On March 4, Kenyans will once again vote for their local and national leaders. The increase in violence in the last year has raised fears among some national and international observers of the potential for another bloody ballot. In early 2007, the world watched in horror at the events unfolding in Kenya following the presidential elections. More than 1,100 people were killed and 350,000 displaced [1] as violence engulfed the country that many had viewed as an oasis of stability in a turbulent region.

Although the severity of the 2007 post-election violence was perhaps unprecedented, Kenya does have a history of violent ballots, the roots of which can be traced back to the political and social dynamics of the colonial and post-colonial period. A key driver of conflict was the nature of the Kenyan political system, as power was highly centralized in the presidency with checks and balances deliberately weakened or ignored by post-independence leaders. This led to widespread corruption and abuse of power, resulting in the decline of state legitimacy. [2] Meanwhile the concentration of power and resources in the hands of the executive made the race for the presidency a high stakes, zero-sum game. [3]

This zero-sum game was further amplified by ethnic polarization in the country. Kenya is inhabited by eleven major and dozens of smaller ethnic groups, and many political parties organize around these ethnic identities. Consequently, people have felt that it is imperative that one’s own ethnic group secure power in the elections to ensure their access to resources and protect themselves from political and economic marginalization. [4] Furthermore, politicians often used historical grievances between different ethnic groups — such as the land question in the Rift Valley — to garner support, which also had the effect of increasing animosity between different groups. These factors all routinely converge around election time to create a high-pressure electoral environment.

The failure of previous governments to bring the perpetrators of election violence to justice has further instilled a culture of impunity when it comes to fomenting such violence. The findings of investigative committees on electoral violence have been rarely published and little has been done to follow up on their recommendations. Beyond the impunity, those who would seek to use such violence as a political tool have at their disposal a large and willing recruitment base: a high unemployment rate among the youth.

However it would be wrong to assume that nothing has been done to address these issues. In response to the 2007 tragedy several policies have been implemented in an attempt to avoid the politicization of ethnicity and avoid the recurrence of electoral violence. In 2010, a new constitution was adopted that decreased the power vested in the presidency and required presidential candidates to secure broader geographic support than during past elections. The devolution of power from the central government has increased the fiscal and administrative autonomy of counties, and has thus further ‘reduced the stakes’ of the presidency. The government has also made significant attempts to control hate speech, while strengthening the judiciary and the electoral commission. These measures have contributed to a reduction in ethnic competition at the national level and prompted political parties to build alliances across ethnic lines. A prime example of this trend is the coalition of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, representatives of the Kikuyu and Kalenjin ethnic groups that were both heavily involved in previous election violence. Consequently, if this alliance upholds until the 2013 elections, it is likely to significantly reduce the potential for violence in the historically most affected Rift Valley region.

Despite these efforts violence has been increasing since January 2012, raising concerns about the security around the 2013 elections. However, the nature and pattern of recent violence is significantly different from that experienced during previous elections. Recent incidents are more localized. Although clashes over land and water sources have historically been fairly common among these groups, recent attacks have been significantly more organized and the level of brutality in many cases quite severe. Reports have also indicated the involvement of local politicians in such recent clashes [5] as the devolution of power has increased the stake in holding local government office. Additionally, the exploration of natural resources and new development projects has provided another incentive to secure government positions at the county level. In multiethnic counties the political race has taken on an ethnic dimension, perhaps suggesting that the politics of ethnicity is still alive and well, but has simply been displaced. [6] The constitutional amendments seem to have been effective in deterring presidential election violence but have increased the stakes in local elections causing the new wave of violence prior to the 2013 local elections.

The 2007 electoral violence took place in Nairobi, the north and central Rift Valley, the Western and Central Provinces, Nyanza and Mombasa, the regions that host the largest ethnic groups in Kenya. The incidents that have occurred since the beginning of 2012 have taken place in essentially different areas — the North Eastern, Eastern and the Coast Provinces and the northeast of the Rift Valley — suggesting that regions home to smaller identity groups that were less involved in previous election violence have this time seen an increase in the risk of violence. Recent outbreaks in Nairobi are mostly targeting Somalis and in Mombasa tensions between the Muslim and Christian population have erupted.

Though progress has been made in altering political structures to reduce the potential for a recurrence of the violence in 2007, it is yet to be seen whether these reforms will ultimately be effective. Even if violence surrounding the presidential election is adequately addressed, the further danger will be that the potential for displaced violence at the county and local levels will occur, and that the same tragedies will repeat themselves albeit at a different place and in a different context. Regardless, the lead-up to – and aftermath of – the Kenyan presidential election will be a nervous time for Kenyans and the international community alike.

*Filipa Carreira contributed to this article.

1. Commission of Inquiry into Post-Election Violence (2008). Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Post-Election Violence. Retrieved from…
2. Mueller, Susanne D. (2011). Dying to win: Elections, political violence, and institutional decay in Kenya. Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 29/1, 99-117. Retrieved from
3. Commission of Inquiry into Post-Election Violence (2008). Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Post-Election Violence. Retrieved from…
4. Ibid.
5. See, for example, Kenya: Several thousand displaced after fresh clashes in Isiolo. (2012, April 2). IRIN. Retrieved from… Mureithi, Francis (2012, August 21). Kenya: MPs Condemn Border Killings in Mandera. The Star. Retrieved from; Election fighting. (2012, September 20). The Economist. Retrieved from
6. See, for example, Kenya: A boomtown powder keg. (2012, November 25). IRIN. Retrieved from; Gogineni, Roopa (2012, September 21). Kenya tribal killing stain Tana River. Al Jazeera. Retrieved from