Kenya is in a bad place. Violent attacks from Al-Shabaab, an Islamist group out of Somalia and an Al Qaeda affiliate, and smaller violent attacks and conflicts involving known and unknown sources in rural and urban settings, as well as a rise in general street level crime, have created an insecure, anxious, and deeply divided population. They have also created a problematic context for the protection of democratic rights. Last September Al-Shabaab said it executed the attack on the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi causing at least sixty-seven deaths and many injuries. Recently, there were attacks on the small town of Mpeketoni and its environs at the coast with over sixty deaths. Again, Al-Shabaab took “credit.” But President Kenyatta said otherwise—that Al-Shabaab was not responsible for the attacks and that instead, local political networks aiming to kill the Gikuyu people orchestrated them. The elected Lamu County Governor, Issa Timamy, has been arrested for murder, terrorism, and other charges. The governor says that the accusation is only the latest in a stream of harassment because of his efforts to protect his area from powerful people trying to take advantage of opportunities from a huge forthcoming infrastructure project. The president implied that the national political opposition had an indirect hand in the Mpeketoni affair because alleged hate speech was designed to cause instability. The statement immediately activated deep division within Kenyan society, most of it ethnically coded. Tensions are high.
Let us step back for a moment, take a look at relevant history, assess how Kenya got to this point, and why Kenya has had an on again off again experience with democratic rights since independence. In 1963, Kenya gained independence, emerging from a painful history of severe social inequality and violence. Under colonialism, European settler farmers captured the economy and benefited from it. The movement for independence and the Land and Freedom Army fought back as the colonial regime worked hard to divide Kenyans. Democratic rights were won during the struggle, but they were lost again early in the post-colonial years, only to be gradually won back in the aftermath of the demise of de jure single party rule in 1991.
The fact that hard won democratic reforms are in danger once again fifty-one years after independence may appear surprising. After the election of 4 March 2013, Kenyan society breathed a collective sigh of relief when—despite the defeat of opposition candidate Raila Odinga in a dubious election process—the country did not experience a repeat of the horrific post-election violence (PEV) of 2007-2008. However, the new government led by President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto failed to practice inclusion or to consolidate and expand reform. Instead, the government has attempted to implement a legislative platform that threatens to rollback rights. Meanwhile, the heavily criticized police force appears to be ineffective and in need of reform at a time when escalating crime and insecurity has put the country on edge.
This essay is particularly concerned with the prospects of protecting democratic political rights amidst severe social class inequality. The social class divide is important because the accumulation of wealth—sometimes fantastic wealth—in Kenya has long been linked with obtaining political office or gaining access to those in office. The political class (top politicians and civil servants) uses the language of ethnic identity to gain political legs and public office, while avoiding class-based issues and pressures from below that threaten their economic standing and that of their well-to-do supporters. I will not discuss the political class’ use of ethnic discourse per se, but it will come up in discussion of the broad historical rights arena within which politics operate. While the political class does not account for everything having to do with the reproduction of Kenya’s severe social class divide, its power, ideology, and policy preferences are key components of that divide.
Kenya has had an uncertain experience with democratic rights. The first president, Jomo Kenyatta, presided over substantial economic growth with expanded smallholder production. But he also engineered the loss of democratic rights through a variety of formal and informal means that altered the constitution, centralized power, constrained the press, favored his Gikuyu ethnic base, and allowed corruption to grow. More importantly, however, he demobilized those in the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party and veterans of the liberation struggle who expected radical land reform and protection of worker rights. The regime also tamed parliament and civil society. In the late 1960s, it undermined and then eliminated the Kenya Peoples Union, a political party led by Oginga Odinga. The Kenya Peoples Union was, with the brief exception of the Social Democratic Party during the 1997 election, the last above ground left-of-center political formation promoting moderate redistribution of wealth. Unexplained assassinations eliminated critics and rivals, including the popular populist politician, J.M. Kariuki.
With the death of Kenyatta in late 1978, Vice President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi became president. The intensification of the ethnic (Kalenjin) ruling group strategy, an expanded loss of political rights, grand corruption, repression (including torture and assassination), de jure single party rule, and economic stagnation marked his nearly quarter century of rule. Growing popular unease and the end of the Cold War with threatened cuts in donor support for the regime brought the demise of the one-party system in 1991, leading to a multi-party election in 1992.
