Kenya’s Election 2013: an eye on the Rift Valley

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Kenyan ElectionsControversy surrounding the Kenyan elections of late 2007 resulted in an outbreak of civil conflict that undermined political order and national identity. In the run up to the next elections, scheduled for March 2013, Democracy in Africa will be running a series of articles on potential flashpoints. In our first piece in this mini-series, Gabrielle Lynch, Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Warwick and author of ‘I say to you: Ethnic politics and the Kalenjin in Kenya’, shines a light on the Rift Valley, which witnessed some of the most violent clashes between members of the Kalenjin and Kikuyu communities in 2008, and asks the key question on everyone’s lips: what the prospects for peaceful polls?

The Rift Valley in western Kenya is one of the country’s most cosmopolitan areas and home to members of all of Kenya’s ethnic groups including Kalenjin, Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo, Maasai, Samburu, and Turkana. It is also the country’s agricultural heartland, has enjoyed a disproportionate number of seats in the country’s legislative assembly, and is currently witnessing high levels of campaign activity in the run up to the 2013 election. In previous multi-party elections, the area has also witnessed large-scale violence, which to a certain extent, has pitted members of the Kalenjin community – who self-identify as “locals” of the area – against Kikuyu neighbours, who are often cast as “outsiders”. The area was thus the centre of “ethnic clashes” in the early 1990s and witnessed lower levels of violence in 1997 and 2002. During the post-election violence of 2007/8, 744 people (from different ethnic groups) out of 1,133 recorded casualties died in the Rift Valley, while government statistics suggest that almost 700,000 people were displaced during the post-election violence – rather than the 350,000 sometimes quoted – with over 400,000 displaced in the Rift Valley.

Given this context, and as Kenya moves towards an election in March 2013, there are a number of reasons why it is important to keep an eye on the Rift Valley.


The most prominent Kalenjin politician in the area is William Ruto, MP for Eldoret North, leader of the new United Republican Party (URP), and one of two confirmed suspects in Case 1 at the International Criminal Court (ICC) where Ruto stands accused of being an indirect co-perpetrator of crimes against humanity during the post-election violence of 2007/8.

Ruto does not control the Rift Valley vote however, and despite efforts to re-introduce the idea of a KAMATUSA (Kalenjin, Maasai, Turkana and Samburu) alliance and endorsement of Ruto as the KAMATUSA presidential candidate at a meeting in Eldoret in April 2012, Ruto enjoys limited support among Maasai, Turkana, and Samburu communities. This is reflected in the absence of many prominent politicians – such as William ole Ntimama and the late George Saitoti – from the “KAMATUSA meeting” and their public denouncement of the meeting’s resolutions.

Ruto also does not enjoy 100 per cent support within his own Kalenjin community. First, he has alienated many of the older, wealthier, and more established Kalenjin politicians – including former President Moi and a number of sitting MPs, most notably, Henry Kosgey, Sally Kosgei, and Franklin Bett – who have reacted against his efforts to become the leader of “the” Kalenjin community.

Second, many Kalenjin – particularly among the professional middle-class – say that Ruto should go to the ICC where he will surely be found innocent if there is no evidence against him. Unfortunately, many of these individuals do not feel free to criticise Ruto in public forums. In large part, this is due to Ruto’s success in building upon a sense of marginalisation and persecution that was of critical importance in the 2007 election (and, if anything, has grown since), and in portraying Case 1 at the ICC as a charge against the entire community on the grounds that the prosecution talks of a Kalenjin network that involved politicians, elders, businessmen, and religious leaders, and Kalenjin warriors. In turn, to speak out against Ruto is to open oneself to the criticism that you are a traitor to the entire community.

Finally, many Kalenjin are suspicious of Ruto’s new alliance with Uhuru Kenyatta – currently the most prominent Kikuyu politician in the country – which they see as a personal decision motivated by the fact that they both face charges at the ICC. Moreover, some members of the community are unwilling to support a Kikuyu candidate. This can be for a variety of reasons but includes a sense that Kikuyu “outsiders” should leave the area or, at least, that Kalenjin should be compensated for lost lands and given preferential treatment in the new counties established under the 2010 constitution and which divide the former Rift Valley Province into 14 counties. As a result, a significant number of Kalenjin who reject Ruto’s leadership do not do so for particularly progressive reasons.

At present, Ruto is standing in 2013 as a presidential candidate on a URP ticket. However, there have been a string of rumours and intimations by his close allies that the MP will form a pre or post-election deal with Uhuru – who is the presidential candidate for The National Alliance (TNA) – which might see Ruto standing as Uhuru’s running mate. Things are still uncertain however, and at Uhuru’s launch of the TNA in May 2012, it was Eugene Wamalwa (a Luhya politician from western Kenya) who was projected as Uhuru’s most likely number two.

One important factor blocking a co-candidacy of Uhuru and Ruto is the question of whether Ruto will be able to persuade Kalenjin to support a Kikuyu presidential candidate or whether they will opt to vote for an alternative candidate, such as Musalia Mudavadi or Raila Odinga. This leaves a high level of political uncertainty as to whether Ruto will stand as a separate presidential candidate, in which case he is likely to be able to mobilise a majority of the Kalenjin vote but will be unable to secure the top seat, or whether he will come behind Uhuru in a pre-election agreement, in which case the Kalenjin vote might become more clearly divided. Another option in the event of a presidential run-off between Uhuru and Raila is for a mid-election agreement when the promise of an appropriate position would likely be required in recognition of such support.

