When I was leaving Kenya for almost a year ago, the passport officer at Jomo Kenyatta airport looked in my passport and discovered that I had been in Kenya for a long time. She looked at me and asked what I had done in Kenya so long. I replied spontaneously – I have among others been married. The Checker asked prompt, “Which tribe did she belong?”
The youngest country in Africa, South Sudan, is in deep crisis precisely because of tribal conflicts. It is impossible to see any solution to the conflict that goes on fairly unchecked in many parts of the young country. South Sudan has greedy neighbors such as Sudan and Uganda. That does not make the situation any better. That great powers like the U.S. and China are also involved in connection with the oil industry makes the situation even more difficult. Norway is involved because we were heavily involved as advisors when the country gained its independence.
Kenya has 42 different tribes by several different languages. The neighbouring Tanzania do have over 200 different tribes. In Rwanda and Burundi will only be three (hutsi, tutsi and twa), but it is partly a product of Belgian imperialistic policy. The reasons for this diversity of tribes are migrations that took place centuries ago from the north and west. One of the recent migrations of our knowledge is the maasai invasion in Kenya and Tanzania in 1700s and the 1800s. The notion that this culture is particularly old in Kenya is also wrong.
From the west came the Bantu peoples. They settled in central parts of Kenya and at the coast. Kiswahili is basically a Bantu language. (Language experts here in Kenya called language Kiswahili – even if the prefix ki- in itself does mean language. Kenyans believe that Swahili is the name of ethnic group on the coast that have Kiswahili as their mother tongue). The most famous Bantus are Kamba, Kikuyu, Kisii, Luhya, Swahili and Mijikenda. Kiswahili is a collection of languages that have picked up words and grammar from Bantu, Arabic, Hindi, Portuguese and English. Today is the official language throughout Kenya, Tanzania, and parts of Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda.
From north came Cushitic-speaking people. There are Somalis, rendils and ormas – the last tribe have many members in Ethiopia. Home to many Somalis are areas bordering Somalia, but also today in Nairobi and Mombasa. Many are refugees because of the war in Somalia.
From the north – from the Nile environments came nilots which today constitutes Kalenjin tribes (who is a tribal group with many languages), Luo at Lake Victoria, Maasai and Samburu – perhaps the best known.
I know little about the tribe conditions before imperialism, but we know it was even wars between them. Maasai had a very warlike reputation, and took possession of the lands in southern Kenya (and northern Tanzania) before the colonists arrived. Nandi (kalenjins) became famous because they were trying to stop the railway through their territory in Mau Mountains.
One may well ask – was colonialism that made tribal contradictions of a threat? The boundaries were drawn fairly arbitrarily by the European powers between the African states regardless of the ethnic compositions of the 1880s. It was pure imperialism determined where the boundaries went. Typical is the story of how the English as a gesture to the German neighbors let them get Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro, within their area of interest, German East Africa, Tanganyika. Thus, for example the Maasais were divided. The British spent a lot of divide and conquer methods in their colonial system, as well could bring the tribes on the verge of another. Among other things, the British managed quite effectively pacify the Maasais.
My impression is that it did not, quite the contrary. The struggle against colonization in East Africa seemed fairly cohesive. In Kenya were Kikuyu and the Luo in the lead. On the other hand, there were those who stood on Britain’s side (which actually came to be the leaders in the independent Kenya). Those who fought in Maumau War were pushed aside. Jomo Kenyatta was no maumau leader as stated in some books. I think the answer must be that imperialism only to a lesser extent, is the cause of tribal antagonisms in Kenya.
It is no more than a couple of days ago I saw the following headline in a newspaper: “If devolution fails, 2008 chaos would look like a school party” (that killed about 1,300 people at that time). So many look serious at the contrasts between tribes today.
The political background for this situation is based on Uhuru – Liberation. (The current president called Uhuru because he was born in 1961 – the period before independence in 1963). When his father, Jomo Kenyatta, was president, he was in every way a unifying person. He was a Kikuyu, the largest tribe in Kenya with approx. 24% of the population. He worked closely with people from other tribes. I have previously mentioned Tom Mboya (who was assassinated in 1969) and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga socialist who was vice president until he withdrew from the government. Both were from Luo tribe and was eventually opposed by the Kenyatta government. Thus came the Luo in strong opposition to Kikuyu – which eventually took most of the important offices in the country. After this, there have been significant opposition between these two major tribes.
There was no better under the next president, Daniel arap Moi, who simply were not Kikuyu, but Kalenjin. He was vice president when Mzee Kenyatta died in 1978, and spent substantial resources to stay in power. Under Mwalimu (teacher) Moi Kenya become a dictatorship and one-party state – the opposition was held down by a stronger Secret Service. It was the Kikuyu who opposed him most. Moi received a lot of opposition International, and the events surrounding Koigi wa Wambere (Kenyan with Norwegian citizenship) made Norway broke diplomatic relations with the Moi regime. Yet there are many who look at the Moi regime as good, since he built the school system and gave more opportunity for education. When Moi finally threw in the towel in 2002 (when his candidate Uhuru Kenyatta, lost to Rainbow Coalition), was the Kikuyu who came to power through president Kibakis government. In the book “It’s our turn to eat”, the author Michaela Worse describes how corruption increased unimagined dimensions. Raila Odinga , who is Luo , tried to cooperate with President Kibaki in the rainbow coalition, but was sabotaged.