Despite several competitive elections, and counter to most expectations, both state-supported and privately-generated violence expanded up to the present day, with some of it coming from militias tied to politicians. The major violence (labeled “ethnic clashes”) before and after elections in 1992 and 1997 was state sanctioned and saw hundreds killed and displaced, especially in Moi’s Rift Valley province and at the coast in 1997. The violence was related to Moi and KANU’s electoral calculations and was designed to consolidate support by opening up land and opportunities as presumed ethnic opponents were driven away or killed. Moi remained in office and successfully parried threats from electoral democracy by using the powers and resources of the state to create unleveled electoral playing fields. Through it all, government institutions frayed.
After the political opening of the early 1990s, and despite obstacles the regime presented, vigorous and brave reform efforts by people in the streets, civil society leaders, organizations, and some members of the political class, brought on moments of popular mobilization. This gradually gave birth to the relative freedom to voice and organize. These were major progressive victories. Moi was constitutionally barred from competing for another term in the 2002 election and he decided to front Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Jomo Kenyatta, for president against long-time politician Mwai Kibaki. Unlike the 1992 and 1997 elections, this time the opposition came together and Kibaki won overwhelmingly. Euphoria swept the land. One post-election poll had Kenyans as the most optimistic people in the world. Kenya was back. But was it?
Reform practice after 2002 was uneven at best. The victorious electoral coalition soon fell apart as Kibaki pushed coalition partner Raila Odinga and his allies to the margins of power. They were on opposite sides, as Kibaki supported a draft constitution that failed in a national referendum in 2005, and would have left considerable power with the president. Meanwhile grand corruption continued and John Githongo, the point man charged with battling corruption in the highest reaches of the state, had to flee the country in 2005. The Institute of Certified Accountants of Kenya’s 2013 estimate suggested that roughly thirty percent of the national budget is annually wasted or unaccounted for.
Political and ethnic tensions rose to a high level as the December 2007 election approached, followed by terrible violence in the immediate aftermath of the disastrously conducted election. Up to 1300 were killed and roughly six hundred thousand were displaced. The mayhem shocked the world and ultimately brought on an African Union and donor-supported agreement on 28 February 2008 brokered by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. The agreement ended the violence and mandated a formal coalition government, including Raila Odinga as prime minister.
The Annan Agreement called for a local tribunal to try those who planned and funded much of the violence. But with notable exceptions, much of the political class was implicated in the abuse of office in one form or another. From their point of view, it was best to circle the wagons and assure that impunity was in place for all of them, lest inquiries get out of hand. With a Kenyan tribunal as a non-starter, the only remaining source of accountability was the International Criminal Court (ICC), of which Kenya was a member. Kofi Annan handed the names of possible suspects to the ICC through the Waki Commission, a Kenyan commission of inquiry that the agreement to investigate the nature of the post-election violence set up. Formal ICC indictments for crimes against humanity were later levied against the soon-to-be-elected President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto.
The 4 March 2013 Election
As the 2013 election approached, many observers feared that peace would not hold due in part to ethnic mobilization but especially the vigorous ethnic campaign strategy of the Kenyatta/Ruto campaign. When asked in mid-2012 what issues would dominate the election, a top Kenyatta strategist said “ethnicity only.” So-called prayer meetings that the Kenyatta/Ruto campaign put together became quasi-ethnic celebrations and ginned up considerable enthusiasm. According to a source close to the Kenyatta campaign, the use of costly helicopters was necessary in order to get to and from the extraordinary size and energy of rallies. Prayer meetings brought an additional benefit to the campaign by further drawing religious leaders into ethnic camps. This helped strip religious leaders of their fading image of standing above ethnic politics and defending political rights, a status they rightly earned in the struggle against Moi.
The well designed, well run, and well-funded Kenyatta/Ruto campaign, assisted by a British consulting group, constructed a creative campaign narrative that joined the personal interests of the top two candidates, their co-ethnic countrymen, and the alleged protection of national sovereignty against Western neocolonial (read ICC) intrusion. Kenyatta argued that his ICC indictment was a personal matter and would not get in the way of his exercising his presidential duties should he win the election. Such an assertion was unlikely, given a prison term hanging in the balance.
