Richard Dowden: The seeds of mistrust were sown decades ago, but this will not explode into genocide

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As the situation in Kenya grows worse by the day – and the worst is almost certainly still to come – many people are drawing parallels with the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Pictures of gangs of young men carrying spears, clubs and machetes to cut down strangers in their area look like Rwanda '94. But the cause is very different.

Rwanda has a social system unique to that region. Hutu and Tutsi are technically the same ethnic group. They speak the same language (indistinguishable even by accent), they are part of the same culture and worship the same gods. They are separated by race and caste, not ethnicity. Physically distinguishable (though the stereotypes are not always a certain guide), they had different roles in a single society.

When the Hutu-led government was threatened by a Tutsi-led rebellion, it ordered the Hutus to exterminate the Tutsis. In Rwanda, Hutu and Tutsi shared the same land. There was no possibility of pushing the Tutsis out – back to "their own" land. The solution was a final one – extermination.

The Kikuyu are the largest ethnic group in Kenya and the one that benefited most from colonialism, via education and employment. Some Kikuyu fought back against the British seizure of their lands. When Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, demanded "independence now", Britain tried to form an alliance of other ethnic groups in opposition. The plan failed, and sowed the seeds of mistrust between Kenya's peoples. Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, rewarded his followers with land abandoned or sold by whites who left after independence. Much of it was outside traditional Kikuyu areas.

Kenyatta was succeeded by Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin. He could not enrich his own people – there was less to distribute – but a few of his political cronies did grow hugely wealthy. When Moi was succeeded by Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, in 2002, the Kalenjin elite was squeezed out and Kikuyu politico-business bosses took over. Promises of a fairer constitution promised by Kibaki in opposition were abandoned. Today, businesses in Kenya that are not run by Asians are predominantly in the hands of Kikuyu – even outside their own areas. Others perceive that this is the result of political manipulation. (That is why the angriest group are the Kalenjin. Other groups have once again failed to get to the table. The Kalenjin were at the table and got pushed aside.)

Kenya's economy has been growing at 5 per cent in recent years. Kenyans can see the wealth around them, but nearly half of them live in poverty. That is why they are angry. And they see a Kikuyu conspiracy. The rigged election was the last straw.

So the gangs of youths are targeting Kikuyu in their areas, killing them and driving them out. In revenge, Kikuyu gangs are killing and driving out Kalenjin and Luo from their area. Think Bosnia or Serbia, not Rwanda. This is going to be horrific and puts Kenya and the entire East African region at risk of economic collapse. But it is not genocide.

Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society

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