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Kenyans Put National Identity Before Ethnicity

by Magali Rheault and Bob Tortora

But steep decline in perceptions of tolerance toward ethnic groups

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Waki Commission, which investigated the post-election violence in Kenya, concluded that people were attacked based on their "ethnicity and political leanings." Gallup Poll findings reveal that overwhelmingly, Kenyans define themselves in terms of national identity, and not in terms of ethnicity.


Strong Sense of National Identity

About six months prior to the presidential election, national identity was the primary marker for 77% of Kenyans, while 15% of respondents told Gallup they thought of themselves first as a member of their tribe or ethnic group. During the post-election turmoil, media reports were quick to portray the violence as the manifestation of atavistic divisions between ethnic groups that, up until now, had been papered over. But findings from the Gallup Poll conducted six months after the civil unrest reveal that, even more respondents (85%) view themselves first as Kenyans rather than as members of a tribe or ethnic group (6%).

To shed light on this apparent gap between the ethnic overtones of the post-election violence and the pervasive public perceptions of national identity, Gallup asked respondents in 2008 how strongly they identified with four markers. Although a majority of Kenyans say they identify either "extremely" or "very" strongly with their tribe (68%) or their religion (65%), Kenyans are far more likely to self-identify with their country (96%).


Playing the Ethnic Card

Some observers have characterized the Kenya situation in the aftermath of the election as that of a political conflict with ethnic overtones. On the one hand, Gallup findings from the two pre-election polls conducted last year and the 2008 survey about the presidential election winner underscore the strong ethnic character of Kenyan politics. On the other hand, the 2008 poll findings suggest that other reasons lie at the heart of the post-election unrest.

When asked about the root causes of the post-election conflict, Kenyans are most likely to say inequitable access to political power (45%) and land (33%). The Waki Commission states that there is a "feeling among certain ethnic groups of historical marginalization, arising from perceived inequities concerning the allocation of land and other national resources."


Further, 81% of respondents say a national debate about ethnic divisions is either "very important" (62%) or "important" (19%) for the national reconciliation process. And 88% of Kenyans agree that the actions of the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission, which has yet to be set up, are key to reducing the threat of future ethnic violence.

Moving Ahead

A strong majority of respondents (82%) say, in the future, they can coexist peacefully with other Kenyans regardless of ethnic or tribal differences, while 15% say they disagree with this statement.


At the same time, perceptions of acceptance toward ethnic and racial diversity have declined greatly since 2006. This year, just 49% of Kenyans say their local areas are good places to live for racial and ethnic minorities, down from 63% in 2007 and 67% in 2006. The Kenyan figure is well below the median of 68% across 31 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Public attitudes that their local communities are accepting of different ethnic groups range from 44% in Angola to 91% in Niger and Senegal.


Bottom Line

The Gallup Poll findings reveal that although Kenyan identity has a complex, multidimensional aspect, there is a strong sense of national identity. In other words, despite the rich tapestry of ethnic groups, Kenyans perceive themselves to have a collective identity, whose foundation lies with the modern state. Such findings shatter conventional wisdom that Kenyans' self-perceptions fall strictly along ethnic lines. The poll findings also suggest that using ethnicity alone to explain the post-election violence oversimplifies a complex history that involves grievances over land issues and political power.

Kenyans recognize the importance of addressing ethnic divisions to move forward. And most are committed to peaceful coexistence with members of other ethnic groups. But it will take time to rebuild Kenyans' confidence that their communities are accepting of ethnic minorities.

Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face interviews with 2,200 adults, aged 15 and older, in Kenya between June 16 and July 8, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults in 2008, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Results from the other two surveys are based on face-to-face interviews with 1,000 adults, aged 15 and older, in Kenya in April 2006 and June 2007. For results based on the samples of national adults in 2006 and 2007, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

The sub-Saharan African median scores are based on national samples, in most countries, of at least 1,000 adults, aged 15 and older, conducted in 2006-2008 in Angola (urban areas only), Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad (excludes eastern region), Democratic Republic of the Congo (urban areas only), Djibouti, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan (excludes Darfur and parts of the South, around Juba and Nimule), Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.


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