Neoliberalism and Kenyan Violence

17 Jan

Amnesty International (AI) had predicted and warned of an outbreak of violence since various incidents had occurred prior to the Kenyan elections.

On the 18th December, the NGO urged the authorities, election candidates and political parties ‘to take steps to prevent election-related violence with the aim of ensuring effective respect and protection for human rights in the lead up to and during the general elections’.

It studiously documented that previous multi-party elections in 1992, 1997 and 2002 ‘were marred by politically motivated violence and human rights abuses by politically and/or ethnically aligned militia, as well as human rights violations, including excessive use of force, by law enforcement officials.’

In its statement, it noted cases of politically-related violence in 2007:

In the Meru district of Central Kenya, Flora Igoki Tera, a women activist planning on running for a seat, was physically assaulted and warned by three armed men on 7 September, not to do so.

In October, hundreds of homes were burnt resulting in 16,000 people displaced in Kuresoi area of Molo district in the Rift Valley province. At least 25 people were killed during the process. Unknown armed gangs with links to politicians are alleged to be responsible for this attack.

The Sabaot Land Defence Force, believed to maintain links with politicians, are alleged to be responsible for inter-clan clashes, throughout the year, in Mt. Elgon district near the Kenya-Uganda border, resulting in more than 100,000 people being displaced.

Individuals have also been killed or seriously injured because of ‘political violence in campaign rallies and in shootings by police in some of the rallies in different parts of the country’. They include the deaths of Wilson Shivera, 20 and Reuben Shikoli 32. Almost all the perpetrators have not been caught or prosecuted to date.

As violence escalates, the media was promptly shut down. Another sign of authoritarian despair. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the measure as contributing to ‘rumour and disinformation’ which ‘imposes a climate of intimidation and plunges the country into confusion.’

Human Rights Groups, AI and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have condemned the violence, especially those perpetrated by the political supporters and the police force.

AI, in its statement, alleged that eyewitnesses reports of ‘police shot at protestors, killing dozens and wounding many more. Some of the protestors threw stones, carried machetes, barricaded roads or damaged property.’Erwin van der Borght, AI’s Africa Programme Director said, “Amnesty International calls on the Kenyan government to establish an independent and impartial inquiry into the killings in the opposition strongholds of Kisumu town in western Kenya, in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, in Mombasa and elsewhere where people have been killed as a result of the post-electoral violence,”

He also reiterated that the Kenyan security forces comply with the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials meaning the police ‘may use force only when strictly necessary and only to the minimum extent required by the circumstances. Lethal force should not be used except when unavoidable in order to protect life.’

In a later statement, it ‘expressed concern about continuing reports of killings by police and a striking increase in rapes by gangs and individuals.’

The NGO estimated that there are more than 300 deaths and 75,000 displacements. It also reported that more than 30 people, mostly women and children were burnt to death after fleeing from armed youths after seeking refuge in a church in Eldoret town in the Rift Valley on 1 January. Reports of sharp increases in number of rapes on women and girls are made by the medical staff at the Women’s Hospital in Nairobi while roadblocks by violent youth gangs across the country have caused widespread terror, resulting in ‘thousands reported to be fleeing to neighboring countries, particularly Uganda.’

HRW has not only urged immediate investigations, but also called on the the police not to use excessive force, and the government to end its media and peaceful protests ban.

On police violence, the NGO has first hand personal accounts of eyewitnesses in Nairobi who ‘saw unarmed individuals hit by police gunfire on the fringes of protests in the Kibera and Mathare slums. One woman was hit by stray bullets that penetrated the wall of her home. Another unarmed man was shot in the leg. A boy watching a protest from the door of his house was shot in the chest.’

As reports of violence continue, mainstream western media tends to focus on ‘ethnicity’ or ‘tribalism’ as the main reason for the flare up, a gross oversimplification of the facts on the ground. In a nutshell, President Mwai Kibaki of the Party of National Unity (PNU) is seen to be partial towards the welfare of the Kikuyu, who have benefited under his rule. On the other hand, the Opposition led by Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement who are seen as representing the Luos and other less privileged ethnicities, accused Kibaki of electoral fraud, and as such, is calling for large scale mass protests to ‘topple the government’

Some analysts have however indicated that things are not as clear cut as it seems.

“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.”wrote the Sunday Nation newspaper, as reported by IRIN, in the article, ‘It’s the economy, stupid (not just “tribalism”)’

While ethnic factors might have played a part in stirring up irrational emotions and hence, indirectly, causing violence, economic inequalities have been simmering underlying tensions. The disastrous results of years of neoliberal policies in the country, has deeply affected Kenyan, causing great divides in social and economic inequality. The statistics from the same article speak for themselves:

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.

