solid black line
dotted black line
  About MAR
dotted black line
  MAR Data
dotted black line
  AMAR Project
dotted black line
solid black line
Contact Us     


Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Luo in Kenya

View Group Chronology

Kenya Facts
Area:    582,650 sq. km.
Capital:    Nairobi
Total Population:    28,333,000 (source: unknown, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The Luo are in a position where protest is possible as they exhibit risk factors such as political discrimination and recent repression. They feel betrayed by the current government and feel that they have been marginalized in the economic and political systems. The recent debate over the revision of the constitution split the country down ethnic lines, creating an unstable system that could lead to more violence in the future. The Luo strongly oppose the Kikuyu, who are currently in power, and many of the recent protests by the Luo against the government have had anti-Kikuyu undertones. There has been little governmental effort to advance the Luo's situation politically, although efforts have been made to improve their economic situation. Many Luo, however, feel that the efforts have not been enough as their province remains the poorest in Kenya and the highest at risk for HIV/AIDS.

The post-electoral violence of late 2007 and early 2008 highlights the risk of intercommunal conflict, in particular between Kikuyu and Luo. Although relative calm between the ethnic groups has been restored as of April 2008, when Raila Odinga was sworn in as Kenya's prime minister, the underlying causes of the conflict -- and the armed groups that perpetuated much of the violence -- remain in place.


Analytic Summary

More than 40 ethnic groups comprise Kenya's population. While no single group forms a majority, the Luo (13 percent) are the third largest after the Kikuyu (22 percent) and the Luhya (14 percent). Other groups include the Kalenjin (12 percent), Kisii (6 percent) and indigenous peoples such as the Somali, Maasai, and the Turkana. The Luo are concentrated in Nyanza Province in Kenya's southwest, although a significant minority lives elsewhere in the country (GROUPCON = 2).

Many of Kenya's ethnic groups are linguistically distinct. The Luo differ from some of the other ethnic groups due to their social customs, race and their language (CUSTOM = 1; RACE = 1; LANG = 1). Most Kenyans are Christians (78 percent). The Luo are predominantly Protestant, as is the country's plurality group, the Kikuyu (BELIEF = 0).

Migrations of various peoples to the territory that became Kenya predate the colonization period. The 1884-85 Berlin Conference that carved up Africa among the European powers led, a decade later, to British rule over much of East Africa, including Kenya. The colonial settlers forcibly evicted the indigenous African pastoralists and peasantry from the territory's most fertile highlands region, the Rift Valley area, (they referred to it as the White Highlands), in order to produce export crops. The Kikuyu ended up on inferior land or had to join the urban labor market. Others including the Luo, Kisii and Luhya were brought to the Rift Valley as sources of cheap labor. The nomadic Somali, Maasai, and Turkana not only faced discrimination from the British colonialists but also from successive post-independence governments.

Indigenous political activism dates to the early 1920s and in 1929 Jomo Kenyatta, a leader of the Kikuyu Central Association, went to London to press for Kikuyu land claims. He remained in Britain until 1947 when he returned and became president of the Kenyan African Union (KAU), the country's first nationalist movement which was formed in 1944. For most of the 1950s, Kenya was under a state of emergency due to the Mau Mau rebellion which was a Kikuyu attempt to overthrow British rule. The rebellion was brutally suppressed as some 13,000 were killed and more than 100,000 were forcibly relocated. In 1957, the British sought to address nationalist demands by allowing African members to be elected to the legislative council on a limited franchise. The successor of the KAU, the Kenyan African National Union (KANU), was created in 1960 by two of the country's largest ethnic groups, the Kikuyu and the Luo.

Restrictions on African ownership of land in the White Highlands were lifted in the early 1960s and to prepare for independence, the territory's first general elections were held. KANU defeated its competitor, the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU). KADU, which represented the country's smaller ethnic groups including the Kalenjin, favored the adoption of Majimboism, a policy that would create ethnically-based semi-autonomous regions. Elections were next held in December 1963 and again KANU emerged victorious. Later that month, Kenya became independent and Jomo Kenyatta assumed the prime minister post. The following year, Kenya was declared a republic and Kenyatta became president.

