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Ethnicity and Economic Inequality in Kenya

11 Aug 2023
By Dr Sam Balaton-Chrimes
Nairobi, Kenya. Source: Nina R /

In recent weeks, Kenya has been rocked by street protests over the state of the economy. Kenyans are upset with the dramatically rising cost of living, and the police and security forces have attempted to quell the protests with violence.

The political temperature is hot in Kenya right now. Ordinary citizens – wananchi in Swahili – are struggling to feed their families. The cost of staple foods, housing, energy, and transport has risen as a result of inflation, debt, and the food insecurity exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. The poor are, as always, most affected. Economic inequality is at the heart of these protests.

One explanation for economic inequality and resulting unrest is to blame it on ethnic divisions. For example, long-time opposition leader Raila Odinga called for these protests, many believe, not to protest economic inequality but to destabilise President William Ruto. There are widespread accusations on social media of Odinga’s Luo ethnic group being the main targets of police brutality. Ruto, in turn, accuses Odinga of destabilising the country out of bitterness over his repeated electoral losses (some of which were likely rigged).

Many commentators opine that Kenyans choose their political loyalties based on ethnic affiliation, even though last year’s elections showed otherwise. The narrative continues because “tribalism” is an easy go-to explainer for tensions in Kenya.

It is, of course, too simplistic.

Ethnicity plays a role in economic decision-making and politics in Kenya, but it cannot be reduced to mere tribalism. Kenya grapples with a history of economic inequality that developed partially along ethnic lines. Equality and redress do require some acknowledgment of this.

Economic inequality and ethnicity

Kenya is home to a large number of ethnic groups, none having more than around 17 percent of the population. Under British occupation (1895-1963), Africans in Kenya were physically, politically, and economically divided and ruled. This contributed, over time, to the edification of ethnic identities and ideas of ethnic territory.

This also meant different groups had different experiences of colonial rule. The Kikuyu people, for instance, were displaced by white settler farms while pastoralist groups, such as ethnic Somalis in the North-East, were deliberately neglected. There was no uniform experience of colonialism.

After independence, economic experiences continued to differ substantially between ethnic groups, despite the end of restrictions on movement and residence. These differences have entrenched perceptions about ethnicity. For example, it’s widely believed that Kikuyu people experienced favouritism, especially in the allocation of land, and that the Luo community was deliberately excluded from political power. There is some truth and some fiction in both claims. Other ethnic groups have been more concretely disadvantaged, particularly pastoralist communities in the North and North-East, and groups on the coast.

Importantly, hard data on ethnicity and economic inequality is nowhere to be found. Not since 1989 have ethnic population figures even been published below the aggregate national level. No studies in the last several decades use tangible data on ethnicity and correlate it to economic measures.

In the absence of data that definitively demonstrates inequalities between ethnic groups, data about inequalities between regions is deployed instead. Region and ethnicity are often conflated, such that “the North and North-East” has become shorthand for ethnic Somalis, Borana, Gabbra, Turkana, Samburu, and other smaller pastoralist groups, while “Western” has been associated with Luo. Regional data is widely interpreted (sometimes explicitly, as in in this report by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics), as being evidence of ethnic inequality.

Efforts to redress economic inequality

In 2010, Kenyans voted for a new constitution that decentralised government and created 47 counties. Prior to 2010, power was highly centralised in the presidency, with little autonomy for lower levels of government or even the Parliament. The devolution brought about by the new constitution was intended to mitigate this, and the subsequent political tensions.

Power is now available at more local levels (counties), diffusing the political heat and mitigating the sense of ethnic competition that had characterised presidential elections.

The new constitution also devolved economic planning and resource management to counties, to equalise development across the regions. This has meant that many aggrieved Kenyans have felt included in the economy for the first time, able to participate in and benefit from economic decision making at the local (county) level. This new form of influence is often perceived and experienced as ethnic influence, because counties are perceived to “belong” to particular ethnic groups, those big enough to demographically dominate a county.

This has, however, led to the problem of “minorities within minorities”: ethnic groups too small to dominate a county. For these groups, the constitution includes an Equalisation Fund, a form of affirmative action in an earmarked portion of the national budget to improve basic service delivery in the most marginalised areas. This fund holds some promise in redressing the very worst excesses of inequality, but it is largely yet to be disbursed because of political squabbling. The fund is allocated principally by area, not group, using census data. Any targeting of particular ethnic groups is incidental, with the exception of four “particularly marginalised ethnic groups.”

Unofficially, then, ethnicity remains a key axis on which economic inequality is understood and addressed in Kenya.

It’s not all about ethnicity

Ethnicity, however, is not and should not be the only lens through which problems of economic inequality are understood or redressed. The protests in recent weeks show that many Kenyans are still poor and angry.

There is another way of viewing “tribe” in Kenya, namely that there are only two: rich and poor. Despite several periods of strong economic growth, trickle-down economics since the 1980s has not alleviated inequality. Under President Uhuru Kenyatta (2013-2022), there was no comprehensive economic planning to address economic inequality. Kenya’s income inequality is slightly above the global average. It’s poverty rate is 36.1 percent. Over 80 percent of the population is under 35, and in that demographic unemployment is high.

This latest round of protests was triggered by new taxes on petrol, housing, and goods and services, which hit the poor the hardest. This has been hard to stomach from President Ruto, who was elected on a platform self-styled as a “Bottom Up Economic Transformation Agenda,” otherwise known as the “hustler” agenda –  hustler meaning an ordinary person working hard to get by. His efforts to boost agricultural production and fund small business have not been enough to convince those on the streets. Ruto has promised inclusive growth, but is finding it hard to deliver in a context of high inflation and unemployment, high levels of public debt inherited especially from President Uhuru Kenyatta, and a massive informal economy that limits tax revenue. His failure to address long-standing state corruption is not helping.

However, the blame does not lie only at Ruto’s feet. Kenya’s position within the international political economy leaves it – like most countries in Africa – with few available options for sustainable prosperity. Debt servicing sits at around half of the government’s annual revenue. Kenya is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change; and its economy is highly dependent on agriculture and tourism which are not strengths from a global economic perspective. The responsibility for redressing economic inequality – ethnic or otherwise – is global.

Dr Sam Balaton-Chrimes is a Senior Lecturer in International Studies at Deakin University. Sam’s work is oriented to understanding and, ultimately, redressing injustices and inequalities between different identity groups.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.