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Intense Ethnic Divisions in the 2013 Kenyan Election

Submitted by on March 14, 2013 – 9:11 pm 2 Comments |  
Kenya 2013 Election MapMedia reports of the recent Kenyan presidential election have generally focused on the facts that the contest was not as violent as many feared it would be, and that the winner, Uhuru Kenyatta, has been charged by the International Criminal Court with committing crimes against humanity in relation to the bloody presidential election of 2007. Some articles have also mentioned the intensely ethnic nature of the voting pattern, the topic of today’s GeoNote.

Although the election was relatively close, with Kenyatta receiving just over 50 percent of the vote, in most counties the results were extremely lopsided. As can be seen on the map that I constructed, in most cases Kenyatta either took over 80 percent of the vote or less than 30 percent, with his tally ranging from more than 97 percent (Nyandarua) to less than a quarter of one percent (Homa Bay). Such patterns reflect ethnic divisions. In the most basic terms, Kenyatta won handily in Kikuyu and Kalenjin areas, whereas his opponent, Raila Odinga, won by similar margins in Luo and Kamba areas. Not surprisingly, Kenyatta is himself Kikuyu, whereas his running mate, William Ruto, is Kalenjin, while Odinga is Luo, and his running mate, Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, is Kamba.  Such a divisional pattern is typical in Kenyan elections. The voting behavior of the fifth of Kenya’s “big five” ethnic groups, the Luhya, is less predictable.  As the Wikipedia explains:

In Kenyan politics, the Luhya population commonly referred to as the Luhya vote in an election year, is usually a deciding factor of the outcome of an election. The community is known to unite and vote as a block usually for a specific political candidate without division of mind and regardless of political differences. Given their high population numbers, a political candidate who enjoys Luhya support is almost always poised to win the country’s general elections, barring incidents of fraud. The community is thereafter “rewarded” politically, by one of their own being appointed vice president or to a high profile political office by the winning candidate.

Kenya Counties mapIn the 2013 election, however, such patterns did not hold, as the Luhya voted fairly strongly for Odinga, the losing candidate. As it was known ahead of time that Odinga was popular in Luhya-land, some bloggers thereby incorrectly predicted that he would win the election. Evidently Kenyatta did better than expected among some of the country’s smaller ethnic groups.

These election returns indicate that Kenya has a fairly poorly consolidated sense of common nationality. Here, ethnicity matters far more than anything else, outweighing national issues and ideological divisions. Although regionally and ethnically skewed elections are common in many countries, seldom are they as extreme as in Kenya.

(Data source: Electoral Politics:

Inset Map:



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  • When Kenya was a one-party democracy, it was set-up that the presidency was to rotate around to all ethnic groups. Daniel arap Moi was president when I was there. I knew a man who was Nandi, and Daniel arap Moi was Nandi. Arap means “son of,” so I asked him if his last name was “arap then his father’s name.” He said no, that a Nandi man takes that as his last name after his father dies. Also, people of different backgrounds and languages spoke to each other in Swahili, so it let me know how much Swahili was really the lingua franca of East Africa. Only I was surprise with how much Arabic loan words there are in Swahili. The first president Jomo Kenyatta was Kikuyu, and he wrote “Facing Mount Kenya” as his master’s thesis at the London School of Economics. The anthropologist Louis Leakey spoke fluent Kikuyu, from growing up in Kenya. I also met a lot of Kenyans, who were of British descent. Which is the was why Great Britain was so reluctant to grant Kenya independence. But the British stayed, and became citizens of Kenya.

    • Thanks for sharing these interesting observations. There are approximately 30,000 Kenyan citizens of British ancestry living in the country today. Prior to independence, the figure was between 60,000 and 80,000. So while many stayed in Kenya, many others returned to Britain.

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