At the presidential election in 2007 Raila challenged President Kibaki, the election was after Christmas that year. I believe that Kibaki did coups in this election. Before the election result was available – (ie it was very unclear what the election result was) very early in the morning Kibaki was again sworn in as president. It sparked a resentment and unrest in many parts of the country, in Nyanza (where Kisumu is the largest city), Rift Valley, Nairobi and Mombasa. The most serious events happened in the Rift valley, where the Kikuyu were literally chased. It was in a church filled with kikuyu refugees was set on fire and everyone died. The name of the place was Burnt Forrest. The unrest lasted several months, and the parties stood on their towering. Not before former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan of Ghana became the mediator, the parties went to the negotiating table. Kibaki continued as president, Raila Odinga became prime minister. The assumption was that the two would work together, and it happened until 2013 when the next election would be.
In the meantime, the country has got a new constitution that was adopted by referendum in 2010. It is the one that applies today, but is under constant attack from many quarters – not least from politicians.
Politicians declared before the 2013 election that tribalism was dead; the new spirit of cooperation should be in the centre. In reality the Kikuyus have been changing strategy. The strategy should be a partnership between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes: Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto should be presidential / deputy presidential candidate – popularly called Uhuruto. The strange thing was that this was a coalition of the two main rivals in the Rift valley conflict in 2008. Another factor was that both were charged with crimes against humanity by the ICC tribunal in The Hague. As main opponent Raila Odinga challenged again with the CORD coalition of Luos, Kambas and Luhyas in the lead. In other words – the opposition was still based on tribes; there were no significant political differences of ideological nature.
This time in the March 2013 an independent body, IECB, governed elections but in spite of, there was again confusion relating to the election results, where Kenyatta won with 800,000 votes, according to IECB. CORD Coalition complained to the Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court approved the election results. Raila Odinga said he would approve the decision. No particular turmoil occurred.
Thus continues tribalism in this country to live. Beyond the countryside can one ever read about events that flushed tribal conflicts. Previously described conditions in the Tana valley and Garissa war between orma and pokomo tribes. Recently there was unrest in Nyanzaprovinsen. Two tribes fighting over a territory ? 6 killed. In Turkana there are many small tribes, and several of them are in constant conflict with each other. Also, it is considerably banditry in the edges of the country. Just last day it was reported that six people killed in a conflict where pokot robbers were accused of having robbed cattle from samburus . This is an area that is suddenly relevant today – it’s made oil discoveries. In parts of Kenya you can?t travel without armed escort. A Norwegian reporting team told from South Sudan that they met a group who had crossed the Kenyan border and stolen camels, and now they did not quite know what they were going with them. Large police forces sent to Turkana to control, without very much effect. Many people in Turkana are not aware of living in a country called Kenya.
Many people feel they belong to a tribe that important to them, social, familial, but also culturally. Some of the tribes are very conservative, is unwilling to receive new impulses. This applies particularly to nomadic tribes. The Maasais are surely a good example. Their colorful costumes are known from many tourist posters. They are proud of their culture – and keeping it the best they can. Very few Maasais have become involved in politics. Relatively few Maasais have much education. But it is also clear that, therefore, nothing much is coming from the government to the Maasais. In Kaijado – a county where Maasais live, there are no paved roads, few or no doctoring, few schools etc. It is also clear that the Maasais many places have become dependent on tourism. When we travelled in Maasai area a while back, an old Maasai hitchhiker asked us about what happened in Kenya.
What opportunities do people keep up to date? Amazingly many have mobile, and it is used frequently. It‘s cheap to call. You also send money with mobile. But electricity is not everywhere. Radio and TV can only play a limited role.
Still, particularly in the cities it happens that many marriages are across tribe borders. Many now call himself/herself a Kenyan instead of Kikuyu and Luo. Fatma calls herself a Kenyan. Right where we live there are a multitude of people from different tribes: the Luo, Kisii, Kikuyu, Somali.
Often you will hear that Luos are so and so, Kikuyus are so and so. It is of course not the case, but the trend is still the Kikuyu through their economic activities trying to gain control over large parts of Kenya. It is not unknown that the people of Mombasa have a poor relationship with Kikuyu and their business. People on the coast are at wary of people from inland that will govern them. There are separatist movements in Mombasa area. Luo ‘s strength in intellectual activities, such as doctors, professors , etc. Many of these have been pushed out to seek jobs abroad.
I think if one should come to the end of tribalism, the policy must be built on something other than the tribe. I read in the Standard a few weeks ago where an MP told about the Nordic model of parties based on ideologies. Ideological parties are not here in Kenya.
Many people see what is happening in neighbouring Tanzania where no tribe dominates politics because no tribe is large enough. This development has been more peaceful than in all neighbouring countries. They are not so keen to work with the greedy Kenyans.
There is great danger that tribalism is going to live long here in this country, unfortunately ….