the police. In Western Kenya, Luos and Kalenjin people have killed and burned the houses of fleeing Kikuyus. Around Nairobi, Kikuyus in revenge have massacred mainly Luos. In the last week, two MPs from the opposition ODM (Orange Democratic Movement) were shot dead.

The violence has taken a predominantly ethnic character. This reflects the fact that the self-proclaimed president Kibaki of the Party of National Union (PNU), a Kikuyu, received almost all the Kikuyu votes while his opponent, Odinga (ODM), who is Luo was supported by the other main ethnic communities.

The violence mainly involves and affects the masses living in severe poverty. As one commentator, Pal Busharizi, wrote in a Ugandan paper, New Vision: "The violence erupted in the slums of Mathare and Kibera in Nairobi, Kisumu in western Kenya and parts of the coastal province. The common denominator among all these areas is that they are poor areas – even Nyanza province, home of Odinga’s Luo people, consistently comes in as one of Kenya’s poorest regions.

"The slums mentioned consist of heaving populations of humanity without access to water, power and basic social services – seas of poverty that have seen their fortunes dwindle rather than ride the momentum of the economic boom of the last five years".

At the other end of the scale, a Kikuyu golf player told a reporter that he mainly feared for his wealth: "’People were expecting to take over property,’ said Maina, who employs five people to look after his own home. ’Instead of saying why don’t we create more of that wealth, they want to grab it and distribute it. I was worried this could turn into a class war.’

"But the police have largely kept protesters penned in in the slums with tear-gas and live bullets, and politicians capitalized on long-held land grievances to channel the violence on ethnic, rather than economic, lines," (AP news agency, 3 February).


Mass protests and violence started immediately after Mwai Kibaki had been declared winner and sworn in for a second period as president. The fraud was crystal clear since half the government and many other Kibaki supporters, including the vice-president, had lost their seats in the simultaneously held elections for parliament. The ODM says Odinga won in six provinces and Kibaki in two.

Mwai Kibaki came to power five years earlier (December 2002) as the candidate for the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). His victory signalled the end of 24 years of dictatorship under Daniel arap Moi and of the KANU party that had ruled Kenya since independence in 1963. Kibaki promised a new era – an end to corruption, half a million new jobs, improved public services including free primary education etc. Kibaki was not viewed as representing the Kikuyu community, but rather as a reformer against the old regime. Even some supposedly on the left supported Kibaki, feeding the illusions of a real change. A stadium full of supporters greeted Kibaki’s victory.

The CWI, however, at the time warned that Kibaki would not be able to fulfil any of his promises on the basis of capitalism. Raila Odinga, today the challenger of Kibaki, in 2002, after defecting from arap Moi’s regime, was a key ally of Kibaki. Odinga and Kibaki spoke out in favour of continued privatisation and wanted closer links with the IMF and the World Bank. On the surface, the NARC could have seemed to be a shortcut, but it was a blind alley.

Kibaki became a star pupil of capitalist globalisation. In implementing its programme of privatisation and public sector austerity measures, Kenya last year even won the UN "Public Service reform award". This January, 4,000 workers at Telkom Kenya lost their jobs in the final "restructuring" of the company.

What did neo-liberalism achieve in Kenya?

Michael Holman, former Africa editor of the London Financial Times, wrote on 1 January: "In 1990 about 48 per cent of the population was living below the poverty line. Today, more than four decades after independence, nearly 55 per cent of Kenyans are subsisting on a couple of dollars a day.

"And for all the 6 per cent annual gross domestic product growth achieved in the past two years under Mr Kibaki, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening. To see the crisis only in terms of tribal allegiances and ethnic clashes is to miss a vital element in the Kenyan picture. The population has doubled in 25 years to 31million. Unemployment is growing, and the number without land is growing. For these people there is nothing to lose by taking to the streets, driven by frustration and fury that transcend their tribe".

Developments in Kenya are directly linked to capitalist globalisation and neo-liberalism. While the mass is without work, those working can earn only a few dollars a day. This is the other side of the coin of the huge bonuses of the share market billionaires in the global financial centres. Their only worry, following the violence in Kenya, is the risks for Africa investment funds.

Finance capitalism has consciously promoted a "get rich" philosophy amongst politicians in Europe and elsewhere as a way of disconnecting them from the pressure of workers and others missing out in society. In Africa, this approach has increased the already widespread corruption to astronomical levels. Unilever and other multinational companies in Kenya have had no problem with the wealth of politicians; on the contrary. In this sense, the explosion in Kenya has arisen from the continuing process of super-exploitation and globalisation.

