Michela Wrong on corruption, ethnicity, and development in Kenya

Within minutes of the announcement of Kibaki’s victory, the multi-ethnic settlements of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret and Kakamega erupted. Luo and Luhya ODM supporters armed with metal bars, machetes and clubs vented their frustration and fury on local Kikuyu and members of the smaller, pro-PNU Meru, Embu and Kisii tribes, setting fire to homes and shops. The approach was brutally simplistic. Many Kikuyu, especially the young, urban poor, had actually voted ODM, regarding Raila, ‘the People’s President’, as far more sympathetic to their needs than the aloof Kibaki. But mobs don’t do nuance. Fury needs a precise shape and target if it is to find expression, and ethnicity provided that fulcrum.

[U]nder a system which decreed that all advancement was determined by tribe, such hostility was entirely rational. Had all Kenyans believed they enjoyed equal access to state resources, there would have been no explosion.

Nowhere was this dawning of ethnic self-awareness more sudden than in the slums, Kenya’s melting pots, where new frontiers coagulated like DNA strands, forming as suddenly on the ground as they had in people’s minds. The notion that urban youth would serve as midwives to the birth of a cosmopolitan, united nation looked like idealistic nonsense–the worst violence took place in places like Kibera and Mathare, and it was committed by youngsters.

In the space of only two months, Kenya had changed beyond recognition. Rolling back the migration trends of half a century, a process of self-segregation was under way.

‘The generation that harboured that kind of ethnic hatred was dying away,’ says John Kiriamiti. A former bank robber, he renounced crime to become a respectable newspaper publisher in Muranga, and now quails at the violence he once took in his stride. ‘Our children didn’t know about it. But they have understood it now, and it will take a long, long time to vanish.’


Quotes on the 2007-8 electoral crisis in Kenya from Michaela Wrong’s It’s Our Turn to Eat (link), which I just finished. Most of the book follows the saga of Kibaki’s former anti-corruption adviser and whistleblower, John Githongo. It makes for a gripping narrative through which Wrong provides some nice insights on how an ethnic winner-take-all mentality has undermined Kenyan democratic politics and created pressures that erupted in the 2007-8 electoral crisis. The question naturally arises: what institutional reforms might allow a society to transcend a perilous inter-ethnic dynamic such as this? Are quotas or integrative institutions useful or harmful? This is part of some new research that Elisabeth King and I are currently undertaking. Watch this space for updates.

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