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Politics, violence, and security in Kenya

Kenya’s general elections are scheduled for March of 2013, the debut for the new constitution, and the first since the 2007 elections, which were marred by substantial post-election ethnic violence. Campaigns are well underway, and candidates have been developing new strategies for getting out the ethnic vote, despite constitutional provisions to mitigate the role of ethnicity or tribe in electoral politics. Not surprisingly, citizens are concerned about the prospects for a fresh round of violence in the wake of electoral competition. When I visited the urban slum of “London” outside Nakruru last week, people explained that this is where many Kalenjin now reside because they were pushed out of other areas by Kikuyu and other groups after the last elections. Old wounds have not been forgotten.

Meanwhile, other types of violence continue to be problematic. Just yesterday, terrorist attacks on two churches resulted in more than a dozen dead.

Less than two weeks earlier, the U.S. state department cited an imminent terrorist threat and mandated all government employees vacate Mombasa. It recommended that American citizens do the same. As I watched on the TV news for more information about the threat, instead I heard various Kenyan government officials criticizing the American announcement, highlighting the costs it would impose on Kenya’s reputation, and its tourism industry, even beyond the coastal region. “It’s difficult to be a friend of the United States,” several argued.

And then a deadly grenade was launched into a Mombasa nightclub. (Incidentally, I was pretty impressed by the quality of the U.S. government intelligence on this one, but that’s another story.)

I understand the Kenyan government’s concern for its reputation as a stable place for investment and tourism. But I wonder if they wouldn’t do better trying to build some national unity around what is now a sustained if seemingly regionally concentrated terrorist threat. That is, rather than trying to put on a public face that minimizes the scale of the external security concern, government leaders ought to consider politicizing the shared threat to all Kenyans. The point is not to foment xenophobic views, but to highlight that all have an interest in safety as a prerequisite for prosperity. If such a campaign were effective, social identity theory suggests that this would minimize the sense of internal group difference among Kenyans. Of course, the viability of such a strategy assumes that politicians have an interest in minimizing ethnic violence, which some theories suggest is not always the case. But there would be a substantial longer-term payoff should Kenya manage to complete an election without substantial impropriety or violence.

About Evan Lieberman

I am a Professor of Political Science at MIT, and I conduct research, write, and teach about development, ethnic politics, and research methods.

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