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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Kisii 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

It is unlikely that the Kisii will engage in significant future protest. Group members are politically and socially marginalized and they have been the victims of communal violence in the past decade. However, they lack other risk factors, such as cultural restrictions, government repression and high levels of group organization. The Kisii were among a number of ethnic groups that were driven out of Kenya's most economically advanced region, the Rift Valley, by the Kalenjin and the Maasai in the early 1990s.


Analytic Summary

More than 40 ethnic groups comprise Kenya's population. While no single group forms a majority, the largest are the Kikuyu (22 percent), Luhya (14 percent), Luo (13 percent), and the Kalenjin (12 percent). The Kisii, who primarily reside in Nyanza Province in the southwest, form 6 percent of the country's population (GROUPCON= 3). Group members have lived in the territory for more than 200 years, and there has been little migration across Kenya's regions.

The Kisii speak a common language, Ekegusii, in addition to English, as is the case with many of Kenya's other ethnic groups (LANG = 1). Their social customs are similar to those of the other communities (CUSTOM = 0). Most Kisii are Roman Catholic, although some follow traditional animist beliefs, whereas Kenya's plurality group, the Kikuyu, are predominantly Protestant Christians (BELIEF = 1).

Migrations of various groups to the territory that became Kenya predate the colonization period. The 1884-85 Berlin Conference, which carved up Africa among the European powers, led to British rule within a decade 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 Kisii, Luhya 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 came 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 a multi-party system, 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 sought 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. In 2002 elections, KANU lost the presidency and its parliamentary majority, as Mwai Kibaki's National Rainbow Coalition won a decisive electoral victory.

The Kisii face many demographic stresses including declining public health conditions, environmental degradation in group areas and dispossession from their land. Those who were displaced during the ethnic violence in the Rift Valley in the early 1990s have been unable to return. Political discrimination among the Kisiis has lessened, though the disparities still exist and include firing of top civil servants and tribal chiefs (POLDIS04-06 = 2). The main disadvantage faced by the Kisii is poor public health by comparison to other groups, caused by heavy rainfall in their region which led to outbreaks of malaria in 2002 and 2003.

There has been limited involvement by the Kisii in the opposition movement. Umbrella political parties such as the FORD-People represent group interests (GOJPA04-06 = 1). The Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) was formed in 1991 to oppose KANU's dominance. However, it split a year later into the FORD-Asili which is supported by the Luhya and the Kikuyu and the FORD-Kenya which is favored by the Luo. In 1997, divisions within the FORD-Asili led to the creation of the FORD-People. Most Kisii are seeking a greater share of public funds, safeguards to protect their land and jobs from being used to the advantage of other ethnic groups, and protection from violent attacks by other communities. Kisii have engaged in land disputes with Maasai in 2001 and 2002, with Kalenjin in 2003, and with Luo in 2003.

Political activism by the Kisii is a relatively recent phenomenon. Members of the Kisii farmers' Rural Savings and Credit Co-operative (Sacco) protested at the High Court with a sit-in over the loss of more than 2 million shillings worth of goods (PROT04 = 2). There were also strikes against the hiring of Charles Jangaya. In 2005, other worker strikes took place and about 100 farmers marched to the Kisii District Commissioner's office in protest to demand payment of Sh10 million for goods sent to national silos (PROT05 = 3).There has been no rebellion by group members. and there are no reports of government repression in the past few years.



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