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 Kikuyu have two of the factors that increase the chances of future protest: significant political and cultural restrictions and recent repression by state authorities. During the reign of President Moi, the Kikuyu, while being economically advantaged, have suffered the most in comparison to other groups in terms of political and cultural restrictions and being the victims of ethnic violence. Moi has maintained power by providing his Kalenjin group with disproportionate political and economic advantages. The Kikuyu were politically advantaged from Kenya's independence until President Kenyatta's death in 1978. The elections to choose a successor to Moi, scheduled for late 2002, will significantly influence the future actions of the Kikuyu.

Analytic Summary

The Kikuyu (22%) are the largest of more than forty ethnic groups that comprise Kenya's population. Some of the other groups include the Luhya (14%), Luo (13%), Kalenjin (12%), Kisii (6%), and the indigenous Somalis, Maasai, and Turkana. Group members are concentrated in Central Province and in the capital city, Nairobi (GROUPCON = 3). While the Kikuyu immigrated to the area in the 19th century, there has been little group migration across the country's regions (MIGRANT = 1).

Many of Kenya's ethnic groups are linguistically distinct which is also the case with the Kikuyu who are ethnically related to the Meru and Embu peoples (LANG = 1). The group's social customs are similar to those of other communities (CUSTOM = 0). Most Kenyans are Christians (66%) or Animist (26%). The Kikuyu are mostly Protestants (RELIGS1 = 2).

Migrations of various peoples to the territory that became Kenya predate the colonization period. The 1884-85 Berlin Conference which 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 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 (REB50X = 6; REB55X = 4). 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. In particular, the Kikuyu were the primary beneficiaries of the Africanization of the White Highlands. 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 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 fifteen hundred 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. Since President Moi took over, the Kikuyu have been the main targets of ethnic violence. 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.

The ruling KANU party has held political power since the country's independence. Under President Moi, his Kalenjin ethnic group has disproportionately benefitted in the economic and political arenas. Moi's control over the key bureaucratic agencies has 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 are to be held to choose a successor to Moi, who is constitutionally barred from seeking another term in office.

Demographic stresses that confront the Kikuyu include environmental decline in group-majority areas and dispossession from their land. Those who were displaced during the ethnic violence in the Rift Valley area in the early 1990s have been unable to return and given the government's indifference toward non-Kalenjins, it is unlikely that they will regain their original property.

While there are no official economic restrictions against the Kikuyu, significant political and cultural discrimination limits group activities (ECDIS00 = 0). Public policies restrict the practice of the group's religious beliefs and the activities of its cultural organizations. These policies have been targeted against the Mungiki, a quasi-religious organization which was formed in 1987 by a self-proclaimed prophet, Maina Ngenga. Comprising poor, unemployed Kikuyu youth, the Mungiki has a radical political outlook that includes an anti-West agenda. In recent years, it has significantly increased its membership. The government has declared the Mungiki an illegal organization.

Political restrictions, in the form of public policies, severely curtail the opportunities and activities of group members (POLDIS00 = 4). These include limits on free movement, voting, political organizing, recruitment to the police and the military, and the attainment of high office. In recent years, state repression against the Kikuyu has been targeted against the Mungiki and includes arrests of the organization's members and the use of limited force against protestors.

The Kikuyu's grievances encompass political, economic, and social concerns. Along with seeking greater political participation at the center, the group wants a larger share of public funds along with safeguards to ensure that their land and jobs are not used to the advantage of other ethnic groups. The freedom to practice their religious and cultural beliefs and protection from attacks by other communal groups are also significant concerns.

Various conventional umbrella organizations represent group interests (COHESX9 = 4). These include political parties such as the Democratic Party (DP) and the FORD-Asili along with Mungiki. The Democratic Party formed the official opposition after the 1997 elections. Some one to two-thirds of group members support these organizations.

Relations between the Kikuyu and the country's other ethnic groups have been nonviolent during 1999 and 2000. Sporadic violent clashes between the Kikuyu and the politically dominant Kalenjin were last reported in 1998.

Kikuyu political activism dates to the pre-independence period (PROT45X = 3). During President Kenyatta's reign there was a lull in protest but since the mid-1980s, there have been consistent protest actions including demonstrations in opposition to Moi's rule (PROT85-90X = 3; PROT98X = 2). Demonstrations by Mungiki were the major protest activities in 1999 and 2000 (PROT99-00 = 3). Since the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s, there has not been any other anti-state insurgency.


Africa South of the Sahara. 1999. London: Europa Publications.

IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Network): United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Various reports, 1996-1999

Kenya: A Country Study. 1984. Foreign Area Studies, American University. Washington, D.C.

Lexis/Nexis: Various news services, including BBC, Reuters, Africa News Service

Morrison, Donald George, Robert Cameron Mitchell, and John Naber Paden (Eds.). 1989. Black Africa: A Comparative Handbook. New York: Paragon House.


This 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.