Last Updated: Thursday, 26 May 2016, 08:56 GMT

Assessment for Luo in Kenya

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Luo in Kenya, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 26 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
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 unlikely to protest. Their political situation has improved greatly with the victory of the National Alliance Rainbow Coalition (NARC) party in the 2002 elections, and they have indicated their willingness to continue supporting the government.

Analytic Summary

More than forty ethnic groups comprise Kenya's population. While no single group forms a majority, the Luo (13%) are the third largest after the Kikuyu (22%) and the Luhya (14%). Other groups include the Kalenjin (12%), Kisii (6%) and indigenous peoples such as the Somali, Maasai, and the Turkana. The Luo are concentrated in Nyanza Province in Kenya's southwest (GROUPCON = 3). There has been little group migration across the country's regions (MIGRANT = 1).

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 religious beliefs (CUSTOM =1; RACE = 1; BELIEF = 1). Most Kenyans are Christians (66%) or Animist (26%). The Luo are predominantly Protestants.

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 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. 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% of the popular vote, largely due to the fragmented nature of the opposition.

Under President Moi, his Kalenjin ethnic group disproportionately benefitted 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% of the residents in Nairobi, the capital city, live in slums, averaging a monthly wage of $6. In recent years, international financial institutions such as the World Bank have periodically refused to distribute millions of dollars in loans due to widespread corruption that has implicated President Moi, his family, and his friends.

In late 2002, elections were held to choose a successor to Moi, who is constitutionally barred from seeking another term in office. In those elections, the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) won. NARC was strongly supported by Luo, who currently face no economic or political discrimination (ECDIS03 = 0, POLDIS03 = 0). 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 forth in the polling for the presidency. His son, Raila Odinga, is the current leader of the Luo tribe.

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% of the population, the Luo account for 29.2% 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.

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 in past few years it has been led by Raila Odinga. In March 2002, Odinga merged the NDP with KANU party (COHESX9 = 5).

The Luo want protection against violent attacks from other societal actors. Relations between the Luo and other ethnic groups in the country have erupted in violence in the past few years. 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 Kikuyu man, resulting in 20 deaths, and Luo killed a supporter of the KANU government. In addition, intragroup violence occurred in 1999 when there were sporadic clashes between FORD-Kenya and NDP supporters.

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 (PROT60-65X = 1; PROT85X = 3). There has been no rebellion against state authorities and no government repression specifically directed at group members in recent years.



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