Both candidates wrapped themselves in their respective ethnic flags and joined their interests in holding the ICC at bay. The campaign discourse was complex, but one subtext became “protect our sons from the ICC,” an institution that neocolonial Western interests drove, according to them. They made this argument despite the fact that African states referred the five of the eight current cases out of Africa, while the Security Council referred two other cases. The fact that the United States supports the ICC but is not a member of it aided the neocolonial argument by charging the United States with hypocrisy. The campaign also argued that the ICC was doing the bidding of their local opponents who helped the ICC gain indictments against them. But it was William Ruto who was a leader of the effort to stop any local tribunal, thus guaranteeing that the cases would move to the ICC in accord with the Annan Agreement. At the outset of the campaign, there was considerable support for the ICC process across ethnic categories, and the popularity of Kenyatta and Ruto and their alliance was tepid, even among their respective ethnic cohorts. Voters, and especially their ethnic cohorts, had to be convinced, and many were. The campaign gained strength and ended strong. One wonders if they would have run together, let alone won, if there were no ICC indictments lodged against them.
Kenyans were anxious as the 4 March 2013 election approached, and to make matters worse, the election-day process was again a technical disaster. The elaborate and largely untested electronic apparatus collapsed. Kenyatta and Ruto may have received the most votes against their major opponent Raila Odinga, but it is unclear whether the victors received the fifty percent plus one vote to avoid a run-off that was never called. An exit poll conducted by US academics found that the Kenyatta/Ruto campaign did not receive the fifty percent plus one vote.
Despite the flawed election process, no violence occurred in the aftermath. There are several reasons for this. In 2007, the major geography of the violence was in the Rift Valley, with the Kalenjin population feeling aggrieved by historical decisions that caused the Gikuyu to migrate to their land. This largely took place during the presidency of Jomo Kenyatta, a Gikuyu. It was a fight over land that has been at the heart of Kenyan politics and its extreme social class inequality ever since European settlers entered at the turn of the twentieth century. But when Kenyatta and Ruto joined hands and ran together, the most dangerous geographical and ethnic conflict was taken off the electoral table.
Other reasons for the peaceful election included good news on the governance front. There were high expectations for the new constitution that became the law of the land after a twenty-year struggle. The constitution formally constrained the overwhelming colonially derived power of the presidency, and it decentralized power and a considerable amount of finance to forty-seven new counties. There was a widespread, though inflated, popular belief, especially in poorer regions feeling left out of historical government largesse, that with devolution on hand, development was finally at hand. Devolution also meant that if favorites lost at the president and deputy president level, post-election prospects might look good at the county level. This was true for Odinga’s Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD), which won a majority of the governor races.
Other positive governance news found the judicial system going through a reform process that the new and popular former pro-democracy activist and now chief justice, Willy Mutunga, headed. With Mutunga at the helm, there was a belief that the judicial system might finally be trusted. But when the Supreme Court unanimously supported the verdict of the electoral commission and accorded victory to Kenyatta and Ruto, despite multiple anomalies, there was a visceral anger from the losing side and major civil society leaders. But there was little violence due in part to the “peace narrative” that a wide range of interests in the run-up to the election developed. Nearly all involved parties—the political class, religious institutions, business, mainstream media, donors, and the average citizen—told each other that if conflict developed it could get out of hand and bring on another round of post-election violence. After the election the new government and its supporters used the peace narrative to encourage citizens not to dwell on the questionable election and instead "move on" and let the government get on with governing. It is the height of irony that the new popular constitution, a reforming judicial system, and a relatively peaceful election helped bring on a regime that was not particularly reform minded.
The Election in a Divided Society
Peace prevailed but there were costs associated with this peace due to deep divisions Kenya’s political history produced. Reactions to the election outcome give an indication of how this could be true. Kenyatta/Ruto supporters argued that there was an election and they won—full stop.
Opponents had a very different point of view. For many of them, there was no real election, and the problem was not just one election, but a string of bogus elections and political verdicts ever since independence. These perspectives suggest that ethnic stereotypes and a deeply divided understanding of post-colonial political history are all too alive. Kenya’s painful history is a continuing, vivid, and provocative presence and it threatens democratic rights. The political class is also deeply divided and fragmented and this contributes to a sense of national uncertainty or “drift,” as well as a sense of dread as trouble mounts without a satisfactory government response.