Workers’ struggle below surface calm

A week before the elections, Kenya was described as "a haven of stability and prosperity in eastern Africa" by The Economist. This ultra capitalist magazine hoped that Kenya, despite weaknesses, would set an example for the rest of Africa with its democratic elections. Global financial capital, dominating the picture given in the media, has looked for investments everywhere. Last Autumn, a project called ’Invest in Kenya’, recommended investments in Kisumu, including "a farming venture and a privatized sugar plant". Following the election, Luo-dominated Kisumu has seen some of the worst violence, with Kikuyus fleeing for their lives.

Strong economic growth, that hardly touched the masses but closely affected the capitalists, gave an illusion of calm. But, as in many countries in Africa, economic growth was a factor behind an increase in workers’ struggles in 2007.

In Kenya, the mass discontent with Kibaki’s regime was seen in an increasing number of strikes and struggles. A year ago, in January 2007, 200 truck drivers and their union representatives were arrested when they organised a strike and blockade. They were demanding union recognition plus compensation to the family of a driver who died in a car crash with a military vehicle. At the same time, thousands of striking flower workers (flowers are a big export product of Kenya) were attacked by police using tear-gas. In September, 10,000 tea workers were on strike at Unilever to get an earlier agreed wage increase implemented. Among other strikes last year that of university lecturers stands out; they struck for higher salaries, despite the action being declared illegal. Union leaders were arrested and 50 lecturers sacked.

The present crisis

The present violence has forced 300,000 people to leave their homes and over a thousand have been killed. Many families have lost their income. "Vandalised schools are still closed, food prices are rocketing, and trade with neighbouring countries has stalled. Domestic media are threatened and censored", reported the Swedish daily, Dagens Nyheter. Rocketing prices are also blighting the lives of the millions of working and poor people in the landlocked countries and regions dependent on Kenya for trade – Uganda, south Sudan, East Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.

Multinational and Kenyan companies have made huge profits over the years, but in the present crisis they are making workers pay the price. The Kenyan Employers’ Federation says 500,000 jobs are immediately threatened. This forecast is based on a survey, but far from all companies questioned have responded yet. Tens of thousands of hotel and tourism workers have been sent home and told to come back in April or later. More than one million tourists came to Kenya last year, contributing one billion US dollars – 2 per cent of GDP. $1bn is also equivalent of the estimated loss in the Kenyan economy in January. Instead of 26 charter flights a week to Mombasa, now only two are arriving, with only 1,900 tourists in January instead of 24,000 in December.

Kenya Airways and Easy Coach Bus Company have already made redundancies. In Naivasha, dominated by the flower industry, 100,000 workers could lose their income. 10,000 teachers are out of work, according to the Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut).

Most affected, however, is the informal sector, with street vendors having no customers when the tourists do not arrive any longer. According to news agencies, this sector alone has seen "more than half a million job losses so far". The situation is so bad that a market place in Kisumu is now nicknamed "Darfur". Farmers are also hard hit by destroyed harvests and lack of transport.

With no break in this trend, there will be a continual, worsening social crisis. The unemployed will demand jobs. Last week, at the James Finlay’s tea company in Kericho, a mass of people stormed the factory and demanded jobs. The unions have so far not acted in any independent way, rather relying on the employers to promise that jobs will be restored "after the crisis".


How far can the crisis go? Some commentators warn of "irrevocable economic doom", others of a Rwanda-type escalation of ethnic violence.

Imperialism is intervening with maximum strength to avoid Kenya becoming another failed state. After all, it is the fourth biggest economy in Sub-Saharan Africa (after South Africa, Nigeria and Angola); it is the home of the United Nation’s Africa headquarters; and, more importantly, it is a key ally for US imperialism in its "war against terror", especially in Somalia.

While US imperialism had no problem with other obvious election frauds in 2006-2007 – in Congo, Nigeria and Cameroon – it had to retreat quickly from endorsing Kibaki as the president. Now, imperialism, in the name of the African Union and the UN, have sent Kofi Annan, ex-Secretary-General of the UN, alongside Graca Michel, the wife of Nelson Mandela, and other celebrities for negotiations. The South African ANC leader and capitalist, Cyril Ramaphosa, was forced to leave the team when his presence was questioned by Kibaki.

