Walking Kenya Back from the Brink: A Micro-Level Study of Horizontal Inequity and Civil Conflict Prevention

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In late 2007 and early 2008, Kenya erupted into chaos following its closely contested and flawed general elections. Kenya has long been a key economic and political ally of the United States (U.S.). As such, with the 2012 elections looming, the United States has an important role to play in preventing a repeat of the violence that devastated Kenya and rocked all of East Africa.

Underlying Causes of Conflict

Certain structural weaknesses in Kenya’s government have repeatedly turned national elections into flashpoints of conflict. However, the severity of the most recent outbreak of violence suggests that deeper grievances are driving the conflict. At independence, political parties formed along ethnic lines, transforming competition for executive power into ethnopolitical rivalry. Additionally, post-colonial land distribution favored certain tribes over others, thus fostering the rise of inequality between ethnic groups (horizontal inequity), rather than between individuals (vertical inequity), as the main driver of conflict.

Analytical Findings

A vast literature has analyzed how economic inequality and ethnopolitical identity affect conflict independently. However, evidence from Kenya contends that the interplay between the two is far more important. Quantitative analysis reveals that local levels of violence throughout Kenya increased with the severity of horizontal inequity. Furthermore, narratives from the conflict corroborate the statistical results, as symbols of horizontal inequity were key targets of violence. These findings offer a model to predict the locations at greatest risk of violence in 2012 and beyond, thus enabling precise targeting of conflict prevention and management assistance.


Adopting a local-level policy approach will facilitate peace building in a bottom-up process, enhancing its legitimacy to both political elites and the broader Kenyan population. Although Kenya has the ultimate responsibility to prevent, or manage, future civil conflict, the government would benefit from U.S. policy initiatives, such as:

•supporting local mediation strategies by offering financial, training, and logistical assistance to build the rapid response capacity of Kenyan peace organizations; •increasing foreign assistance for non-agricultural local development projects; •continuing to support Kenya’s constitutional reform process and emphasizing that enhanced accountability will boost U.S. willingness to increase development assistance; •imposing direct sanctions on the perpetrators of the 2007-08 violence and threatening similar treatment of future instigators of conflict.