The major contributor to the sense of dread is the deteriorating security situation. Kenya’s porous borders have facilitated the entry of violent elements, while others are probably locally generated. In October 2011, Kenya’s military entered southeast Somalia with the intent of diminishing the radical Islamist Al-Shabaab insurgency and protecting Kenya’s border. Apparently lacking an exit strategy at the outset, the military remains in Somalia after re-hatting in June 2012 as part of AMISOM, a six country African Union force. Meanwhile, the Al-Shabaab threat has expanded into Kenya. The major attack was on Nairobi’s up-scale Westgate Mall in September 2013, with the killing of at least sixty-seven and well over one hundred people injured. Al-Shabaab took “credit” for the horror. The tragedy was met with a hapless response from government spokespersons and security forces, as well as some military personnel’s apparent theft of valuable items in the mall, caught on CCTV. No official explanation of the government’s response was forthcoming and, despite promises, no independent commission of inquiry was appointed.
The confluence of historical state and up-country discrimination against the coast region, and coastal suspicion of government in return has developed into a near dialogue of the deaf. Some background is needed. First, lacking political leverage, coastal people feel they have long suffered historical marginalization at the hands of the state and up-country people. Second, Muslims, largely at the coast and numbering at least eleven percent of the population, feel they have fallen under the predominantly Christian majority’s suspicion in the wake of recent violent acts. Three prominent militant Muslim clerics, at least one of which supported the attack on the mall, have been assassinated in the past couple of years, with much opinion blaming the government for the killings. In early June 2014, a leading moderate cleric was also assassinated. Third, Kenyan Somalis feel they have long been singled out for suspicion and abuse in the post-colonial era after a desire to link a piece of their ethnic turf with Somalia at independence was registered in a referendum in 1962. The Kenyatta government denied this request leading to an insurgency of several years duration.
On 2 April 2014, in an operation reminiscent of the colonial era, over six thousand police and military were involved in a massive sweep of residents in Eastleigh, a predominantly Kenyan Somali residential and commercial area of Nairobi that had previously experienced abuse from the police. The sweep with arrests and detentions has continued and was expanded elsewhere. Deportations followed with some refugees returning to the Dadaab refugee camp in the north; the police’s move was crude ethnic profiling. Rather than going after carefully targeted suspects, the apparent intent was to search for instruments of violence and nab non-citizens and send them packing. The police did so by going residence to residence, picking up bystanders in the street, allegedly abusing some physically, and sometimes demanding money for their release. Some say the police view the victims as ATM machines. The heavy-handed government dragnet will only escalate the enmity and tension. This will also contribute to the radicalization of unemployed youth with their numbers already expanding. Meanwhile, violent incidents and travel advisories from some Western countries have hit tourism hard with hotels closing (twenty by early June 2014) and over seven thousand workers laid off. The World Bank has lowered its predicted growth rate for 2014-2015 to 4.7 percent. The dragnet will also hobble already severely challenged community-government trust that is necessary for painstaking intelligence gathering and is essential for any move toward a safer Kenya.
As if this form of insecurity was not enough, the past year has also seen an alarming rise of generalized crime (car-jacking, street crime, and home break-ins) that has recently penetrated upper income residential areas that were formerly somewhat immune. The multiple sources of insecurity and the rising number of incidents have created an opinion that the government must “do something.” Such support for government intervention suggests that many Kenyans may support heavy-handed measures to deal with the threats, and in the process, rollback not just the rights of ethnic Somalis, but perhaps everyone’s rights in the name of security. Insecurity and escalating everyday crime have brought few arrests and few convictions, leaving citizens believing their government cannot protect them.
There are other matters that opinion polls say register heavily on the minds of citizens, such as the high and rising cost of living, and high unemployment. The media is rife with stories of alleged corruption that reflects long-standing networks within the civil service, the political class, and private sector allies within and beyond the country. The president has even complained of corruption among those around him, but there is no evidence of follow-up. Meanwhile, the unclear start to the highly desirable, but complex, costly, and sometimes confusing devolution process leaves few major players looking good. Intense turf wars have enhanced uncertainty as leaders of new institutions test the limits of their power and resources, while fears grow that a strong presidency may be reasserting itself. Members of the national level political class have acted as de facto negative role models to the counties with their alleged openness to corruption coupled with their unrelenting and successful efforts to raise their salaries and perks to world class levels in a poor country.