This top team forced the rivals, Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, to sign a document accepting the need for protection, food and shelter for the refugees. Kenyan and international capitalists are also pushing hard for some kind of peace deal.

Kibaki and Odinga are not fighting for any principles or offering anything to the masses. Their seemingly irreconcilable confrontation is based on a struggle over control of the state and all its resources. Odinga’s populism in the elections gave him extra support, but his actual policies do not fundamentally differ from Kibaki. That is also proved by his background in both arap Moi’s and Kibaki’s governments.

The absence of any independent challenge to the rotten elite on the part of the working class and poor of Kenya allowed Odinga to take on the role of opposing Kibaki’s corruption. Odinga represents a rival group of exploiters to ones around Kibaki, but he used populist anti-corruption slogans to mobilise support. However the character of Odinga’s challenge meant that the election had an ethnic, as well as anti-elite, character. A result of this, and the silence of the trade unions, was that much of the first phase of violence against the official election outcome was, tragically, directed against the Kikuyu as a whole, not the Kikuyu elite dominating the state machine. Many were also killed by severe police repression against the protests. With the escalation since, however, the official rivals are not in control of the violence.

Any short-term perspectives have to be conditional. The negotiations could result in some kind of peace deal, with the two sharing power in a national coalition government. Odinga’s elite supporters are striving for some kind of power-sharing arrangement, but have to keep attacking the fraud in order not to look as if they are losing. Annan has warned the ODM, "there will be no mass protests".

With a deal, there would have to be several face-saving manoeuvres from both sides and some kind of continued UN/AU supervision. One move in this direction could be the lifting of the ban on live television, decided by Kibaki. Kofi Annan has declared that a deal must be signed within fifteen days, although a firm agreement would take "at least a year". As has been seen in similar situations, for example in Congo, such a process could restore some calm, but not solve the power struggle. This is also not to mention the lack of any solution for the masses; both sides of the conflict will force them to the costs of the crisis.

There is also the risk of the violence increasing, with more massive ethnic cleansing. Violence has actually increased during the negotiations. While the leaders can instigate action by the masses, they lack the roots in any community to fully control what happens on the ground. So far, clubs and machetes have been the weapons used. The use of automatic guns could lead to a full-scale civil war. Even without going so far, a de facto split between regions and areas dominated by different ethnic groups is already on its way.

Another option is if Kibaki decides to use the army, so far not involved in the conflict. A military intervention, favoured by Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, could possibly temporarily stop the chaos. It would not, however, restore the tourism industry and the economic growth of recent years. The army itself is also ethnically divided, with most officers being Kikuyu while many troops are from other groups closer to Odinga.

Odinga himself has demanded AU troops for Kenya. Some commentators have also called for UN troops. But pleading for foreign troops is not a way to stop the violence. This is clearly seen in Congo Kinshasa, where the UN has its biggest force anywhere globally. This did not prevent the war in Kivu and the extreme violence from the Congolese army itself. If fighting is already going on, African Union troops will have no effect at all, as has been demonstrated in Sudan and Somalia.

What about economic sanctions? European Union states put pressure on the rivals by threatening to cut aid. Sweden has stopped payments of its aid – €35 million last year with plans for an increase this year. All new projects have been cancelled. At least fourteen other EU states are reviewing their aid. But whatever these governments claim, their sanctions will not affect the policies of the regime. Kenyan politicians and capitalists will do everything to off-load the costs onto the workers and poor people, at the same time as using influence with imperialist powers to derail some of the protests.

Need for a Socialist solution

Socialists stand for a common struggle of workers, farmers and poor people of all ethnic groups in Kenya against the common misery caused by capitalism and imperialism and the present political parties. Global capitalism carries much responsibility for the crisis in Kenya. Economic growth of 6 per cent has given virtually nothing to the masses, on the contrary, it has worsened the situation.

Some liberal capitalists have advocated a softening of the exploitation, such as the economist Jeffrey Sachs who has now been converted from neo-liberalism into heading the UN’s Millennium Project, with the target of reducing poverty. In his book, "The End of Poverty", Sachs gives eight villages in Sauri, Kenya, as an example of progress. These villages offer free school meals, its health clinics have reopened etc. Disregarding the minimal size of this solution, it will always be undermined by processes outside the control its inhabitants. All attempts to change the situation within the framework of capitalism will utterly fail, as has been proven by all the "reform" projects in Africa and elsewhere over the last 50 years.

