Kenya’s Rift Valley: Old Wounds, Devolution’s New Anxieties
International Crisis Group
The Rift Valley is the crucible of Kenya’s intercommunal conflicts and often the site of confrontations among rival ethnic political blocs. Though an election alliance has brought together the two largest ethnic groups in the region, the Kikuyu and Kalenjin, and helped avert large-scale violence during the 2013 polls, the task of reconciliation is far from complete. The government has failed to heal rifts created by multiple prior rounds of political bloodshed and violent land disputes. While major Kikuyu versus Kalenjin conflict is unlikely during elections scheduled for August 2017, serious local violence is possible, particularly as the creation of new counties run by powerful locally-elected officials has increased the stakes of political competition. To minimise the risk, the government and donors should do more to implement conflict-sensitive policing and revive the peacebuilding infrastructure that has largely been neglected since 2013.

A cocktail of grievances explains persistent tensions that accompany elections in the Rift Valley. Politicians typically trigger fighting by exploiting historical injustices related to land ownership and rejection of the participation of “outsiders” (ie, members of ethnic groups not native to the region) in local politics. Tellingly, major conflict has marred three of five elections held since the reintroduction of multiparty politics in 1992. Violence often aims to evict members of ethnic communities seen as backing rival parties or to depress turnout via intimidation.

A tactical alliance among Kikuyu and Kalenjin elites helped limit 2013 election-related strife. President Uhuru Kenyatta (a Kikuyu) and Deputy President William Ruto (a Nandi/Kalenjin), who were on opposing sides in 2007, were both indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity but their cases collapsed. Ahead of the 2013 polls, Kenyatta and Ruto joined in the Jubilee Alliance, a coalition of largely Kikuyu and Kalenjin ethnic parties. Their formidable political machine defeated the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) led by Raila Odinga, Ruto’s former ally. The alliance was further strengthened in September 2016 when the Jubilee Party (JP) replaced the old, looser arrangement. It now seeks not only victory in 2017 but also to help Ruto secure Kikuyu support for his anticipated presidential bid in 2022.

This political deal-making has yielded a welcome albeit superficial calm. A transactional electoral pact is a fragile base upon which to build a lasting peace. Kalenjin politicians repeatedly warn that Kikuyu elites plan to stop Ruto from ascending to power by backing a Kikuyu candidate in 2022. Failure by the Kikuyu side of the Jubilee coalition to endorse Ruto in 2022 almost inevitably would trigger major instability in the Rift Valley.

Of more immediate concern is sub-national competition for the executive governorship of counties created under the devolution system implemented following the 2007 election crisis. Kenya’s 2010 constitution remodels the state by redistributing power and resources away from the presidency. Under the new system, 47 counties run by governors and assemblies receive significant resources, giving them substantial patronage power. Competition for these positions in 2017 is expected to be intense. And, as many Rift Valley counties are divided along ethnic and sub-ethnic lines, this competition easily could degenerate into intercommunal fighting.

Seven of nineteen counties listed by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), a state agency charged with coordinating peacebuilding efforts, among potential violence hotspots ahead of the 2017 elections are in the Rift Valley. The interior ministry says it is aware of the danger of renewed conflict and plans to deploy large numbers of security forces to the area before and during the elections. This is a necessary but insufficient step. Peacebuilding agencies established under the 2010 constitution, including the NCIC, will need to do more to identify people suspected of incitement, particularly ahead of county-level elections. They need to broaden existing efforts to record every major political rally, monitor hate speech and make sure relevant politicians know they are being watched.

Donors should enhance support for these agencies. Likewise, the government and donors ought to revive the peacebuilding efforts that began after the 2007 crisis. This should include restoring support for local peace committees. Ultimately, addressing grievances over land, tackling disputes over boundaries in ethnically-mixed areas and engaging in a genuine reconciliation campaign to bridge the gulf of mistrust created by cycles of blood-letting will be required to achieve a sustainable peace.