At The Margins Of Kenya’s Democracy – Analysis


By Wossen Ayele and Mohamed Yunus Rafiq

In an attempt to construct a cohesive Kenyan state, one of the key questions facing the country is how to coalesce the many ethnic groups into one nation state. [1] Ethnicity has been a powerful organising force in Kenyan politics. Kenya, unlike its neighbour Tanzania, has had a long policy of classifying its citizens by ethnicity.

In the complicated realm of Kenyan parliamentary democracy, ethnic cleavages are the building blocks of political constituencies. Region matters, as does ethnicity — and in many cases, those two features are correlated to the point of being practically inextricable. Outside of Nairobi, the most ethnically diverse region of Kenya, this tends to be the case. Consider, for example, that 87 per cent of all Luo live in Nyanza and 95 per cent of all Kalenjin live in Rift Valley. [2]


What may have begun as a colonial exercise in divide-and-rule has transformed into a normalised feature of Kenyan political life. During the regime of Jomo Kenyatta, as many Kenyans would tell you, it was principally the Kikuyu who enjoyed the fruits of the Kenyan state. Under his successor, Daniel arap Moi, for 24 years until his ousting in 2002, state largesse flowed to the people of the Rift Valley region, the home of his own ethnic group, the Kalenjin.

It is against the backdrop of these two dominant regimes that ethnic-based politics continues in parliament of Kenya. However, unlike the big man politics of the previous regimes, the current multiparty parliamentary system is fragmented and requires the creation of voting blocs and coalitions to capture power. Usually, these lines are ethnic in nature.

Large ethnic voting blocs have created coalitions and captured power and subsequently been able to shape the state’s agenda. However, during this process, some small minority groups have been marginalised.

One of these groups is the Segeju, a minority ethnic group on the southern coast. Comprised of less than 25,000 people (mostly in Kenya with a minority in Tanzania), the Segeju are not formally recognised by the government of Kenya. Instead, they have been forced by the government to adopt the identity of the Digo, a neighboring ethnic group. In Kenya, access to power is mediated by one’s ethnic identity. For the Segeju that access does not exist unless they take on another. This policy on forced assimilation has pushed the Segeju to the periphery.


The Mijikenda are a group of nine ethnic groups along the coast of Kenya. They are the Chonyi, Digo, Duruma, Giriama, Jibana, Kambe, Kauma, Rabai and the Ribe peoples. Recent scholarship has exposed the Mijikenda as a colonial construct; a supra-ethnic identity created in order to help the British effectively exercise colonial rule. [3] The peoples of the Mijikenda did indeed exist as a related ethno-linguistic group, but never in a formalised entity as the Mijikenda. It is a constructive category that was created in order to more easily govern; the nine tribes were merged to streamline British colonial rule.

In his article ‘The Segeju Complex,’ anthropologist Martin Walsh delves into the history of the Mijikenda and its relationship to the Segeju. He writes that the Segeju share similarities with many of the Mijikenda groups, such that they were the culturally dominant ethnic group in pre-colonial Mijikenda history. [4] The historical Segeju were much more than just livestock herders and efficient fighters; they were also traders and left a legacy of political organisation and ritual practice that contributed significantly to the precolonial Mijikenda. [5] Furthermore, linguistic studies of the languages of the Mijikenda people suggest that Segeju words were transmitted from the Segeju to the other languages.

Further, the Segeju influenced the organisation and institutions of the Mijikenda peoples. In this way, the Segeju possess the typical characteristics by which the Mijikenda were initially judged and coalesced. Examples of the so-called defining characteristics of the Mijikenda that Segeju also posses are the veneration/respect of sacred groves, known as Kaya, the myth of originating from Shungwaya, the use and importance of fingo — a protective medicine for settlements like villages and linguistic similarity. [6] According to Derek Nurse who has done extensive work on Digo and Segeju language, while the two languages are similar, it is inaccurate to call Kisegeju as Kidigo. [7]

Yet today in postcolonial Kenya, the Segeju have never been a member of the Mijikenda super-tribe. The colonial experience hardened the institution of the Mijikenda such that the Segeju are on the outside. Instead, in some parts of the coastal region are forced to adopt the identity of Digo in order to petition the state and participate in Kenyan political life.

The Digo are indeed a very closely linked ethnic group of the Mijikenda, but to classify Segeju as Digo is simply inaccurate. And further, the forced assimilation as Digo has created a mistrust of the state among the Segeju.

Consider the history surrounding the two groups in the southern coast area near Msambweni. Athuman Said Kibada is the elected leader of the Segeju Survival Movement, a community-based organisation that works on issues of political representation and economic development. Kibada is a local leader and historian of the Msambweni area. He describes a period of warfare between the two groups over land. [8][9], While Kibada’s dates there are estimations, they nevertheless confirm roughly to dates documented by British colonial ethnographers like E.C. Baker. [10]

Since then, the political history of the Segeju and Digo was that of tense neighbors, who formed a fragile political alliance after a period of conflict. Digo and Segeju intermarried, but the identities were not completely blurred; there still existed two groups, one that identified as Digo and another as Segeju.


What is striking is the rigidity of the ethnic identities and its attendant outcomes, both material and social. This is in spite of the Kenyan state’s constitutional mandate to protect ethnic minorities and safeguard Kenya’s cultural and linguistic diversity.

Article 7 of the 2010 Constitution holds that the state must promote and protect the diversity of languages of the people of Kenya. Article 56 promises affirmative action programmes designed to ensure that minorities and marginalised groups are represented and able to participate in governance. [11]

The situation among the Segeju community in Kwale County demonstrates the seriousness of this forced assimilation and how the present state of affairs falls outside the bounds of the Constitution. Segeju are not recognised by the state and lack meaningful political representation in the government; therefore their language has not been protected, let alone promoted.