Citing the report, ‘Pulling Apart: Facts and Figures on Inequality in Kenya‘, from 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.

Using UN Development Programme figures, 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.

The economic growth of the country in recent years, ‘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.’

David Ndii, executive director of the Kenya Leadership Institute, said “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.”

Says Kwamchetsi Makokha of Nairobi-based communications consultancy Form and Content, youth in particular, who make up a majority of the population – and of those who rioted – feel the most let down…. 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.

In another commentary from PTZeleza, the editorial outrightly dismissed the simplistic notion of ‘ubiquitous ‘tribalism’ beloved by the western media in discussing African politics’ and suggests, ‘the present crisis has a complicated history rooted in the political economies of colonialism, neocolonialism, and neoliberalism that have characterized Kenya over the last century.’

On the political economy of Kenya, it agreed with the previous commentator, that neoliberalism, played a significant factor in the ignition of post electoral violence,

‘The contestation between continuity and change in the electoral contest partly reflected the glaring mismatch between growth and development, both socially and spatially, and tapped into deep yearnings for a new socioeconomic dispensation, a restless hunger for broad-based development frustrated by neo-liberal growth. Kenya’s economic recovery and growth from 2002 largely benefited the middle classes rather than the workers and peasants, the bulk of the population. Even among the middle classes, the benefits flowed unequally between those in the rapidly expanding private service sectors rather than in the retrenched and decapitalized public sectors, which has been under assault since the days of structural adjustment in the 1980s.

… In Kenya, as in much of Africa and indeed the wider world since the onset of neo-liberalism the gap between the rich and the poor has widened, the sense of economic insecurity has increased among large numbers of people even as their countries’ economies grow. This partly helps explain the tightness of the vote and the prospect of a government losing elections in times of rapid economic growth…

…Kenya’s current political tragedy is part of a much larger story. The absence of articulated and organized institutional and ideological alternatives under neoliberalism is at the heart of the political crisis facing contemporary Africa and much of the world.’

In another news article from Socialist Worker, both the current government and the Opposition are blamed for the violence. The writer mentioned that both parties are endeared to pursuing ‘free market policies’which will continue to disadvantage the poor. It reported that in the ‘Kariobangi slum, GSU (paramilitary police) attacked Kikuyu slum dwellers,’ an evidence that some Kikyus are poor and themselves, subject to violence from the authorised security forces.

Lee Sustar’s opinion piece on ‘What’s The Real Source Of Kenya’s Violence?’reinforced the neoliberalism rhetoric by arguing that Odinga, was a ‘former socialist’who had ‘made lucrative oil industry connections, according to the Kenya Environmental Political News blog. His family also acquired a state-owned molasses factory at that time. Since then, Odinga has been known for displaying his wealth.’

While international pressure and efforts should be directed towards the immediate ceasing of human rights violations as the political and humanitarian crisis unfolds, thorny issues of whether to form a coalition government or to start new elections will likely dominate the upcoming negotiations between the Opposition and current government. Tackling the wealth divide is likely to be side-stepped given both Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga seems intent on pursuing neoliberal policies, sadly, at the expense of the poor.



1. Kenya: Amnesty International calls on the Kenyan government, election candidates and political parties to respect and protect human rights, Amnesty International, AI Index: AFR 32/011/2007 (Public), 18 December 2007

2. Government imposes “dangerous and counter-productive” news blackout, Reporters Without Borders, 31 December 2007

3. Kenya: Amnesty International concerned at police killings in election protests, Amnesty International, 31 December 2007

4. Amnesty International Urges Kenyan Leaders to Avoid Condoning Attacks on Rivals’ Supporters to Stop Further Bloodshed, Amnesty International, 3 January 2008

5. Kenya: End Police Use of Excessive Force; Lift Ban on Public Rallies, Media Broadcasts, Human Rights Watch, 13 January 2008

6. It’s the economy, stupid (not just “tribalism”), IRIN, 9 January 2008

7. The 2007 Kenyan Elections: Holding a Nation Hostage to a Bankrupt Political Class, PTZeleza, 31 December 2007

8. Kenya: Neoliberal policies fuel ethnic tensions, Socialist Worker, Donal Mac Fhearraigh, 10 January 2008

9. What’s The Real Source Of Kenya’s Violence?, Socialist Worker, Lee Sustar, 11 January, 2008


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