Friday, March 1, 2013

Kenya's Bastards

Author: Declan Galvin

Kenya is yet again at a crossroad. Having experienced much violence in the wake of the precedent election, the peaceful outcome in the current one remains an uncertain hope. While reiterating the responsibility of the presidential contenders,' the author explores the roles that Kenya's marginalized youth have played in the 2007-2008 post-election violence, and ponders on the likelihood of their involvement in acts of violence this time around.

Whether or not Kenya will break into violence during the upcoming March election has been a major point of debate. The now infamous post election violence, which erupted during the 2007-2008 presidential election, continues to weigh heavily on the psyche of the nation. Matters have not been made easier with two major presidential contenders, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, currently under prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their involvement. That being said, we cannot forget that the perpetrators of this violence (i.e., those who physically carried out these murders) are from a small, but extremely important, element of Kenyan society. I am not speaking about the Kenyan elite—who are bastards in their own right; and who no doubt bear the most responsibility for the post election violence and rampant impunity in Kenya.

Rather, the bastards that I am speaking of are the youth who exist in the margins and periphery of Kenyan society. These people do not benefit from the Kenyan state, and indeed are not recognized in any meaningful way—whether that is birth certificates, identification cards, or the provision of human services which are usually associated with state functions. They are denied the rights, privileges, and opportunities afforded only to subjects of the state. These youth are bastards, not because of their own choices, but because of their illegitimacy, their lack of formal recognition, and their social and economic activity lie in excess of state authority. However some of these youth in Kenya, many of whom are in gangs, do not share the same historical narrative of many other Africans who also live in spaces of informality. The Waki Report says that, “between 1992 and 1996, the number of street children [in Kenya] increased 300% in just four years. Many of these initially rootless children who are now adults are the product of displacement by ethnic violence. They have grown up on the streets and are inured to violence…the combination of being rootless, having survived amidst violence, and their need for an identity and a livelihood makes them ready recruits for violent gangs” (35).  In other words, the political and demographic chemistry in contemporary Kenya has formed a unique and incendiary environment.

In the wake of the 2007-2008 presidential cycle, Kenya's marginalized youth participated in untold acts of chaos and violence, on behalf of their respective parties. Photo Credit: Reuters

In a marvelous stroke of irony, the very children who were displaced because of the egregious behavior by Kenyan politicians are now being contracted as youth gangs to carry out the violent ambitions of the elite. There have been numerous testimonies of youth being trucked into certain areas to kill people and burn property during the post election violence, and it is the Kenyan elite—including Kenyatta and Ruto—who are responsible for financing these operations. Indeed, Kenya has a different set of bastards, individuals whose lifestyles have been disproportionately affected by violent displacement and ethnic cleansing, in addition to the debilitating poverty and uncertainty faced by most people living in informality. Understanding the relationship between Kenyan politicians and these youth groups, as well as the historical and social dynamics of this relationship must be placed in context with the current election; yet too often commentators on Kenya neglect to mention the significance of this dynamic in their analysis.

Uhuro Kenyatta (left)  and William Ruto (right), are currently under investigation by the ICC for
their alleged involvement in Kenya's 2007-2008 post-election violence.

However, the most pertinent question is: are these politicians and elites willing to finance acts of violence again, given the international media attention and ongoing ICC trials? I am not sure if there is any clear answer to this question. We have already seen acts of election and polling violence this year, but whether or not those seemingly spontaneous acts evolve into more coordinated action remains to be seen. The question then moves to, whether or not there are youth willing to commit violent crime for hire? This answer should be much clearer to us, since there have been no meaningful improvements to the social and economic circumstances of the most vulnerable Kenyans. I am not convinced that Kenya will experience violence on the same level and intensity as it did during the last election, but I do not think that anyone should try and pretend like the fundamental drivers of this violence have fleeting relevance.

Declan Galvin is an MA candidate at New York University concentrating on African Politics and Security. He is an avid observer and commentator on global issues, and was recently honored as an NYU Africa House Fellow. He has lived, worked, and conducted research throughout the African continent since 2008, presenting and publishing his findings in a number of social and academic venues. In addition to his scholarly work, he has consulted and worked with non-profit organizations throughout the world. He may be reached at for questions or comments.

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