January 3, 2008

Despite Progress and an Upbeat Pre-Election Mood, Ethnic Conflicts Have Long Worried Many Kenyans

by Richard Wike, Senior Researcher and Kathleen Holzwart, Research Analyst, Pew Global Attitudes Project

Until recently, Kenya was considered something of a success story in a troubled region; now, however, it is consumed by political and ethnic violence following last week’s disputed reelection of President Mwai Kibaki. The unrest has shocked many both inside and outside Kenya who believed the election would confirm the country’s reputation as East Africa’s most stable developing democracy.

As a recent Pew Global Attitudes survey highlighted, this optimism was not unwarranted — before the election, Kenyans were feeling relatively good about the direction of their nation. Moreover, Kenyans were overwhelmingly optimistic about the elections — two-in-three believed they would be conducted fairly.1

However, as the survey also revealed, Kenyans have long been one of the major African nations most worried about tribal conflicts. Half of Kenyans rated conflict among tribal groups a “very big problem” for their country — the second highest percentage among the 10 African nations included in Pew’s April 2007 poll. Only Ivory Coast and Nigeria — both of which have also experienced considerable ethnic violence in recent years — had similar levels of concern. Obviously, it would appear that, for the moment at least, tribal tensions have trumped the confidence Kenyans held in their electoral system and democratic institutions.

Public’s Mood Had Been Upbeat

Overall, the survey found a relatively upbeat outlook in Kenya, especially compared with survey findings from five years ago. In this year’s poll, 45% said they are satisfied with the country’s direction. While the satisfied still comprise less than a majority, their percentage in the population is a five-fold increase from 2002; it also represents the second-highest level of satisfaction among the African nations surveyed.

Views of the economy have improved even more dramatically. In 2002, only 7% said the country’s economic situation was good, compared with 60% in 2007. And Kenyans are feeling this economic progress in their own lives — 54% say their personal financial situation is better now than it was five years ago. Among the 10 African countries surveyed, only Senegal has enjoyed more progress in personal finances.

Of course, as in much of sub-Saharan Africa, poverty is a serious problem in Kenya, and many of its citizens remain unable to afford life’s basic necessities. Roughly six-in-ten say that within the last year they have been unable to afford health care (62%), clothing (58%) or food (57%) — relatively high levels of deprivation, even when compared with other poor nations in the region.2

Strong Support for Democracy

The 2007 Pew survey found solid support for democratic values and institutions in Kenya (as well as in other sub-Saharan African countries3). For instance, Kenyans overwhelmingly express support for the principle of honest multiparty elections — roughly three-in-four (74%) say it is “very important” to live in a country that has such elections.

Majorities also consider it very important to live in a country with freedom of religion (83%), an impartial judiciary (79%), a free press (72%), and free speech (68%). Just under half (46%) also rate living in a country with civilian control of the military very important. A look across all six of these democratic values finds that only Tanzanians demonstrate a higher level of support for democracy among the 10 African publics surveyed.

Prior to the election, Kenyans were generally satisfied with the state of democracy in their country — 72% said they were either very or somewhat satisfied with the way democracy is working in Kenya. Moreover, a substantial majority was optimistic about the coming elections — 67% believed the next presidential election would be conducted fairly, while only 28% thought they would be unfair.

However, more skepticism was apparent among the Luo tribe to which opposition candidate Raila Odinga, the declared loser in last week’s disputed election, belongs. Luos were split almost evenly between those who felt the election would be fair (45%) and those who predicted it would be conducted unfairly (48%). Since the elections, many among the Luo and other tribal groups have accused President Kibaki, who belongs to the Kikuyu tribe, of election fraud. The Kikuyu, the largest and wealthiest among Kenya’s 40-plus tribes, have been politically dominant since Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963.

Worries About Tribal Conflict

In the 2007 survey, fully half (50%) of adult Kenyans identified tribal conflict as a very big problem in their country — about the same proportion as said so in the 2002 Global Attitudes Survey (52%). An additional 28% identified such conflict as a moderately big problem.

Among other African countries surveyed, only in Ivory Coast, a nation riven by its own ethnic conflicts in recent years, does a higher percentage of the population (56%) characterize tribal/ethnic conflict as a very big problem. In Nigeria, where ethnic differences have also led to bloodshed, nearly half (48%) see them as a major problem.

In Kenya, concern about tribal conflict is above average among members of the Luo tribe who, along with other ethnic groups, have grown restive under the longstanding political dominance of the rival Kikuyus: 54% of Luos call ethnic conflict a very big problem. By contrast, among members of Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe, 44% call ethnic conflict a major problem.

  1. The questions regarding whether the upcoming elections would be fair and satisfaction with democracy were conducted in conjunction with The New York Times.
  2. For more on deprivation in African nations and elsewhere, see “A Rising Tide Lifts Mood in the Developing World,” Pew Global Attitudes Project, July 24, 2007.
  3. For more on attitudes toward democratic values in Africa and elsewhere, see “World Publics Welcome Trade — But Not Immigration,” Pew Global Attitudes Project, October 4, 2007.