Political parties are in some disarray, which is normal between elections in Kenya where parties lack firm structure and internal democracy. Moreover, politicians who are constantly jockeying for office and advantage in emerging coalitions for elections yet to come are leading these political parties. The growing battle for future control of the major opposition party is on hold for a spell as Raila Odinga returned to Kenya after a post-election period in the United States at Boston University. He firmly reasserted his leadership and brought the opposition back to life with his call for a national dialogue over vital issues. The call for dialogue was subsequently changed to advancing three referendums if, as the constitution allows, a million signatures are collected and half of the counties assent. The soon-to-be-drawn referendums will concern insecurity, disbandment of the electoral commission, and allocation of more national revenues to counties. Dissent from the Rift Valley’s politicians has promoted a widening gap within the ruling party coalition, criticizing Ruto for not standing up for their interests against Kenyatta in top regime appointments. And then there are the ICC indictments. Here Kenyatta and Ruto have fared quite well. The case against Ruto has weakened considerably and the case against Kenyatta has all but collapsed as witnesses peel off while rumors circulate of weak ICC investigation, poor witness protection and witness tampering involving threats, bribes, and disappearances. The prosecution also accuses the regime of not cooperating in the provision of essential information.
Attempted Legislative Rollback of Rights and Push Back
The government has been laying down a legal platform to, if “necessary”, roll back some democratic reforms of the past twenty or so years, and recentralize power back to the presidency. But what is the strength of political forces that might deter or block such an effort? This is uncertain, but what is certain is that Kenya at fifty-one years is not the same Kenya at year one. At independence, the political center had certain advantages. There was a popular desire to build the nation and give the benefit of doubt to the movement/party and persons that “brought” independence and assumed top political offices. This created weak terrain on which to fight against the loss of democratic rights. In addition, the priority interest of Western donors was to find allies during the Cold War, and Kenya was one of them. In the face of Kenya’s anti-democratic practices there was occasional hand wringing by donors but no major disruption of aid flows.
In 2014, the old methods of undermining political rights, if applied, would find a harder go of it. But the political class’ use of a pervasive ethnic political discourse will hobble the push against the loss of rights. Along with religious institutions, the media is among the most trusted of all national institutions. But the government passed legislation that will regulate the media through a commission appointed by the executive that licenses journalists, while offending journalists and their institutions may be fined substantial sums. There was a vigorous outcry from the media, civil society forces, and the political opposition prior to the National Assembly’s passage and the president’s signature. The media bill will, however, face court challenges, and, this time, in a court more independent of the executive than all prior ones.
Proposed legislation regulating non-governmental organizations (NGOs) was also heavily criticized, but unlike the media bill, it was withdrawn from the National Assembly, although it will return with amendments for another try at a later date. The legislation would have created a government appointed commission to grant licenses to operate NGOs. It would have also limited external funding to fifteen percent of NGO budgets and as a result, severely hobbled and perhaps eliminated some rights-supporting and development project-based NGOs.
The regime also retained as county commissioners the old provincial administration structure that operated as an arm of the president. The rationale is that commissioners will coordinate arms of the state in devolved governance. They may do that, but they are likely to again act as a wide-ranging arm of the president, thereby violating the spirit and perhaps the letter of the new constitution.
In laying a legal groundwork for a rights rollback, the regime triggered an opposition of some strength and efficacy. This all occurred in the context of the post-1991 political opening that has enhanced transparency, but not accountability of top leadership for corruption and fostering violence. Transparency has expanded greatly. The media have carried extensive discussions of alleged corruption scandals and they have broadly reshaped national public policy debate. Committees of the National Assembly also call on government figures to explain their policies and actions. With growing transparency, court reform, and with an anti-corruption commission at work, impunity for corruption may be eroding for mid-level officials and the spotlight may move upwards. But for now impunity reigns at the top of the political system despite the fact that these days “more eyes are out.” While transparency tends to shame abusers of office and sometimes even divert careers, it rarely leads to indictments, let alone convictions. A case in point lies in the fate of the report of the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission set out by the Annan agreement in 2008 that looked at political violence and corruption since independence. The National Assembly tabled the report saying that when the report comes up for extended discussion it may be changed. Likely changes will include the cases and names of a number of top politicians (over four hundred of them), including the president and deputy president, and others from all political corners that are mentioned for investigation and possible court action.
