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A look at Kenya ahead of the elections

Philipp Sandner sst
August 7, 2017

Kenya is known as a country of safaris and picturesque beaches - but it's also a nation marred by ethnic rivalries. Due to its strong economy, Kenya plays a leading role in East Africa.

Air force planes pass over a Kenyan flag
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Just a stone's throw away from Kenya's parliament in the capital Nairobi, there is a statue honoring Kenyan freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi. This monument, a symbol for Kenya becoming independent from the British colonial power in December 1963, is controversial because the bloody "Mau Mau" uprising in the 1950s claimed many innocent lives.

But even today, Kimathi, the Mau Mau fighter, remains an important symbol of pride for many Kenyans - for having defeated the superior power of the British Empire.

Statue of Dedan Kimathi (photo: Wikipedia)
Dedan Kimathi fought against British colonization in Kenya in the 1950s

Right from the very beginning of Britain's rule of "British East Africa" at the end of the 19th century, the UK touted the idea that its citizens should settle here. British settlers took on fertile land in the central highlands and used it to set up huge plantations and hunting grounds.

The "White Highlands" would later become the heartland of racial segregation.

Especially those who were driven off their land - the Kikuyu - were antagonized by the British. Kenya's largest ethnic group became the driving force in the fight for freedom - and for independence.

Read more: Kenya fears outburst of election violence

A fresh start in politics after independence was embodied by Kenya's first president Jomo Kenyatta.

Politics along ethnic lines

Since then, politics in Kenya have been closely linked with ethnicity. Kenya's president and his inner circle have regularly ensured that land ownership and political posts are primarily given to members of their own ethnic group.

When Kenya's then-president Mwai Kibaki and his opponent, Raila Odinga, were running neck to neck in the December 2007 elections and the election commission decided in favor of Kibaki, this provoked clashes between the two ethnic groups, with disastrous consequences. In the ensuing violence more than 1,000 people died and hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes.

A woman is seen praying for peace
Women pray for peace at a pre-election prayer rally in NairobiImage: picture alliance/dpa/AP/B. Curtis

A constitutional reform in 2010 strengthened the country's checks and balances and divided the country into 47 semi-autonomous counties ruled by elected governors. Largely peaceful elections in 2013 brought Uhuru Kenyatta - the son of Kenya's founding father Jomo Kenyatta - to power. He won by just 800,000 votes ahead of his rival, Raila Odinga, who claimed the elections were rigged.

East Africa's economic powerhouse

Kenya is East Africa's economic powerhouse - in 2014, the World Bank placed it in the lower middle-income bracket where it has remained ever since. Due to its convenient location - its link to the Indian Ocean - neighboring countries use Kenya as an import route for cars, machinery and processed goods from Asia. Kenya's biggest exports are cut flowers, tea and coffee.   

But despite Kenya becoming more and more prosperous, wealth is not equally distributed among its citizens. About 40 percent of people still live below the poverty line - high rates of youth unemployment and corruption are other hot topics in the country. 

Kenyans holding candles
Kenyans came together to mourn the people who were killed in an attack on Garissa University in 2015Image: Getty Images/D. Kurokawa

Tourism plays an important part in the country's economy. However, the violence in the aftermath of the 2007 election and growing fears of Islamic terror since Kenya declared war on terror group al-Shabab in neighboring Somalia have caused tourism numbers to fall.

In 2013, Islamists attacked a shopping mall in Nairobi where more than 60 people were killed. But the most devastating Islamist attack targeted a Western symbol - in 1998, terrorists attacked the US embassy in Nairobi, killing more than 200 people and injuring thousands more.