Report & Essay
Identity & Violence

Report & Essay

Identity & Violence
Daniel Waweru

 In Kenya, violence abounds, as do analyses of its causes and consequences. One quick way of dividing opinion on the matter is to ask four questions: (i) Was the violence planned? (ii) Was it ‘ethnic’? (iii) Was there ethnic cleansing? (iv) Was it ‘political’?


We aren’t short of people who will answer no to all save the last for boring political reasons; we needn’t worry about them. But others, for presumably non-political reasons, will do likewise. Timothy Williamson once said, in a slightly different context, that “unless names are invidiously named, sermons like this… tend to cause less offence than they should, because everyone imagines that they are aimed at other people.”

Maina Kiai, Tavia Nyong’o, here’s looking at you.

My targets offer distinct arguments. Tavia argues that ethnicity is the form, rather than the content, of Kenyan politics, from which it follows, we must assume, that the violence isn’t ethnically motivated. Maina’s testimony before the US House of Representatives’ subcommittee on African affairs included the claims that: (i) ‘What [was] going on in Kenya [was] a political crisis with ethnic
manifestation because politics in Kenya is organized ethnically,” and (ii) “The violence [was] neither genocide nor ethnic cleansing: The root of the problem [was] not that different ethnic groups decided they could no longer live together.”

I hope it is evident that the reasoning in each case is unsound. The notions of ‘form’ and ’substance’, which are central to Tavia’s piece, are nowhere clearly characterised. If the substance of politics is the goal at which political action is aimed, then the central claim of the article is false. Kalenjin ethnonationalism, at least in its extreme reaches, is territorial: one of its central aims is the
exclusive enjoyment of large parts of the Rift Valley. And it imposes normative requirements: Seroney was lauded for the Nandi Hills Declaration in 1969; then, as now, Moi was blamed for not restoring ancestral land to Kalenjin ownership. On a natural construal of ’substance’, ethnicity is part of the substance of Kenyan politics.

Maina’s testimony may be disposed of briefly. It is not a condition of either genocide or ethnic cleansing that whole communities decide that they cannot live with each other: by that standard, there was no genocide in Rwanda in 1994, for many Hutus chose to defend Tutsis. Equally, from the fact that Kalenjin who protected Gikuyu or refused to participate in the violence were often assaulted, it doesn’t follow that ethnic cleansing didn’t happen in RVP. Likewise, of course, for events in Nyanza, Central Province, and elsewhere. The criterion given is transparently irrelevant.

So, we have obviously clever people making obviously false assertions and giving obviously bad arguments for them. What gives? We’ll get there, but, first, a quick reminder of the lay of the argumentative land.

In the past, the Luo Union traded on exclusively ethnic lines; in the present, Transcentury has precisely zero non-GEMA shareholders. Months ago, I had the utterly surreal experience of reading, in quick succession in a bookshop in Nairobi, Colin Leys lament the inability of the Kenyan middle classes to overcome ethnic cleavage in their own obvious common class interests, and Prof. Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o on the necessity of breaking off the Gikuyu bourgeoisie (in an obituary for Ramogi Achieng Oneko, no less). If
ethnicity already motivates this kind of irrational behaviour, should we not expect it to motivate violence too?

If you want to explain the violence, you need to explain how attackers are mobilised, how victims are chosen, and how attackers conceived of their victims (more precisely: why the attacker thought the victim merited the attack).

Class is a poor explanation for all of those: for much of the post-election violence, it doesn’t determine as neat an explanation as does ethnicity. But wait, why are we talking about class and ethnicity at all? Probably because class and ethnicity are (pre)supposed to be exclusive and jointly exhaustive explanations for the violence. The fight is then over which of these is the real cause of the violence.

The offending assumptions come in different flavours: the unsophisticated idea that class and ethnicity are competing explanations and that class is the sole cause; and the slightly more sophisticated thought that even if class and ethnicity jointly explain the violence, class is the dominant factor because ethnicity is reducible to it in some way. Pending the promised submersion of ethnicity into class, we have no compelling reason to accept the second. The first ought not to be taken seriously, either: there have been distinct kinds of violence, and those who wish to show that there is one cause for all of them bear the burden of proof – it is a heavy one.

To show that the violence is politically motivated is to make it respectable (or at least comprehensible). Class is a vaguely ‘political’ concept, so the violence is explained in class terms. The gain in intelligibility justifies the choice of class to explain the violence. That overlooks the point that killing people for the identities they bear is also a political act. Any intelligibility gained by appealing to political categories is as available to those who choose identity as it is to those who choose class. Respectability, it appears, is the only reason for denying ethnicity its explanatory power.

Returning to Kiai and Nyong’o, you’ll notice that they’re at one in denying that ethnicity has independent motivating power: for them, its potency is derivative. In this boggy and treacherous terrain, that thought is the landmark by which the parties orient themselves. The premise is false, which is why those who take their bearings by it have arrived at such strange conclusions.

Ethnically motivated violence is what it is and not another thing. The beast stares us in the face. Time to stare it down.


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