Civil society organizations were crucial to redefining public debate and regaining rights in the 1990s. But how strong are they today? These organizations range from religious institutions with deep popular roots, to small civil rights groups that lack those roots. Some of the leadership was considered among the severely repressed political left of the 1980s that embraced socialist ideas of modest wealth redistribution. But with the end of the Cold War and Western donor enthusiasm for neoliberal structural adjustment policies, civil society leadership suddenly dropped socialist discourse as if a switch was flipped. Concerns about the social class divide gave way to a focus on rights and democracy. All good things were expected to follow in the train of electoral democracy. The call for democracy and rights laid the groundwork for a pan-class alliance advocating a return of rights, and funds were tapped from post-Cold War Western aid sources that suddenly looked more kindly on electoral democracy and rights protection. The opening to electoral democracy afforded long repressed political voices and organizations new space for maneuver, but concerns about severe social class inequality and its wider political implications were largely absent. And there was virtually no discussion of how inequality might exacerbate ethnic division.
Understanding the uncertain political leverage of Kenyan civil society today requires knowing that political victories can be debilitating. Kenya’s rights victories in the 1990s raised questions of what civil society would do next and who would be on board for the second act. Political preferences divided the leadership, often ethnically tinged, once the goal of removing Moi from office was accomplished in 2002. After the 4 March 2013 election, top civil society leadership said they could not remember a time when they were so divided, dispirited, and lacking a focused agenda. These days are nothing like the years when agitation for a new constitution acted as an umbrella under which progressives could press their favored issues including devolution, civil rights, anti-corruption, environmental protection, and inclusion for youth, women, and those with disabilities. But a portion of civil society is present today with its broad defense of democratic rights, and its critique of police sweeps and abuse of Kenyan Somalis and Muslims while most of the political class is silent. Civil society is also well networked. It has some access to the mainstream press and that access has been used skillfully. However, in the face of rising insecurity and government crackdowns, there is opinion critical of civil society leadership and groups for questioning police action and “giving heart” to criminals and violent actors.
At the moment there are no broad-based national progressive social movements, although there are some locally based ones, nor are there well organized and effectively national political parties. This is a huge problem as far as any struggle against social class inequality is concerned. Trade union political activism was broken in the immediate post-colonial period and has not come back to life beyond the salary and benefits focus of several unions of middle class professionals (bank workers, nurses, doctors, teachers and lecturers) that have frequently gone on strike in recent years. In the 1980s, Moi’s regime repression stifled university political activism and sowed ethnic divisions. Neither students nor faculty have been conspicuous rights activists in an organized manner ever since. External donors were central to the funding of major rights groups from the 1990s to the present. But lacking an organized and financially sustaining popular base, civil society organizations became vulnerable to the accusation that they were too dependent on external funding and foreign agendas. Supporters of the Kenyatta/Ruto campaign saw civil society leadership linked to the ICC process and dubbed them the “evil society.” Some civil society leaders have received threats.
Meanwhile, Western donors grew very concerned about Islamist forces in neighboring Somalia and on the coast of Kenya. Donor counter-terror efforts include Western aid to the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit that Open Society Justice Initiative and Muslims for Human Rights say has a poor human rights record and has abused international, regional, and domestic Kenyan law. The terror threat especially, and perhaps Kenya’s pivotal role in East Africa as well as new found oil and gas deposits, means that while donors may voice criticism to regime figures in private, they are not likely to threaten significant withdrawal of aid or engage in public diplomacy with a strong critique of regime rights abuse.
The growing professional middle class (PMC), and sometimes the entire middle class, are said to have political leverage and favor rights protection. Indeed some professionals were leaders of the pro-democracy struggle of the late 1980s. Their concern for rights stem from, among other things, a desire to practice their craft—lawyers to practice freely, teachers and professors to profess, the clergy to preach, journalists and writers to write, and businesspeople to contract freely. But they also tend to embrace an ideology of market celebration that celebrates wealth and sometimes elevates the very wealthy to celebrity status. There is relatively little anxiety among the PMC about inequality beyond a desire of some to deal with poverty by raising the floor of incomes to a higher level through growth rather than through targeted policies of long-term wealth redistribution. The PMC voices commitment to fighting corruption, but there are back sliders among them, some are apolitical, and the category lacks broad organization, popular roots, and a coherent agenda beyond law and order and “good governance.” And when political push comes to political shove they are likely to support co-ethnic members of the political class.
