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State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Kenya

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 11 March 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Kenya, 11 March 2008, available at: [accessed 23 May 2023]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The fall-out from the late 2007 elections plunged Kenya into chaos. Amid widespread allegations of rigging, President Kibaki and his Party of National Unity claimed victory in the closely fought elections – an outcome vehemently disputed by the opposition Orange Democratic Movement. The tribal fault-lines in Kenyan society were exposed when competing political interests overlapped with ethnic differences. President Kibaki and many of his close associates are Kikuyu, while his main rival Raila Odinga is a Luo. The Luos – who make up 14 per cent of the Kenyan population – have long seen themselves as being denied the leadership of the country. Kikuyus – who make up 20 per cent of the population – have dominated the country politically and economically since independence, and have traditionally been the target of widespread resentment on the part of the smaller tribes.

Alarmingly, post-election anger has mutated into the settling of old scores. In the Rift Valley, historic grievances against land allocations led to the mass targeting of Kikuyu farmers by the Kalenjin (around 11 per cent of the population), who regard the land in the Rift Valley as theirs. In western Kenya, the Kikuyu minority also found itself under attack; many fled, fearing for their lives. In a disturbing escalation of the violence, the Kikuyu criminal militia, Mungiki, struck back around the town of Naivasha in the Rift Valley, targeting Luo and tribes seen to support the opposition. By the end of January, hundreds had been killed in the violence, with tens of thousands displaced. Political leaders on both sides of the divide had no clear plan to pull Kenya back from the brink, despite high-level diplomatic efforts led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Earlier in 2007, control over Kenya's land resources was identified as one of the 'most pressing issues on the public agenda' by the UN Special Rapporteur for Indigenous Issues, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, in his February 2007 country report on Kenya. His assessment, based on a visit to Kenya undertaken at the end of the previous year, painted a bleak picture of the situation of Kenya's pastoralist, hunter-gatherer and forest tribes. Excluded from political and economic power, these peoples have seen their land seized, their resources plundered and their way of life become ever more untenable.

Since early 2007, tensions had also flared in the Mount Elgon region in western Kenya, as a long-standing dispute over land rights boiled over. After months of violence, an estimated 300 were dead, and 100,000 displaced in late 2007. The origins of the conflict lie in the displacement of the pastoralist Sabaot people from their traditional lands by the British colonial authorities, and subsequent botched attempts by the Kenyan government to resettle them.

According to the Kenya Land Alliance, the latest scheme was fraught with 'massive irregularities' and left 1,400 people 'homeless, landless, and with no means of livelihood'. Leaders of the indigenous Ogiek forest-dwelling tribe complained that their ancestral rights to live in Chepyuk forest had been ignored and called for the scheme to be nullified.

It was in this context that the Sabaot Lands Defence Force (SLDF) emerged. Although its origins, strength and precise motives remain unclear, the SLDF publicly states that it wants to reclaim lost territory, including its ancestral lands. By late 2007, it had carried out the burning of property and attacks in major towns such as Kitale, and driven tens of thousands of people from their homes. At the end of October 2007, in a series of gruesome attacks, six people were beheaded, reportedly by the SLDF. Many of the victims have been from rival Sabaot sub-clans, others were settlers from other tribes seen as 'incomers'.

In March 2007, the Ogiek issued a public plea for help, saying that 20 Ogiek had been killed in the violence and appealing to the international community for help. Humanitarian agencies say the conditions endured by the displaced are dire. Without a chance to harvest crops, displaced families face the prospect of malnutrition, and those who have sought refuge on the cooler, higher slopes of Mount Elgon are more susceptible to disease.

In August 2007, Kenya's draft National Land Policy was made public. This policy is an attempt to address the explosive issue of land ownership and land tenure, which has dogged the country since independence. As the fall-out from the election demonstrates, the colonial land policies, laws and administrative structure have given rise to entrenched corrupt practices, gross social and economic inequalities and, ultimately, conflict.

Potentially, this new draft policy – which was formulated after a wide-ranging consultative process – could redefine the relationship between the country's marginalized minorities and the state. Indeed, it includes a special section on minorities, pastoralist groups and coastal peoples. Some of the policy's provisions are: to draw up a legislative framework to secure the rights of minorities; to convert government-owned land on the coastal strip into community land; and, crucially, to recognize pastoralism as a legitimate land use and production system. The document has yet to be debated by the Kenyan parliament. In view of the post-election crisis, however, it is unclear when this will happen. Previous experience suggests that the entrenched interests of the Kenyan business and political elite may find many of the proposals unpalatable, although it is now evident that, if Kenya is to overcome its current divisions, the settlement of historic land grievances will be an essential component of any roadmap to recovery.

The political chaos is also a setback for minority rights campaigners, who had hoped that progress could be made on implementing the landmark Il Chamus decision in the Kenyan courts. This ruling, delivered by the Constitutional Court in late 2006, found in favour of the Il Chamus community from Lake Baringo in the Rift Valley. This pastoralist tribe had complained that, under the current electoral arrangements, it was almost impossible to elect an MP from their group.

Activists believe the court verdict could help other minorities – such as the Boni, Endorois, Nubians and Tachoni – secure better political representation. Yobo Rutin, from the Centre for Minority Rights Development, says they pressed the Electoral Commission of Kenya and the government for the redrawing of electoral boundaries and the creation of special interest seats. But both measures got nowhere in advance of the hotly contested end-of-year poll.

Despite this disappointment, the Endorois, whose ancestral home is around Lake Bogoria in the Rift Valley, continued their fight to realize their rights. MRG has been working closely with this community, who were displaced from their traditional territory when the area was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1973. Attempts to seek redress at a national level have failed, so the Endorois have taken their case to the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights. If successful, their case will have implications for many other minorities in similar situations across the continent.

Election season also focused attention on the Muslim minority in Kenya. Although there is no official figure, the total number of Muslims in Kenya is put at anything between 10 to 20 per cent of the population. This group has long-standing complaints about discriminatory treatment. Since 9/11 these have been aggravated by anti-terrorist activities, which have led to protests about arbitrary, unlawful detention and torture. Security sweeps in coastal cities such as Mombasa have often seemed counter-productive. The issues rose to the surface in 2007, partly because of the dislodging of the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia. The Kibaki government is widely believed to have 'rendered' suspected Islamic extremists back to Ethiopia. Amid considerable confusion, it was claimed that some of those handed over were of Kenyan nationality and therefore should have been tried under Kenyan law. In a bid to keep the Muslim vote onside in a tight electoral race, President Kibaki appointed an official committee to investigate alleged discrimination against Kenyan Muslims by the government.

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