Kenya Election 2013: What Do Tribal Conflicts Mean For Kenya — and the U.S.

ByDennis Rainaldi

It is difficult to identify a single narrative to adequately explain the complexities currently unfolding on the Kenyan political stage. On March 9, Kenya's newly created Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission declared that Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya's first president and the country's richest man, was the next president of Kenya. Kenyatta, along with running mate William Ruto, stands accused by the Internationals Criminal Court (ICC) for committing crimes against humanity for their role in post election violence of Kenya's last presidential election. Winning just 50.7% of the vote, Kenyatta received the 50% needed to avoid a second runoff. Turnout for the contest, an estimated 86%, was higher than it has ever been but results were marred by thousands of spoiled ballots, a failed voting machine system and manual recounts. Demanding justice, defeated presidential candidate Raila Odinga officially filed papers at the Kenyan Supreme Court contesting the election last week. Watching these events unfold and witnessing American leaders mixed reactions reminded me not only of how important the idea of justice is in the American psyche but also how it can blur situations abroad when applied hastily. 

As a child in America, I remember history teachers doing a good job of instilling the sense of gravitas that justice had for America's founding fathers. It was the impetus that forced action against an unjust king. For a third grader, unlike the chaos of the real world, things easily fit into perfect silos of right and wrong. When tribal violence is raging, as it was after the 2007 Kenyan presidential election, both sides are often partially guilty and rarely will such conflicts fit neatly into a system of justice that Americans are used to. It would be wise for the United States to remember that before examining the situation in Kenya through an American lens.

President Barack Obama, whose family hails from Kenya and is a huge source of pride for many Kenyans, has fallen in line with most European leaders and not congratulated Kenyatta on his victory but instead focused on congratulating the people of Kenya for keeping the peace. Before the election Obama released a video message to the people of Kenyan in which he urged them to come together and "show the world that you are not just a member of a tribe or ethnic group, but citizens of a great and proud nation." That seemingly succinct and appropriate message was muddled shortly thereafter when U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson warned Kenyans that their "choices have consequences."  

Nothing when it comes to understanding this situation is as black and white as Carson comments suggest. In a Gallup poll, when asked, "do you think the ICC is investigating ALL of the individuals most responsible for post-election violence, or only SOME individuals?" 73% answered that they thought only SOME of those responsible were being held responsible. With over 40 tribes existing in Kenya, tribal affiliations are a complicated yet essential part in understanding this situation. Kenyatta hails from Kenya's largest and most powerful tribe, the Kikuyu. Kenyatta's running mate, Ruto, is a member of the Kalenjin tribe. Odinga is from the third largest tribe, the Luo. Luos and Kikuyus have a long historical rivalry that would rival that of Shakespeare Capulets and Montagues and while no one can agree on just what started the rivalry what is not in dispute is that no one side is innocent. During the height of the post election violence in 2007 all three tribes were guilty of war crimes. By Kenyatta and Ruto joining forces it has combined two tribes that were once archenemies, into one political party against Odinga and the Luos. 

Regardless of who wins the election though, Kenya must remain the United States ally.  Kenya assists the United States with its war on terror by sharing intelligence and it provides support with pirate activity on its coast and Al Qaeda activity in neighboring Somalia. Kenya also hosts the United States largest embassy on the African continent and Nairobi has become an important hub for international business and trade. Kenya is currently bursting with opportunity in many industries. Countries, western and non-western alike, are waiting line to reap the benefits of its potential. While it might be a tough pill to swallow that the U.S. does not carry as big a stick in Kenya as it once did it will have to find a way to work with the next leader of Kenya, whoever it may be.