Inter-communal relations

To date, the most important axis in the area has been Kalenjin-Kikuyu relations. At the moment, things seem to be relatively calm between the two communities due, in large part, to Ruto and Uhuru’s similar fate at the ICC. However, this is a “negative peace” based on current political alliances rather than a result of a substantive change in local relations and could therefore change quite rapidly if, for example, Ruto and Uhuru were to fall out at some point in the future, which seems extremely likely.

One thing that complicates Kalenjin/Kikuyu relations in the Rift Valley is the issue of internally displaced persons (IDPs), which is potentially explosive. The IDP issue is complicated, but one important point is that there is a general sense among many Kikuyu that the government has done a poor job of dealing with Kikuyu IDPs, but there is also a common sense among many non-Kikuyu in the area that most of the government’s efforts have focused on Kikuyu victims and ignored non-Kikuyu IDPs, which could potentially feed into a more general anti-Kikuyu narrative (similar to that witnessed in 2007) at some point in the future.

One area of concern is a burgeoning sense of anti-Luoism that is reminiscent of the anti-Kikuyuism that grew between 2005 and 2007, and is reflected in a hardening of ethnic stereotypes and questions about what would happen if Raila wins the next election. Regarding the latter, a common issue raised is the fact that many Luo in Kibera have refused to pay rent to Kikuyu landlords since the post-election violence – the implication being that this could be a warning of things to come.

It is not exactly clear how this anti-Luoism is being propagated as people generally agree that politicians at public rallies and vernacular radio stations are more careful given a crackdown on hate speech and political incitement, but it seems to be spreading through fairly subtle and insidious means as people interpret and debate what at first sight appears to be relatively banal opinion pieces in the daily newspapers, blogs, tweets, facebook messages, radio debates, political campaign speeches, and so forth. Nevertheless, it does seem to be part of a political strategy, or at least supports Ruto and Uhuru’s political ambitions. In short, both men seem to be acutely aware of the difficulties involved in persuading Kalenjin and Kikuyu to be in the same political bed, which means that any negative images of Raila and Luo are likely to help encourage Kalenjin to vote for Uhuru over Raila if the choice comes down to an either/or decision.

The rise of anti-Luo feeling appears to be most prominent among Kikuyu and Kalenjin, and this presents real reason for concern as it raises the possibility of anti-Luo violence in some of Nairobi’s slums, but also certain estates in Nakuru and Eldoret towns, the flower farms around Naivasha, the tea estates in Kericho and Nandi, as well as along the Luo Nyanza/Rift Valley border areas especially if it is clear beforehand that a run-off is going to be close or if the results are contested afterwards – contingent factors that currently seem quite likely.

This spectre is more significant when one remembers rumours about people purchasing guns and stockpiling traditional weapons, which followed the post-election violence of 2008. Since, while people at the local level are no longer talking about “armament”, there doesn’t seem to have been any “disarmament” either, which may mean that some people, while hoping for the best, are prepared for the worst. This issue was captured in a recent study by the Government of Kenya and Geneva-based Small Arms Survey on the Availability of Small Arms and Perceptions of Security in Kenya, which shows how the Rift Valley has witnessed a significant increase in gun possession since 2003 and which the report directly links to feelings of insecurity during election periods and high crime rates.

New county governments

People have high expectations of the new devolved system of governance, but there is a potential for localised instances of violence around county government elections in some areas. One possible area of concern in the Rift Valley is Nakuru where members of the Kikuyu and Kalenjin community are trying to negotiate how to share the governor and deputy governor seats. Another area, which sits outside of the Rift Valley, but which is often associated with it, is Bungoma County in Western Kenya where there is a history of election-related violence between Sabaot (a sub-group of the larger Kalenjin who are concentrated on and around the slopes of Mt Elgon), and Bukusu (a sub-group of the larger Luhya community who are the local majority). The danger as one Sabaot politician put it to me last year is that: if the Bukusu do not share the county government seats with the Sabaot then “there will be fighting”.

Party “zones” and possibility for violence against community “traitors”

There has historically been pressure on people to vote in line with “their” ethnic community in Kenya’s multi-party elections – be it the Kenya African National Union (KANU) in the 1990s or the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) in 2007 for Kalenjin residents of the Rift Valley – with violence sometimes meted out against those who support the “wrong party”. This was evident during the post-election violence when a number of Kalenjin who campaigned for the Party of National Unity (PNU) were taxed, beaten, raped, and displaced with some facing threats on their life up to date. Unfortunately, the possibility of this kind of violence remains alive.


Violence is not inevitable and there have been significant reforms since the post-election crisis of 2007/8 – most notably the new constitution and judicial reforms – however, there are a number of potential trigger points and hot spots in the Rift Valley and surrounding areas, which, given most people’s shock at the scale, scope and speed of violence in 2007/8, and the area’s history, are clearly worth paying attention to.

Finally, it is not just the Rift Valley that people should be paying attention to. On the contrary there are a number of other areas and issues that demand attention that fall beyond my current focus. This includes Lamu and Mombasa counties, which have their own inter-ethnic tensions and issues, and party primaries, polling, and counting, which deserve close scrutiny across the country.

Click here, to buy Gabrielle’s book, I say to you: Ethnic politics and the Kalenjin in Kenya (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011)

Click here, for research by Gabrielle Lynch

2 thoughts on “Kenya’s Election 2013: an eye on the Rift Valley

  1. The kalenjins are kenyan and they should be left to enjoy their democratic rights to vote for any other kenyan whom they feel it’s the right choice. why should there be ethinical political kings? it’s a shame for some elites to take advantage and devide the community from other kenyans.

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