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In the past, Kenya’s fragmented political elite occasionally has come together during national emergencies. However, such a scenario seems unlikely now. When the coronavirus arrived in Kenya in mid-March, the ruling Jubilee Party, led by President Uhuru Kenyatta, a member of the Kikuyu ethnic group, was grappling with a new internal schism driven by Deputy President William Ruto, from the Kalenjin ethnic group. This fissure appeared to be eclipsing the dominant divide between the Kikuyu and Luo that has afflicted Kenyan politics for decades but receded in recent years, ever since Kenyatta made a fragile peace with longtime Luo opposition leader Raila Odinga. The pandemic has intensified this elite power struggle, allowing Kenyatta to marginalize Ruto within the ruling party and get closer to Odinga. At the societal level, the virus has encouraged efforts for a more coherent national response, yet it also has exposed the deep ethnic and regional inequalities that have long underpinned the country’s polarization. The dual challenges of managing elite squabbles and mitigating worsening economic and public health conditions will profoundly test Kenya’s leadership in the coming months.

Kenya’s current elite rivalries began to surface following the contentious 2017 presidential election, when Kenyatta and Odinga reached an agreement to reduce ethnic tensions. Their March 2018 rapprochement included the formation of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), dedicated to healing ethnic wounds and promoting reconciliation. The BBI had many skeptics because of previous failures to overcome the Kikuyu-Luo divide and because the two leaders had crafted it with little support from their constituencies. Ruto emerged as the BBI’s key opponent within the Jubilee Party, since the Kenyatta-Odinga alliance threatened to prevent him from succeeding to the presidency in the 2022 elections. Ruto has tried to rally some Kikuyu elites and undermine Kenyatta in his own backyard, but Kenyatta and Odinga have successfully touted their new alliance as the antidote to polarization.

Gilbert M. Khadiagala
Gilbert M. Khadiagala is the Jan Smuts Professor of International Relations and director of the African Centre for the Study of the United States at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

The BBI taskforce produced a report in November 2019 that recommended a number of measures to strengthen decentralization, boost political inclusion and power sharing, and reform state institutions to enhance socioeconomic equity. None of these recommendations were bold or new, but Kenyatta and Odinga latched onto the report and began countrywide campaigns to seek broad national buy-in for it. The two pushed for a constitutional referendum as soon as June 2020 on the formation of a Kenyatta-Odinga coalition government, reminiscent of the 2008–12 Government of National Unity between then president Mwai Kibaki, another Kikuyu, and Odinga.

After the coronavirus struck Kenya, the Jubilee Party started to purge Ruto supporters from key positions in a bid to get rid of him. Fierce struggles for control of powerful party committees have fueled accusations that Kenyatta and his allies are trying to “steal the party” from Ruto. At the same time, the crisis has interrupted Kenyatta and Odinga’s campaigns for a constitutional referendum and thus postponed impending elite battles about the shape of the political alliance that will replace Jubilee. In the midst of this power-jostling, some commentators have suggested the formation of a new BBI Party, led by Kenyatta and Odinga, that would spearhead a new phase of nation-building and reconciliation.

The coronavirus pandemic has shielded Kenyan society to some extent from these new political divisions. As public attention has shifted to the economic distress occasioned by the disease, the national government has adopted measures to support vulnerable communities, mostly in urban centers where the pandemic has been widespread. The government’s broad-gauged response, including a national lockdown, has galvanized societal unity. In addition, the government-led COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund has mobilized a wide array of private and public actors and showcased a caring and responsive Kenyan state.

But this apparent unity is deceptive. The pandemic and its economic fallout have disproportionately affected disadvantaged groups within Kenyan society, heightening the class, ethnic, and regional inequalities that have driven polarization. A nationwide sense of crisis has bought the government some legitimacy as it contends with a tremendous governance challenge. But if the pandemic worsens considerably and the government is unable to manage the consequences, an implosion of state and societal institutions could precipitate deep national fragmentation.

Gilbert M. Khadiagala is the Jan Smuts Professor of International Relations and director of the African Centre for the Study of the United States at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.