President Kenyatta held power from 1963 until his death in August 1978. During this period, members from his Kikuyu group received a disproportionate share of political power along with special access to land and resources which reinforced their advantaged economic status. The ruling KANU party also consolidated its position by absorbing the KADU and the only other political party, the African People's Party. The Luo were also politically advantaged for the first years of independence as a group member, Oginga Odinga, who was a KANU leader, held the office of the vice-president. But these benefits ended in 1966 when Odinga chose to form the Kenya People's Union (KPU) and join the opposition. Kenyatta was succeeded by Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin.

President Moi came under intense criticism from domestic and international sources for his repression of opposition forces which included human rights abuses such as extra-judicial executions, widespread torture, and the disappearance and harassment of activists. From 1982 until 1991, political parties other than the ruling KANU were not allowed to exist. International pressure, including threats to withdraw foreign aid, forced Moi to concede to multiparty elections in 1992. Moi had earlier rejected multipartyism, asserting that it would lead to ethnic violence. From the end of 1991 to 1994, widespread ethnic violence emerged in the Rift Valley Province and other areas as Moi's Kalenjin along with the Maasai fought against the Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya and Kisii. The Kalenjin and Maasai want to evict all non-indigenous groups from the region. More than 1,500 deaths were reported and around 300,000 Kisii, Kikuyu, Luo and Luhya were driven out of the Rift Valley, Kenya's richest and most fertile region. There are credible reports that the government, in an effort to counter the opposition parties, instigated much of this large-scale violence, partially through its support for the Kalenjin and the Maasai. No compensation has been provided and the government has suggested that those who were displaced can apply for resettlement on land other than their original property.

Since the mid-1990s, the level of ethnic violence in the Rift Valley has declined. Hostilities did emerge during the 1997 elections and again there were allegations that some government officials either supported or instigated the ethnic violence. President Moi won the elections with less than 40 percent of the popular vote, largely due to the fragmented nature of the opposition.

Under President Moi, his Kalenjin ethnic group was advantaged in the economic and political arenas. Moi's control over the key bureaucratic agencies allowed him to dispel political patronage to maintain his hold on power. Kenya is riddled by poverty, corruption and widespread crime. Some 60 percent of the residents in Nairobi, the capital city, live in slums, averaging a monthly wage of $6. International financial institutions such as the World Bank periodically refused to distribute millions of dollars in loans due to widespread corruption that implicated President Moi, his family and his friends.

As with the Kisii peoples who also live in Nyanza Province, the Luo confront demographic stresses that include declining public health conditions, environmental degradation in group-majority areas, and dispossession from their land. The incidence of HIV/AIDS is the highest among the Luo in comparison to the other ethnic groups. While comprising 13 percent of the population, the Luo account for 29.2 percent of the country's total HIV/AIDS cases. Those who were displaced during the Rift Valley violence in the early 1990s have been unable to return.

The Luo were at the forefront of the anti-Moi opposition. Until his death in 1994, the Luo chief Oginga Odinga was a key opposition leader for more than three decades. In the 1992 elections, Odinga came in fourth in the polling for the presidency.

In late 2002, elections were held to choose a successor to Moi, who was constitutionally barred from seeking another term in office. In those elections, Mwai Kibaki of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) won with 62 percent of the vote. NARC was strongly supported by Luo, with 98 percent of Luo voting for Kibaki in the election. The Luo community anticipated that under Kibaki rule, they would have more support both economically and politically. Kibaki ran on a ticket to abolish government corruption and develop roads, hospitals and schools to benefit all Kenyans. Instead of support, however, the Luos found that they were just as marginalized under Kibaki's government and felt that they had been betrayed. The Luo community was resentful that Kibaki toured Kenya giving thanks to his supporters, but kept canceling his visits to the Nyanza Province and wasn't able to thank the Luo community until 2004. While Kibaki did appoint Luos to his Cabinet, including Raila Odinga, the Luos felt that many of the ministries were tribalized and favoritism went to Kibaki's group, the Kikuyu, while the Luos were appointed to the less desirable and less influential Cabinet roles. Further, they felt that their economic situation had not improved since Kibaki's appointment, citing the abject poverty in the Nyanza Region, despite the efforts made during 2004 to improve the area's economy by changing the policy for the sugar industry, the major source of income for the Nyanza Province.

