Prof Mwangi Kimenyi and Prof Njuguna Ndung’u: Poll violence was predictable and could have been avoided

Poll violence was predictable and could have been avoided

In excerpts from their article Sporadic Ethnic Violence: Why has Kenya not experienced a full-blown civil war? (2004) Prof Mwangi Kimenyi and Prof Njuguna Ndung’u warn that the country still has many risk factors that can plunge it into civil war.

Many questions remain concerning the underlying causes of sporadic ethnic violence that has come to be associated with Kenyan elections since 1992.

Are the episodes of violence strategically instigated to influence voting patterns to capture the State machinery or are they a result of simmering long-standing grievances and divisions waiting to explode?

With the recent cycle of violence resulting in a large number of internally displaced people, there is urgency for Kenyans to ask the right questions concerning conflicts to come up with appropriate responses.

Some years ago, concerned by the conflicts that occurred during the 1990s, and fearing that such conflicts would recur, economists Njuguna Ndung'u (now Governor of the Central Bank) and Mwangi S. Kimenyi sought to provide answers to these questions.

Widespread chaos

In a study titled Sporadic ethnic violence: Why has Kenya not experienced a full-blown civil war? published by the World Bank in 2004, Prof Ndung'u and Prof Kimenyi observed that although the past episodes of conflict did not escalate to a full-blown civil war, a combination of contributory factors could potentially trigger widespread chaos as recently experienced.

They observed that a full-blown civil war could occur if a combination of factors resulted in what they refer to as a "tipping point". In their study, they sought to explain conflicts in Kenya following what is referred to as "the greed and grievance theory of civil war".

Greed motivates groups to rebel as they seek to control some lootable resources such as oil and diamonds as has been the case in Sudan, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Grievance triggers violence by marginalised populations such as those groups which claim to be historically discriminated against, or those in extreme poverty.

Watched anxiously

The authors investigated the causes of sporadic ethnic violence in Kenya with special emphasis on ethnicity, land and state capture in relation to the greed and grievance theory.

Using a wide range of data, they concluded that neither grievances due to land nor ethnic divisions explained the sporadic ethnic violence. Instead, the main trigger of the violence appears to have been controls of the State's instruments of power.

According to the scholars, politicians exploited ethnicity and land issues to distort voting strengths. Once the elections were concluded, violence subsided as there were no longer positive political returns to further violence.

For more than five agonising weeks early this year, the world watched anxiously as the situation in Kenya threatened to degenerate into a full-blown civil war. Thanks to sustained international intervention, a political settlement was reached when President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga signed a power-sharing agreement where they would work together in a coalition government.

And as we seek answers to what triggered the violence, other questions emerge: Was the post-election violence predictable and was violence planned in advance as some reports contend or was it spontaneous? Notwithstanding whether it was planned or not, was there a silver bullet that could have averted the violence or was the violence simply inevitable?

It appears that the scope of the clashes was totally unexpected just as there was no prior indication to the likelihood of controversy over the presidential poll results.

Nevertheless, a keen analysis of various scholarly writings published long before the violence erupted indicates that deep-rooted ethnic tensions and long-standing controversies over land ownership, especially in Rift Valley Province, had the potential to explode at the slightest provocation.

In their study, Prof Ndung'u and Prof Kimenyi highlighted the possibility of widespread conflict if some of the issues such as extreme poverty and politicisation of ethnicity were not attended to.

Paid attention

Probably, if we had paid attention to what our own scholars advised before the violence broke out, the country would perhaps not be struggling to raise Sh30 billion to resettle displaced people and reconstruct the lives of many others.

The professors observed that a civil war can be said to occur when a trigger factor, or a combination of factors, results in what may be referred to as a "tipping point" — when factions in a society engage in an all-out armed conflict.

But before that "tipping point" is reached, a country may be characterised by tensions, but not widespread conflict.

For many countries, the triggers for a civil war are not strong enough to result in a "tipping point"; hence such countries are characterised by relative peace although there may be tensions within the society among different factions.

Prof Ndung'u and Prof Kimenyi characterised Kenya as one of those countries where the "tipping point" had not been reached, but could be easily reached.

It suffices to note that many civil wars in Africa have two major characteristics. One is where one community with certain political aspirations feels alienated from the centre of power by a presumed dominant community monopolising power.

Left with few options, the marginalised community takes up arms against the presumed dominant community with the intention to take over power. Upon achieving power, the group then seeks to remedy the perceived sources of its marginalisation. But for this to be sustained, there has to be lootable resources to finance and make it easy to organise and coordinate a rebellion.

Such is the situation that has defined the civil wars in countries in the Great Lakes region especially the Hutu-Tusti conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi, and the Sudan conflict pitting the Islamised Arab North and the Christianised Black South.

The goal of such armed conflict is either a quest for regime change or a push for self-determination through the establishment of an independent homeland away from the perceived oppressor.

Civilian rule

The other character of civil war is where there has been a military dictatorship in power and so-called democratic forces take up arms to restore civilian rule.

But while Kenya is similar to other African countries in many aspects, the country has been marked by relative political stability and cohesion that have in many ways kept at bay the kind of tensions that result in a civil war.

The scholars observe that Kenya has neither been under military rule nor experienced any internal strife that could drive it to the "tipping point", hence the reason the country has not plunged into civil war.

In explaining the relative stability in Kenya, these scholars refer to the work of Prof Gordon Tullock, whose main contribution to the debate on civil war was on making a distinction between civil war and criminal violence.

Prof Tullock explains that the participation by an individual in civil war generates a public good while participation in crime generates a private good.

Hence the "public good" nature of civil wars explains why individuals are reluctant to engage in them.

Following Prof Tullock, Prof Ndung'u and Prof Kimenyi showed that the sporadic violence in Kenya was more criminal violence than civil war because those who perpetrated it were motivated by the selfish interest to pursue private good.

In a previous study published by the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in 1989, Prof Kimenyi suggested that ethnic skirmishes could easily result in civil war. He treated ethnic groups as "permanent interest groups" that compete in the market for wealth transfers and seek to maximise "group welfare" through the transfer of resources from other groups. The most efficient way to accomplish this is to control the instruments of wealth transfers, which in Kenya's case is the Government.

But in view of the latest poll-chaos, there are indications that a strong elite movement could easily emerge to forge a formidable rebel force that could in future plunge the country into civil war, especially one that coordinates the unemployed youths. This can easily occur as the State's monopoly on violence becomes diffused to organised gangs as happened recently.

Because of such possibility, the country's political leadership must put its act together and start addressing the underlying issues that sow discord among communities and push them to the "tipping point".

The article is published in Understanding Civil War (Vol. 1: Africa), edited by P. Collier and N. Sambanis, Washington DC: The World Bank, 2004.

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