Kenya’s extreme social inequality was born in a colonial and settler past and was ramped up in the post-independence era. It is a little discussed factor that hampers the protection of democratic rights. With the political opening in the 1990s competitive elections, welcome as they are, begged the question of how members of the political class would appeal to the vast majority of voters who are poor. The answer was found in the political class continuing to package themselves as ethnic stalwarts calling for ethnic solidarity with themselves as leaders, protectors, and patronage distributors. While ethnicity is definitely not the only issue voters frame or raise, it is usually the primary option available to voters at times of presidential contests.
The political class has offered no stable progressive electoral options concerning the material life of the majority outside of individual politicians’ occasional pleas. In the short run, a progressive national agenda, were it to be presented, might seem like a ‘pie in the sky’ and voters may not gravitate to it since it has been left off the table of electoral choice for so long. While voters may have limited trust in ethnic cohorts to deliver the goods (often targeted needs such as medical or school fees, jobs, local social services like a medical clinic, roads, cash for loan payments) through patronage flows in identity channels, voters also fear that opponents of other identities will definitely not respond to their needs. In the short run, historical experience will likely guide citizens who will continue to “read” the ethnic identity of agenda presenters more closely than the messages they offer.
Political rights were re-gained in the 1990s because the vast majority of citizens were fed up and elements of civil society along with some members of the political class went on the offensive. This combination continues to act as a buffer against any major rollback of political rights. But the fragility of rights will remain until national level issues surrounding modest redistribution and the material life of the majority begin to dent ethnic identities as the primary political discourse of the political class at the national level. This will occur only—and this is key—with effective national pressure from below that challenges social class inequality and the political class’ heavy use of ethnic discourse that aids and abets inequality. That pressure is absent today and as a result the political journey will take time and great organizational effort.
Unfortunately the promise of a challenge to inequality and greater protection of democratic rights down the line is even more distant at the present time. As was noted above, Al-Shabaab took “credit” for recent attacks on Mpeketoni and its environs, but President Kenyatta said otherwise. The government failure on the security front, as well as on other issues, plus a revived opposition, may have prompted the regime to blame their difficulties on the domestic political opposition. This view of the current insecurity updates the campaign narrative of last year that joined ethnicity, nation, and the protection of the nation state from external forces. It appears to privilege certain ethnicities as representatives of the nation and its best protectors against an apparent direct or indirect alliance of opposing political forces and external threats. It also implies that national discord is so severe that democratic rights to voice and organize may be a luxury. This sets the stage for a possible crackdown on the opposition. The president’s statement on Mpeketoni was immediately and popularly viewed through the ethnic lens of Kenya’s political history. This is a context where democratic rights are at risk and the matter of inequality takes a back seat.
Meanwhile, Kenya’s extreme class-based inequality aids the rise of everyday crime that threatens all classes in all places at all times. It is another reason to take inequality very seriously sooner rather than later.
 Two recent political histories demonstrate the use of ethnic discourse by the political class. The bibliographies are copious. Daniel Branch, Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, 1963-2011 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), and Charles Hornsby, Kenya: A History Since Independence (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012). A recent extended study of ethnic politics is: Gabrielle Lynch, I Say to You: Ethnic Politics and the Kalenjin in Kenya (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011). See also the discussion of economic inequality and policy suggestions in Kenya’s Vision 2030: An Audit from an Income and Gender Inequalities Perspective (Nairobi: Society for International Development, 2010).
 Journal of Eastern African Studies 8 no. 1 (2014). The entire issue is devoted to the 4 March 2013 election.
 Mwangi wa Githinji and Frank Holmquist, “Reform and Political Impunity in Kenya: Transparency without Accountability,” African Studies Review 55 no. 1 (April 2012), 53-74.
 Open Society Justice Initiative and Muslims for Human Rights, “‘We’re Tired of Taking You to the Court’” (Nairobi: Open Society, 2013).