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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Luhya in Kenya

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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

Although still volatile, the relative calming of the recent 2007 electoral violence may reduce Luhya risk for future violence or rebellion. However, tensions between the Kikuyu and Luhya in Nairobi following interethnic violence make future violence for the Luhya impossible to rule out. The Luhya lack several of the risk factors for rebellion such as recent repression and political discrimination. However, they are territorially concentrated and have some recent protest. Despite this, protest is unlikely to escalate beyond low levels; however, it is likely to continue as Luhya continue to agitate for greater influence.


Analytic Summary

More than 40 ethnic groups comprise Kenya's population. While no single group forms a majority, the Luhya (14 percent) are the second largest group after the Kikuyu (22 percent). Other significant populations include the Luo (13 percent), Kalenjin (12 percent) and Kisii (6 percent) along with smaller groups of indigenous peoples such as the Somalis, Maasai and Turkana.

The term Luhya was first introduced during the colonial era to refer to a linguistic grouping that consists of 15 different peoples (LANG = 1). They are the Bukusu, Dakho, Kabras, Khayo, Kisa, Marachi, Maragoli, Marama, Nyala, Nyole, Samia, Tachoni, Tiriki, Tsotso and Wanga. The Luhya follow customs similar to those of the country's other groups; however, they do not participate in female genital mutilation as many of Kenya's other tribes do (CUSTOM = 1). Group members primarily live in the Western Province and adjacent areas of the Rift Valley Province (GROUPCON = 2). There has been little group movement across the country's regions, although some have sought work in urban centers such as Nairobi. .

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 Luhya, Kisii and Luo 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 ministership. 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. Kenyatta was succeeded by Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin.

President Moi has come under intense criticism from domestic and international sources for his repression of opposition forces which has 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 multi-partyism, 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 wanted to evict all non-indigenous groups from the region. More than 1,500 deaths were reported and around 300,000 Kikuyu, Kisii, 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.

In 2002, the opposition National Rainbow Coalition swept the ruling KANU out of power. Several heavily Luhya parties including FORD-Kenya and the Liberal Democratic Party were part of the coalition. The discriminatory policies of the Moi era have been remedied to the Luhya's benefit to the point where discrimination does not exist or is undetectable (POLDIS06 = 0). As the second largest ethnic group in Kenya, they were able to get the vice-presidency, given to leading Luhya politician Michael Wamalwa until his death in August 2003. After Wamalwa's death, another Luhya Moody Awori was named to the post and held that position until January 2008. Despite the group's political gains, some Luhya argue that they are still underrepresented and will remain so until all Luhya unite behind one political party (GOJPA06 = 1).

In December 2007, violence in Nairobi increased after controversial elections that re-elected President Kibaki. More than 1,000 people died and another 300,000 were thought to have been displaced in its aftermath. There were reports of Kikuyu and Luhya violence in Nairobi. While violence was quelled after Kibaki announced a coalition cabinet in April 2008, the situation remains tense.

The Luhya are subject to several demographic stresses, including: environmental decline in group areas, health concerns such as malaria and HIV/AIDS, and dispossession from their land. Those who were displaced during the ethnic violence in the Rift Valley Province in the early 1990s have still been unable to return. It also appears that they will be unlikely to regain their land due to the government's lack of initiatives in this area.

Along with seeking more political rights in areas in which they reside, the Luhya want a greater share of public funds, safeguards to protect their land and jobs from being used to the advantage of other groups, and protection from violent attacks by the other communities (POLGR06 = 2; ECGR06 = 2). Sporadic violent clashes between the Luhya and Kalenjin occurred in 1998 but there were no incidents reported for 1999 and 2000. However, in 2001, Kalenjin and Luhya clashed, although there were no fatalities. In 2002, disputes over land boundaries arose between Luhya and Teso. In 2005, there were clashes between Pokot and Luhya, leading to the death of 18 people (INTERCON05 = 1).

While the Luhya have been active in the opposition movement, their involvement in protest actions dates to the late 1990s. In January of 1999, Luhya along with members of the Kisii, Kikuyu, Sabaot and Teso groups invaded the TransNzoia forest demanding that land be allocated to them (PROT99 = 2). Land ownership was also at the center of protest in 2002 (PROT02 = 3). In 2003, Luhya protested a perceived lack of representation in government (PROT03 = 3). The Luhya participated in verbal protest in 2004 and 2005 regarding the constitutional reform and the government's apathetic stance on ending the violence in Trans Nzoia (PROT04-05)=1.There has been no rebellion against state authorities in recent years (REB01-06= 0), and the Luhya have not been subject to state repression in the past couple of years.



International Crisis Group. 2/21/2008. "Kenya in Crisis." Africa Report no. 137., accessed 01/28/09

International Crisis Group. 2008. "Kenya: Horn of Africa.", accessed 01/28/09.

LexisNexis. Various news reports. 2001-2006.

Oucho, John O. 2002. Undercurrents of Ethnic Conflict in Kenya. Leiden: Brill.

Steeves, Jeffrey S. 2002. "Ethnic Clashes in Kenya and the Politics of the 'Ethnic Enclave': The Ruling Party, the Oppostion, and the Post-Moi Succession." In Pal Ahuwalia and Abebe Zegye, eds. African Identities: Contemporary Political and Social Challenges. Burlington: Ashgate.

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


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Information current as of December 31, 2006