Kenya is in the throes of a new class war that risks destroying the nation. On March 27, 2023, a farm owned by the family of former President Uhuru Kenyatta was attacked and property worth millions was looted and destroyed.
This was a retaliatory attack against opposition-led protests that resulted in several deaths, injuries and the destruction of property and businesses worth billions. Anti-government protests, and responses, are quickly morphing into a new class war similar to the global ones that produced Brexit, Donald Trump and populist insurgencies across Europe and North America.
The battle lines in the new class war are clearly marked. In his book titled The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite (2020), one of America’s leading thinkers, Michael Lind, identified two classes now fighting to control democracies.
One is the managerial overclass—the university-educated, privileged, wealthy elite who control high-income hubs, including corporations, executive and judicial branches, universities and the media. The other is the working class or the underclass—the lowest social stratum consisting of the working class, poor and unemployed.
In a similar vein, in the run-up to the August 9, 2022 elections, a new class narrative weaved around the ‘hustler versus dynasty’ (underclass versus overclass) replaced ethnicity as the dominant dividing line in Kenyan politics. The protests and retaliatory attacks reflect the country’s unfinished class war even though the overclass (‘dynasties’) lost the election.
Paradoxically, Kenya’s new class war is between two populist movements. In the post-Covid-19 era, rival factions of the overclass are locked in a fierce battle for the soul of the underclass. Once a champion of the interests and aspirations of the overclass, the Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Alliance of Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga has resorted to a populist strategy, accusing President William Ruto’s pro-underclass Kenya Kwanza Alliance of having ‘stolen’ Odinga’s election and failed to curb rising prices.
Long before the invasion of the Kenyatta farm, some musicians had uncannily foretold the coming apocalypse of class war.
Presciently, in a new song, “ino migunda” (these lands), released in June 2020, Kikuyu singer Muigai wa Njoroge prophesied Kenya’s new class war, mainly over land. “One day, these lands will be redistributed,” Njoroge stated.
Kenya’s winter of protests has produced two forms of violence. On the one side is the violence of protesters. Although Odinga has insisted that the opposition has a constitutional right to protest, in several areas, anti-government protests every Monday and Thursday have ended up in violence, destruction of property, closure of business and economic decline.
At least three people have been killed in the violence since May 20, when the recent wave of protests began. On March 28, Azimio rioters destroyed two police vehicles and injured 23 police officers.
The second form of violence arises from retaliatory attacks. Some looters at the Kenyatta family farm claimed they were getting even for business losses caused by protests organised by Mr Odinga and allegedly sponsored by Mr Kenyatta.
The gas firm, East Africa Spectre Limited, linked to the Odinga family and located in Nairobi’s Industrial Area was also vandalised.
“I want to ask our former President (Uhuru Kenyatta) to respect other people’s property,” the Majority Leader in Parliament Kimani Ichung’wah said on March 20, 2023.
“If property of any Kenyan is attacked, we will also invade your farms and those who have no land will also be able to own land... You will pay the price if you continue to instigate violence and bloodshed in this country,” Ichung’wah added.
Since January 2023, when Odinga launched his anti-government protests, the Kenyatta family has been accused of bankrolling Azimio demonstrations. The Secretary-General of Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party has been at the forefront of organising the weekly riots. As such, several other Kenya Kwanza wonks had warned that the Kenyatta farm could be invaded in retaliation if he continued to allegedly fund Azimio protests.
The attackers of Kenyatta’s 11,000-acre farm cut down trees, torched property and made away with
between 1,000 and 1,400 heads of sheep valued approximately at Sh70 million. The land is part of the Kenyatta family’s ambitious project to build a Sh500 billion Northlands City.
Two conflicting theories have been advanced to explain the attacks on Kenyatta and Odinga properties.
Azimio claimed that Kenya Kwanza planned the invasion. During his visit to Kenyatta’s farm on March 28, Odinga alleged that the attacks were well planned, accusing the government of opening a class war which will end up hurting the economy.
But Kenya Kwanza pundits claimed that Azimio planned and executed the attacks on the Northlands and E.A Spectre to win public sympathy and to “charge the ongoing protests.” The attacks, they argued, were a political gimmick to enable Kenyatta regain his lost political influence and kingpin mantle in Mount Kenya.
Be that as it may, the two forms of violence in Kenya’s new class war are giving negative publicity to the country, keeping investors away and undermining economic recovery.
Laudably, President Ruto, while on a tour of Germany on March 28, vowed to protect lives, property and businesses, reiterating that impunity will not be allowed to be part of the country’s discourse.
Kenya’s class war can be resolved in one of three possible ways. One is the triumph of Odinga and the overclass—albeit a most unlikely scenario. Seemingly, the Odinga-led Azimio protests are styled along the abortive civilian coups in America on January 6, 2021 and Brazil on January 8, 2023 where mobs were used to try to keep defeated presidents in power.
The second is the triumph of the underclass and the defeat of dynasties. Hustler strategists imagine Odinga’s Luo Nyanza as the last bastion of dynasties and the battlefront in the ‘third liberation’ after ‘liberating’ the Kalenjin and Mount Kenya regions from ‘dynasties’ in 2022.
The third, and best case scenario, is a class compromise to give real power to the underclass. As Lind rightly observed, “Only this class compromise can avert a never-ending cycle of clashes between oligarchs and populists and save democracy”. A Panel of Eminent Kenyans is what Kenya may need to silence the guns and explore pathways to incorporate the majority of the underclass into the economy and decision-making.
Professor Peter Kagwanja is Chief Executive at the Africa Policy Institute and Adjunct Scholar at University of Nairobi and the National Defence University, Kenya.