Group members are represented by political parties such as the FORD-Kenya and the recently defunct National Development Party (NDP), as well as the NARC party. The Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) was created in 1991 but it divided into two factions the following year. FORD-Asili is supported by the Kikuyu and the Luhya and FORD-Kenya by the Luo. The National Development Party was created in 1994 and was led by Raila Odinga. In March 2002, Odinga merged the NDP with KANU party, and then later broke away from KANU, taking some KANU politicians with him and forming the Liberal Democratic Movement (LDM). For the 2002 elections, the LDM formed an alliance with the National Alliance Party of Kenya (NAK) to form NARC (the National Alliance Rainbow Coalition), but the alliance was broken after the 2002 elections when Luo support for Kibaki declined. In 2005, the LDM was transformed into the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) in response to the constitutional debate that took place the year before.

During 2004 and 2005, there was a push to revise Kenya's Constitution, which led to a split along ethnic lines. The Kikuyu (NARC) supported the Waco Draft, which strengthened the office of the president. This was feared by the Luos who believed that it would make the president out to be a king. The Luos (LDP), instead, supported the Bomas Draft which called for the creation of a Prime Minister who would share power with the President, an office that was promised to Odinga by the Kibaki administration, but was never created. The Bomas Draft was quickly dismissed, but the Waco Draft was presented to the people for a vote. The debate over whether or not to accept the new constitution led to clashes and riots, sometimes focusing on ethnicity. On November 21, 2005, the Kenyans voted on the draft constitution and the result was a "no" vote. Kibaki responded by firing his entire cabinet and appointing a new cabinet in December 2005, leaving Raila Odinga out of it. Shortly afterwards, Odinga announced his intention to run for president in the 2007 elections.

The 2007 presidential elections marked a bitter -- although largely nonviolent -- campaign between incumbent Kibaki and Odinga, representing the Orange Democratic Movement. Actual voting was largely free and fair; however, the tallying of the vote was marked by irregularities. The Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) announced Kibaki as the winner, despite the controversy over vote counting. Protests and then violence broke out, concentrated in the Rift Valley and Nairobi The violence had a distinctly ethnic tinge to it, although it would be simplistic to attribute it solely to ethnic animosity. However, the primary victims and perpetrators were Kikuyus and Luos.

Relations between the Luo and other ethnic groups in the country were sporadically violent during the late 1990s to early 2000s. Clashes between the Kalenjin and Luo were reported in 1998; the following year Kuria-Luo attacks led to a number of deaths; and in 2000 four people were killed in violent incidents in the southwest between the Kisii and the Luo. In 2001, Luo tenants clashed with Nubian landlords in the slums of Kiber. In 2002 fighting broke out between the Luo and Kikuyu after a Kikuyu man was killed by a Luo man, resulting in 20 deaths. A Luo also killed a supporter of the KANU government. In addition, intracommunal violence occurred in 1999 when there were sporadic clashes between FORD-Kenya and NDP supporters. Ethnic conflict in Kenya largely diminished following 2002. However, 2004 and 2005 brought about violence that was more political in nature, but contained ethnic undertones.

Luo political activism dates back to the early 1960s independence period but it has only been since the mid-1980s that sustained mid-level actions including demonstrations have arisen. There has been no rebellion against state authorities and no government repression specifically directed at group members in recent years, although the Luo argue that the police in their Nyanza Provice used excessive force to quell protests and specifically target the Luos in their retaliation. They cite incidents such as the Saba Saba Day protest on July 7, 2004, where the police fired shots at the slums in an effort to break up a rampage by a band of Luo youths in which 2 people were killed and 19 injured, most of whom were not involved in the protest.



Ayodo, Awuor. 1996. "Luo." The Heritage Library of African Peoples. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, Inc. 15-16.

The Diagram Group. 2000. "Encyclopedia of African Peoples." New York : Facts On File, Inc.

DuPre, Carole E. 1968. The Luo of Kenya. Washington, DC: Institute for Cross-Cultrual Research.

International Crisis Group. 2/21/2008. "Kenya in Crisis." Africa Report no. 137, accessed 12/8/2008.

IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Network): United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Various reports. 1996-2006.

LexisNexis: Various news reports. 1990-2006.

Stewart, Frances. 3/2008. "Kenya, Horizontal Inequalities and the Political Disturbances of 2008." Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity. Department of International Development, Oxford University., accessed 4/9/2009.

U. S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights practices: Kenya. 2001-2006.


© 2004 - 2022 • Minorities At Risk Project

Information current as of December 31, 2006