Other commentators draw their own conclusions. China’s People’s Daily commented, "western-style democracy simply isn’t suited to African conditions, but rather carries with it the roots of disaster". This view says elections were wrong, since they caused the troubles. It is a recommendation to rulers to avoid any involvement of the masses and instead follow the lead given by China’s model of super exploitation of workers and the environment, including in Africa.

Socialists in Kenya must call for independent organisations of workers, farmers, youth, women, tenants etc that fight to guarantee the rights of all ethnic groups. The struggle for democratic rights is not simply to replace one elite gang with another, but has to be linked with fighting for the social liberation of all.

A new force must build on the experience of the class struggle in Africa and internationally and put forward a clear fighting alternative. It should be democratic, with no privileges for elected leaders. Its programme should call for the massive profits of the last decade to be used to pay for education, jobs, wage increases, water access and so on – all the demands of the masses. All public debts should be cancelled and all multinational companies, banks and other major industries nationalised under democratic workers’ control.

Workers in Kenya should appeal for workers and youth in neighbouring countries and globally to support such a struggle. The experience of the illusions in Kibaki and his period in power shows that there is no middle road – the choice is barbarism or socialism.

Colonialism and ethnic divisions

The present crisis is rooted in the British colonial rule that started in the 1880s. By the 1930s, Kenya’s fertile land and cheap labour had attracted 30,000 white settlers, in numbers second only to South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). This took place at the cost of the ordinary people in Kenya, with millions being displaced.

Up to the 1940s, all protests by Africans were still illegal. Nationalist leaders of the Kikuyu Central Association (the KCA), formed in the 1920s, were imprisoned. The Kikuyu played a leading role because of being the biggest ethnic group, based around Nairobi, and also suffering the most from expropriation by the colonial power. The working class was still small in number, but a general strike in 1950 shocked Kenya. Its leaders were jailed.

In 1952, with no leadership, a Kikuyu-based guerrilla uprising of the ’Mau Mau’ started. The Mau Mau were demonised for their brutal killings, in total of 1,800 African "loyalists" and around 100 whites. The British rulers used 50,000 soldiers and a 4-year long state of emergency to crush the Mau Mau. Officially 11,000 were killed, but the number could have been over a hundred thousand. In 1956, tens of thousands were still in prisons resembling the infamous Abu Ghraib.

But the very fact that British imperialism was forced to engage in a bloody war against the majority of the population led to the end of formal colonial rule and the granting of "flag independence" but not freedom from imperialism’s grip. After years of negotiations, Kenya became independent in 1963. It first leader was Jomo Kenyatta, known in Britain as a former Mau Mau leader and was a Kikuyu.

The new regime was "another edition of the autocratic colonial regime", wrote historian Basil Davidson in his "Africa, a modern history". Kenyatta’s party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), left the economic privileges of the "loyalists" and the white farmers untouched. Whites who left Kenya were compensated, but former prison camp inmates received nothing.

KANU developed into a bureaucracy of politicians-cum-businessmen, while officially proclaiming "African socialism". The trade unions were taken into KANU control and outspoken oppositional politicians were murdered. This continued after Kenyatta died in 1978 and arap Moi took over.

With slow economic development and growing inequality, discontent with KANU started to grow. When there is not a real workers’ political alternative, populist leaders portraying themselves as "new" can get support. Memories of old divisions and dislocations were used to channel discontent and frustration along ethnic lines. An increasing mass of people lacked land and resources, and old issues reappeared.

Kenya has many ethnic groups (Kikuyu 23%, Luhya 14%, Luo 13%, Kalenjin 11%, Kamba 10%, Kisii 6%, Meru 5% and many smaller groups). The 1990s saw two major explosions of ethnically focused violence. In 1992, 1,500 were killed in the Rift Valley and in 1997, 200 in the coastal city of Mombasa.

The existence of different ethnic groups does not in itself mean ethnic violence. As David Anderson, professor of African Studies at Oxford University, explained in a BBC debate: "Kenyans do not hate one another. But there are some very serious economic inequalities that make it surprisingly easy for unscrupulous people to exploit them to violent ends. We have seen a lot of violence in the last few weeks which has had very little to do with the poll, but a lot to do with deeply rooted economic grievances".

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February 2008