Is Kenya Headed for a Class War?

Published on 16th December 2008

The French riots of 2007, which were a horrific representation of a class war, and the recent spate of violence in South Africa are probably where Kenya is headed. According to Dr. Sobbie Mulindi, who studied and lived in France for 15 years and is now a human behaviour specialist at the University of Nairobi, this country is on the brink of a class conflict that will surpass the post-election violence. Dr. Mulindi says “the next conflict is going to be between those who have and those who have not.”


The possible outbreak of spontaneous violence countrywide has also got the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports very worried. According to Mr. Isaac Kamande, the chief economist at the Ministry, a failure by the Coalition Government to fully and comprehensively address the problem of youth unemployment is going to be “disastrous”. His worry is that the youth will join or form new militia groups that will forcefully claim what they perceive to have been taken away from them in terms of denial of opportunities. He expressly says that the youth feel denied and robbed of economic opportunities.

Protesting Kenyan Youths

Kenya is ranked among the top 10 unequal societies in the world and is the most unequal in East Africa. For every one shilling a poor Kenyan makes, a rich Kenyan makes 56 shillings! This is according to research done by the Society for International Development on economic inequality (2004). On top of that, Kenyans are among the highest taxed populations on the continent. As a result of the post-election violence, Kenya now has the second highest cost of living on the continent after Zimbabwe. It has become expensive to “be proud to be Kenyan.”


A class war is friction between various groups or clusters in the class structure. There are three main classes: the upper (rich) class, the middle class (non-manual labourers) and the working class (manual labourers). A fourth class of the unemployed has developed over the decades, the underclass. Most of the youth in Kenya fall in this class, which apparently has the majority compared to the first three classes. This is the class of the ‘have nots.’


With the youth between ages 15 and 30 years constituting 32% of the country’s population, it is cause for alarm that the majority of them are in the underclass. This is especially alarming against the backdrop of the high cost of living. At some point, something’s got to give and when it does, it’s going to be ugly. This group feels left out and is a disgruntled lot. The creation of the Ministry of Youth Affairs was a great leap in the right direction and substantive ground has been covered since, but that barely scratches the surface.


Dr. Mulindi acknowledges that “we have come up with so many sound policies regarding the youth and their welfare, but the problem has always been funding, implementing, monitoring and evaluating them.” In fact, we have such excellent policy documents that they are edited and used by other countries while Kenyans continue to wallow in poverty and disease. There are currently four documents that strive to address the youth unemployment problem. These are the Poverty Reduction Strategy paper (PRSP), Sessional Paper Number 4 of 2005, Sessional Paper Number 2 of 1992 on small scale and jua kali enterprises and the Development Plan 1997-2001. The latest addition to this pile is the Youth Employment Marshal Plan (November 2007).


Kenyans are partly to blame because they do not listen to their professionals, nor do they use their research. We should move away from relying on politicians for direction as they have vested interests. As a consultant on the UN-HABITAT-backed National Youth Violence Prevention Campaign, Dr. Mulindi says that the lack of employment and the feeling of despair are what push the youth to join militias which tend to provide a sense of direction and belonging. The late American rapper, Tupac Shakur, in his song “Mama” expresses his choice to join street gangs as not being the best,but says that “even though they sold drugs, they showed a young brother love.”Mr. Kamande agrees with this theory when he asserts that the feeling of being abandoned by society, betrayed by the political class, looked down upon by the financial sector and criminalized by the police force is not a good combination for a young person trying to make a living.


There is a general lack of faith in the ability and potential of the youth and this is a societal problem. Parents cannot offer their title deeds or logbooks as collateral for their youth nor are financial institutions willingly ready to lend to the youth. To add insult to injury, the police have criminalized being a youth/ being young. When the police report that the majority of criminals are youth, they also include in their statistics ‘crimes’ like walking without identity cards, loitering in the streets, being in groups of four or five and hanging on matatus (Public Service Vehicles)! I am not a human behaviour specialist, nor do I condone violence. But I think all these factors contribute to why militia groups are rising up in opposition to ‘the system’(oppressive structures in the public, private and social sectors). It’s a youth revolution that, more often than not, leaves a bad taste in society’s mouth.


One sign of the looming class war that most stakeholders did not pick up on was that most of last year’s (2007) political campaign rallies were held on working days, but were massively attended. This shows that there are many youths who are idle and unemployed, and they pose a serious threat to the internal security of any country. Dr. Mulindi says that “we will never have peace unless we address the problems of the underclass”. Then came the disputed elections and the result of the post-polls violence was the internally displaced people.


The violence is the most serious thing that has happened to Kenya’s population as a whole since independence. The worry in different quarters is that the Internally Displaced Persons will not forgive the perpetrators and that their frustrations at being flung into the underclass so suddenly might push them into the battlefront of the class war. There were reports that militia groups were having a field day recruiting youths in the camps of the displaced. According to Dr. Elijah Agevi, who is coordinating the National Youth Violence Prevention Campaign, an analysis of the intensity of the post-election violence reveals a worrying correlation between violence, the youth and the lack of opportunities. He is also concerned that a simple trigger can bring forth spontaneous violence that might take on the dimensions of a class conflict.


We have a serious unemployment problem and this has immense ramifications among the youth. As the security forces try to deal with the symptoms of this problem by shooting to kill and brutally arresting youths who just fill up our prisons, they essentially create hardcore criminals. Actually addressing the root causes of this problem is a far more viable approach. The Ministry of Youth has come up with a Youth Employment Marshall Plan (November 2007), which seeks to promote the successful transition of youths from school to work and, thereby, to contribute to economic development. Most importantly, the Marshall Plan is expected to “greatly reduce the incidence of social problems as youth unemployment is essentially a time bomb.”


Dr. Mulindi, who has extensively been involved in issues concerning the youth, and is also the Chairperson of AFC Leopards, says that sports, when used as an entry point, can help fight drug abuse, HIV/ AIDS and teenage pregnancy. Football, for example, is a labour intensive sport and has the potential to directly employ over 2 million youth countrywide. Thus, there couldn’t have been a better gift to the youth than the merging of the Ministries of Youth and Sports. The task of the new Ministry is to make sports an economically viable option for the youth. Kenya is in the world headlines every week thanks to athletics, so the new Ministry should view the vigorous development of athletics countrywide as a priority. We can have local marathons in almost every town in the country and invite local and international sponsors. There is already a vote of confidence in Kenyan sports following the airing of the Kenya Premier League on a paid TV network.


I may not have all the answers to this quandary nor have I comprehensively expressed the views and frustrations of the youth, despite being one of them. And so I propose further research into the looming class war, so that we can better understand it and hopefully help our youth break out of the cycle. The research will involve a countrywide survey to collect views, opinions and recommendations from youth respondents and other relevant stakeholders on how we can address this problem. The research will yield a report that will be presented to the Government of Kenya for immediate and expeditious action to avert the worst case scenario of a class war.


By Bernard Muhia


The writer is a member of the Kenya Association of Photographers, Illustrators and Designers (KAPIDE). He can be reached on [email protected]


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