Gangs and Political Violence in Kenya

Kenya elections
post election violence by Actionpixs(maruko)

By Naomi van Stapele

Wanaich looked at me with an intense look in his eyes:

“They just took that man… and cut him with a panga [machete in Kiswahili]. Then they come to me and ask for my ID. It was like a checkpoint. They put kuni [firewood in Kiswahili] and stones on the road. There was no way you could pass them, and they want to know if you are PNU so they look at your ID. I was scared but I saw a guy I was in school with, you know at depot field. So this guy come to me and say I am from Mtaa [ghetto neighbourhood in Sheng] and that I can pass… What if that guy had not been there? Eeeeh, I don’t want to think about that.”

He was out of breath and his eyes were bloodshot. The pungent smell of his sweat told me his fear. He was reliving the moment and I was at loss for words. In the past few days I had finally been able to locate and meet some of my friends who had been locked in the slum since the violence erupted. I, myself, had been confined to my house and had spent my days frantically phoning friends while I was glued to the TV against the backdrop of loud gunshots and an otherwise omnipresent and deafening silence. The usual sounds of the slum, loud music, the bus‑operators repeatedly stating their destinations and the crowd of people walking back and forth, were muted by the war. Now my friends gave me a horrifying glimpse of what had happened to them and their loved ones only a few 100 meters from my front door.

Wanaich narrowly escaped death. The young men at the checkpoint would have interpreted Wanaich’s name on his identity card, Samuel Wainaina, as an indicator of his Kikuyu identity and therefore supporter of the Party of National Unity (PNU). These young men supported Raila Odinga who was the Luo presidential candidate of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and the main opponent of Mwai Kibaki, the Kikuyu presidential candidate of PNU. The dominant discourse on citizenship in Kenya had constructed the political divide that gained importance in the days following the General Elections, held on 27 December 2007, as ethnic, pitting so‑called Luo against so‑called Kikuyu. The tensions broke out into open violence in several impoverished rural and urban localities as soon as President Kibaki was inaugurated during a hurried swearing‑in ceremony on 30 December 2007. In the Rift Valley and Coast Provinces, other ethnic groups such as the Kalenjin and the Kissi were also involved in the violence, but that did not alter the dominant perception in Kenya that this was about ‘Luo’ and ‘Kikuyu.’

In the slum Mathare Valley the political divide was played out between two ethnic‑based gangs; the Mungiki, a gang with a strong Kikuyu profile, and the Taliban, a gang with a strong Luo profile and no relation, other than the name, to the Taliban in Afghanistan. In the days that followed the inaugural ceremony of President Kibaki the Taliban took control of the slum venting its anger by ousting, killing and raping Kikuyu residents and burn their properties while the Mungiki retaliated with much the same. I was perplexed by the, alleged, sudden rise in ethnic affiliations. I knew many young men who were both half Kikuyu and half Luo. Over the years, I had conducted research with them as members of both Mungiki and Taliban gangs and I had learned to understand their membership strategically as it shifted primarily according to changing economic contexts. I had a hard time grasping the growing significance of ethnic identity in a locality where most men I knew identified with the neighbourhood they lived in and with the friends they grew up with.

Wanaich did not vote, nor did he perceive himself primarily as a Kikuyu young man. He was an orphan who had little ties with family outside Nairobi and he called the slum Mathare Valley his ancestral home or ocha in Sheng. He was not the only one in the Mathare slum who primarily identified with the locality in which he was born rather than with an ethnic label. The majority of the young men I met and worked with identified with many different ethnic labels. They spoke the local Sheng as their first and, more often than not, only language and had little affinity with the vernaculars, the culture and the rural regions generally associated with their ethnic backgrounds. The question therefore rises why the men at the checkpoint positioned themselves as Luo during the post‑election violence and why they brutally targeted neighbours they considered Kikuyu? Why do young men from the Nairobi slums let themselves be mobilised in political violence that is whipped up by the political elite? This is one of the core questions in my PhD research, a project that focuses on the emergence of ethnic‑based gangs and the mobilisation of such gangs in political violence in Kenya since independence from the perspective of the young men involved.

Naomi van Stapele is a PhD candidate at the Amsterdam School for Social science Research (UvA).

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