The term “ethnic violence” is used so often in relation to African tribal disputes that it is easy to forget to ask exactly what that term means. For Rwandans, it meant that relations between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes became so bad that genocide followed. The same can be said today for tribes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Yet for many years, Kenya was held as a shining example of how African nations could rise above the many tribal disputes. The problem is, tribal conflicts can’t be solved easily — even when the government is able to maintain order.
Monday, Kenya introduced a controversial census to gauge just how many members of each tribe are living in different regions of the country, among other statistics. Officials argue that it would be irresponsible not to learn the tribal makeup of Kenyan society. Arguably, with such information, the current leadership could stand up against rival politicians who come up with false numbers for electoral purposes. Yet, many fear that opening up old wounds will only lead to more violence within communities still trying to heal.
Eighteen months ago Kenya dissolved into tribal warfare, and some 600,000 people fled their homes because of an electoral dispute. In the following months, thousands of Kikuyus, members of the power-holding tribe, were killed and many are still displaced. During the conflict, farmers were forced off their lands, which resulted in the current maize industry crisis facing the country. After two seasons of little-to-no crop yield, officials estimate that 10 million Kenyans are now at risk of starvation.
The government claims that it does not have enough money to continue giving out seed grants to farmers so that they can rebuild their lives. Still, others speak only of corruption and greed, as politicians continue to profit while Kenyans go hungry.
Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga are now ruling together as heads of the new multiethnic government. This helped relieve tensions for a time, since both of Kenya’s major tribal populations were represented. There have been no efforts, however, to end the resentment between the tribal groups on the ground. Historically, the disenfranchised Kalenjin have always felt belittled by the Kikuyu despite their ethnic majority within Kenya, and economic disparities within the country have not helped matters.
In the current political crisis, the census will be a good way to gauge how populations within Kenya are recovering and rebuilding their lives. It is meant to shed light on issues such as education, fertility and mortality levels, and migrational patterns. Tuesday was even declared a public holiday to encourage as many responses as possible.
Yet at the same time, the government is doing a massive security overhaul, which will last the entire week of the census. As important as good information may be, it certainly doesn’t seem worth sparking another wave of violence, which could easily lead to even more displacement and suffering for Kenyans. And even if all goes smoothly and the census does yield useful information, it will not have solved the tribal conflicts which are at the root of Kenya’s troubles.
For the moment, the multiethnic government might not feel that it has any incentive to end the tensions — after all, the same tensions brought Odinga and Kibaki to power. As with many corrupt governments, there is a large profit to be made (even from starvation), and the only real objection is coming from external human rights groups and foreign governments.
But those within Kenya worry that if more is not done to help the two tribes reconcile and gain long-term equality, violence will surely break out once again. And surely, no one will profit from that in the end.
Rosaleen O’Sullivan is a junior majoring in English and international relations.