Comment & analysis

‘The coffee is now ripe for harvesting’: Kenyan views on peace and conflict

2 November 2021 ‘The coffee is now ripe for harvesting’: Kenyan views on peace and conflict

We spoke to Kenyans across the country about how conflict affects their day-to-day lives, in an effort to understand the causes of conflict and its impacts, paving the way for peaceful and constructive dialogue between ethnic groups in the run-up to Kenya’s 2022 general elections.

"In Kenya, you have to build your political base from your community before you go to convince other people to vote for you.”

Kenya has over 40 different ethnic groups that make up a population of 47.5 million. Historically, election periods in Kenya have been volatile, with ethnic divides escalating into widespread tensions and violence. The country’s governance system also limits the ability of Kenyans to participate in decision-making on issues that affect their lives, creating further exclusion and frustration.

In order to build trust and cooperation between communities by creating safe spaces for discussion, we spoke to over 250 people between March and April 2021 in Bungoma, Kiambu, Kisumu, Nairobi and Uasin Gishu counties. This was part of a process to identify the issues and concerns that Kenyan citizens and community-level authorities regard as most critical for peace. The five counties selected represent the regions inhabited by Kenya’s four largest ethnic groups (Kalenjin, Kikuyu, Luhya and Luo), which have historically been at the centre of election-related conflicts.

Participants came from a range of groups: civil society, including women- and youth-led organisations, university students, religious leaders, people with disabilities, local politicians, county and national government representatives. We also wanted to listen to people in less formal environments, so we spoke to people at waiting points for boda boda (motorbikes) and taxis, mama mboga (vegetable seller) stalls and other public places.

These conversations were carried out jointly with three Kenyan organisations – Pamoja for Transformation (PfT) Trust, the Universities and Colleges Students’ Peace Association of Kenya (UCSPAK) and the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (CJPC) Eldoret – and with the Life & Peace Institute (LPI). They were part of a project to promote dialogue and reconciliation between and among different ethnic groups in Kenya.*
Below are some of the issues most frequently brought up.

Ethnic polarisation

While historical accounts trace the emergence of Kenya’s ethnic politics back to the colonial period, our conversations highlighted that the ethnic clashes in 1991, 1992 and 1997 formed new and enduring fault lines. “In the 1990s, people realised that you could be insecure in your home country, [when you are] outside what people consider your ancestral area,” observed one participant.

Another community member in Uasin Gishu recalled how businesses with Kikuyu or Kisii owners were vandalised as an act of vengeance during the 2007/08 post-election violence. In Kisumu County, people noted that ethnic minorities would often flee the county during elections. “This aggravates tensions between the predominant Luo community and other ethnic minorities as the Luos feel that ethnic minorities want to benefit from development initiatives in the county, but do not want to support the community’s political leaders when it is time to do so.”

Discussions also highlighted how ethnic stereotypes and divisive statements increase in the run-up to elections, exacerbating hostility between ethnic groups. In Uasin Gishu County, statements such as ‘chungeni town isiende’, loosely paraphrased as ’take care of our town, don’t give it up to outsiders’ and ’huwezi karibisha mgeni alafu aje atawale hadi kwenye bedroom yako‘, meaning ’you can’t invite a visitor into your house then allow them to reign in your bedroom’, amplified ethnic tensions in the 2017 electoral period.

Political manipulation of youth

A 2020 study shows that the proportion of young people aged 15 to 34 not in education, employment or training has grown significantly since 2019, by 7.4% (to 15.6%). Our research highlighted that young people in the five counties are highly disadvantaged, marginalised by government and vulnerable to political manipulation. There is a palpable sense of frustration, with most young people stating that they do not have access to economic, social, and employment opportunities. With so few opportunities, young people are likely to resort to any means of earning a living, including serving the interests of political leaders even if that means taking part in criminal activities.

Young people from Kiandutu informal settlement in Kiambu County said they refer to election periods as ’kahawa imeiva‘, meaning ’the coffee is now ripe for harvesting‘. The coffee in this case is the election, and the act of harvesting refers to the money that they can earn from when they are employed to ‘support’ a politician’s campaign. They added that for some young people, it is just seen as a job like any other.

Our conversations also found that, while unemployed and uneducated young people are more prone to political manipulation, political leaders have also been tapping into the student population. “Most students value political connections, and political leaders seem to understand that, making it a case of willing seller, willing buyer. Students assume that being close to a political leader will translate to better economic opportunities for them either while they are still in school or once they graduate,” observed a national youth leader. Political leaders also recruit university students to engage in violence, particularly in urban areas like Nairobi and Kiambu Counties.

Election-related violence against women and girls

In Kenya, women and girls are often disproportionately affected during periods of violence. As recently recognised by the High Court of Kenya, during the 2007/08 post-election violence, approximately 900 people, the majority of them women and girls, suffered sexual and gender-based violence, perpetrated mainly by security forces and criminal gangs. This was also the case in the 2013 and 2017 elections. In all three cases, it was observed that survivors encountered serious difficulties in reporting cases of sexual violence, due to a lack of trust in the police and law enforcement institutions, a lack of accountability, or fear of being stigmatised, among other reasons.

A community member we spoke to observed that conflict limits the freedom of women and girls: they cannot move as freely as men do, compromising their access to essential services such as health facilities, and resources like food and water. “In most communities, the role of women is still subordinate to that of men, and most are therefore excluded from peace discussions at the community level,” noted a participant from Uasin Gishu County.

On the flip side, according to a national gender specialist we spoke to, women have increasingly become more vocal and expressive in the political scene. While further research is needed on the issue, discussions revealed that women are in some cases playing a role in aggravating conflict. For example, on the Nandi-Kisumu border and the Kiambu-Kajiado border (where land ownership or boundaries are contested), and in informal settlements, cases were mentioned of women inciting men to violence.

Other issues 

Another cross-cutting theme that emerged from the discussions is the role of the media in fuelling tension and creating divisions between ethnic groups. Community members noted that many local and urban radio stations only recruit presenters from particular ethnic groups, who then use their platform to highlight differences and reinforce stereotypes. Many community members interviewed believe that most media companies in Kenya are compromised. Since our interviews, the Media Council of Kenya has developed guidelines on election coverage for journalists, marking a progressive step forward on the issue.

A number of other significant conflict issues were identified, including: confusion about the proposed boundary delimitation process, which will likely cause disputes over county boundaries; the lack of credibility of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to peacefully manage elections; cattle rustling and theft in rural areas; and the rising costs of living, which has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The findings from these discussions are a starting point for communities, civil society organisations and local government leaders to expand the dialogue and develop mechanisms to prevent violence in the run-up to the 2022 elections. Our conversations did not only highlight those who mobilise and deploy violence, such as politicians and criminal gangs, but also those individuals and groups who can mobilise peace. Community members from across the five counties identified religious leaders, civil society organisations, community and faith-based organisations, Nyumba Kumi (community policing) representatives and government administrators (such as County Commissioners and Deputy County Commissioners) as having the authority and influence to unite people across ethnic divides.

Saferworld wishes to thank everyone who participated in this process of consultation, including the national and county government officials and community representatives from the five focus counties. 

The work referred to in this piece is funded by USAID.