Culture | Whose turn is it to “eat”?

Inequality and crimes against humanity in Kenyan politics

In November of last year I took a trip to Mfangano Island – a tiny and remote island located in the very southwest corner of Kenya on Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest inland body of water. Upon arriving, I hailed a piki-piki – or motorcycle taxi – and went on what I thought would be a tranquil sojourn around this tropical, insular paradise. I quickly realized, however, that Mfangano was completely devoid of what the Western world would call “infrastructure.”

I asked my driver why the roads were so bad, and his answer was essentially the answer to all of Kenya’s most intractable problems: “The roads are bad because the president is not a Luo, he’s a Kikuyu.” As the logic proceeds, since Mfangano is in Kenya’s Nyanza Province, and Nyanza’s residents are predominantly ethnic Luo, why would a Kikuyu president bother to pay the island any attention?

It is exactly this type of tribal competition over the control of government coffers that precipitated Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007 and early 2008. During this ethnic upheaval an estimated 1500 people were killed and 300,000 displaced from their homes, not to mention that billions of dollars  were drained from Kenya’s economy as a result of steep declines in tourism and agricultural output – two of Kenya’s main industries. For those who were forced to consider the notion that ethnic violence was possible in Kenya – once seen around the world as one of the rare stable democracies in Africa – the signs of growing tribal resentment were tragically palpable.

In her book It’s Our Turn To Eat, Michela Wrong reports that one day, during the run-up to the election in late 2007, “[Kenya’s] Nakumatt supermarket chain announced, after logging a strange sudden spike in machete sales, that it was limiting purchases of gardening tools and kitchen utensils such as knives to just one per person.” Clearly, some people were getting ready for a fight.

The underlying causes to this heightening of ethnic antipathy are displayed in the title of Wrong’s book. The Kenyan government, police, and judiciary are all notorious for being corrupt institutions. They allow powerful business and political elite to essentially go about their illicit ways with a self-assured sense of impunity. What’s more, those high-up in government are expected to use public funds to dole out patronage, government contracts, and civil service jobs to those belonging to their own ethnic group. Kenyans have a name for this sleazy practice of using state resources for tribal gain: “eating.” And, whichever tribe runs the government at any particular time, well, it’s their turn to eat. Currently it’s Kenya’s most populous tribe, the Kikuyu of Central Province, lead by President Mwai Kibaki, who have controlled government since he was sworn in in 2002. And they certainly have done well relative to their tribal competition.

In 2006, four years after Kibaki was inaugurated, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reported in the Kenya Human Development Report that a Kikuyu resident from the city of Nyeri – the capital of Central Province, and just north of Kibaki’s constituency – would live 23.4 years longer than a Luo from Kisumu – the capital of Nyanza Province. Furthermore, in the largely Kikuyu city of Thika only 16.7 per cent of adult residents were illiterate, but in the predominantly Kalenjin town of Bomet adult illiteracy was a staggering 78.1 per cent. As statistics on life expectancy are a good proxy for health spending, and those on adult literacy are a decent gauge of education spending, simply looking at such disparate figures leads one to conclude that government funds disproportionately find their way to Kikuyu areas and tend to neglect other areas where marginalized ethnic groups predominate.

It is no wonder then, with the striking inequity between government treatment of people from different ethnic groups, that tribal resentment began to reach its apogee right before the 2007 election:  an election that would determine whether Kibaki and his Kikuyus would get to “eat” for another four years. And when Kibaki was crowned the victor after the election – after many reports of ballot-stuffing and blatant attempts to intimidate voters – it’s no surprise that other tribes, who thought it was their turn to “eat,” did not take kindly to these rigged results. In the days following the election, many thousands of minority tribesmen took to the streets, violently assaulting, and, in many cases, clubbing and knifing to death, thousands of Kikuyu – some of whom hadn’t even voted for Kibaki. Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes to avoid the bloodshed. And the worst crime of all is that most of this violence has gone unpunished.

To be fair, there wasn’t complete impunity. Currently, three of Kenya’s most senior politicians, as well as a popular radio announcer, are scheduled to stand trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC) later this year. Two of the four have confirmed that they are running in Kenya’s presidential elections set to occur late in 2012 or in early 2013. One presidential aspirant and concomitant ICC defendant is Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, and the son of Kenya’s founding president Jomo Kenyatta.  He is also Kenya’s richest man – a poster child for Kenya’s “It’s Our Turn to Eat” culture.

The ICC prosecution of these four men, allegedly behind the execution of systematic attacks against opposing ethnic groups, is a positive development. It sends a strong signal to Kenya’s elite and politically well-connected: that they are not above the law. Ethnic inequality will be the dominant theme of Kenya’s upcoming election, just as class inequality will be the theme of America’s. Let us hope an overarching lesson from history has been learned: fairness in the distribution of wealth is key to the peaceful coexistence of any society.


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