Additionally, jobs are scarce in this area. The economic impoverishments have created an exodus of Segeju youth to urban centres like Mombasa for jobs. This demographic shift caused by poor economic and political conditions has negatively affected the transfer of cultural and linguistic knowledge from the elders to youth. Concomitantly, the absence of youth has limited the Segeju community’s ability to represent themselves because they represent perhaps the most educated and socially active demographic.

Local leaders from the Msambweni area have given testimony to the nature of their grievances and provide context to their predicament. Kibada describes the post-independence government as one that allowed the Segeju to participate in political life by actively identifying as Segeju. He contends that identification cards issued in the 1960s demonstrate this fact. That period turned out to be short-lived.

The undoing of this freedom was cased by a betrayal by their elected leader. ‘The Mwamzambi [Member of Parliament Kassim Mwamzandi] was from the family of Kubo, the Digo chief.’ He understood the history between the two tribes and ‘he took that opportunity to seek revenge on the Segejus.’ His revenge was to initiate the project of assimilating the Segeju into Digo. He actively blocked the distribution of national identification cards to Segejus unless they changed their names and identified as Digo. This was a devastating blow to the Segeju and their culture. The identity cards were not only vital in proving citizenship, but also allow Kenyans to choose their leaders, and obtain health services, assistance from police and other governmental agencies.

At that point the Kenyan state ceased to formally recognise the Segeju. The impact of this cannot be minimised. According to records kept by Kibada (the Kenyan government does not keep records on the ethnic group) there are roughly 8,000 Segeju and their Segeju culture and language are in danger of extinction. Furthermore, joblessness is high in this coastal region.

It is important to interrogate the logic of rigid classification in light of the Segeju experience. Ostensibly, the classifications are about knowing the population so that you can govern better and retain your power. That logic, first employed by the British, continues to manifests itself with the present government. But, these things take on a life of their own and are mediated through other factors. In this instance those factors are local history and ethnic tension and have resulted in the disenfranchisement of an ethnic group.

Ethnic classification manifests itself politically through the electoral process. For the Mijikenda, what at first was an assortment of groups that did not identify as being members of a larger umbrella community quickly became a relevant organising tool for Kenyan politicians. During Kenya’s short history the Mijikenda has been a voting bloc through which politicians capture power. In 1945, Mijikenda Union, the first formal organization, was founded. [12] The first leaders who held office were not traditional, and in fact used their school education and salaried employment to legitimise their leadership. Mijikenda political organisation would quickly be marked by a significant focus on traditional leadership centered on the kaya elders, whose name references the sacred kaya forests that play a central role in Mijikenda identity.

Since then, different leaders have pursued the Mijikenda and specifically the endorsement of the kaya elders. This process is paramount for politicians; gaining legitimacy in their community in this fashion is not simply an issue of attaining votes but also a more symbolic part of Kenyan political culture. A politician at the national level is not seen as legitimate — and perhaps lacking in the right authority — to run for a seat if he does not show connection with his home community. The dramatic and performance filled ceremonies such as the crowning of the political candidates as kaya elders are meant to project or portray these leaders as authoritative, connected and accountable to their communities. [13]

For decades, the kaya elders have continued to be active in this capacity. They have endorsed politicians from Ronald Ngala in 1960 to MP Emmanuel Karissa Maitha more recently (both of whom are Giriama). The kaya elders have also played a role in endorsing national candidates who are not from of the Mijikenda. In 2003, recently elected President Mwai Kibaki, was initiated by the Council of Kaya Elders as a show of goodwill between the Mijikenda and Kibaki’s National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). [14] Just this August, the Kenyan press reported that ‘several presidential candidates have reached out to the elders for endorsement,’ including Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi. [15]

The Segeju have been shut out of this process. They do not share a history as a member of the Mijikenda and yet the institutions of the Kenyan government are attempting to incorporate them into this group, with its very specific history, institutions and entangled relationships. On one hand they possess many Mijikenda attributes, yet on the other they were never apart of the Mijikenda proper. The Mijikenda could very well have been the Mijitemba from the start; an arbitrary decision that would have created a group of ten tribes. However, the current forced assimilation is endangering Segeju language and culture.

So what to do with the Segeju.

Minority groups like the Segeju should be able to determine and assert their own identity, even when these identities fail to conform to the parameters of Kenya’s ethno-political landscape. Reforming how governance works in light of historical grievances is not easy. However, it must be reiterated that these institutions that make up Kenya’s democracy, at their best, are designed to broadly serve the interests of citizens and should not result in arbitrary social exclusion. On paper, Kenya is committed to this reality. In 2008 by President Kibaki launched the Kenya Vision 2030 development programme to transform Kenya into a middle-income nation that provides a high quality of life to citizens, all by the year 2030. [16] The guiding principles of this plan outline a desire to create a Kenya where all citizens are treated equally and possess opportunities to flourish. [17]

For the Segeju, this vision is unrealised and, worse, there does not seem to be any movement to make it a reality. The Kenyan government must make substantive reforms in the Segeju community to work towards this ideal. In line with the objectives of Vision 2030, the government must find ways to recognise the Segeju, protect their culture and language and create opportunities that allow them to participate fully in Kenyan society as full-fledged citizens. [18]

Wossen Ayele and Mohamed Yunus Rafiq are charter members of the Segeju Survival Movement.


[1] This is not a new observation or confined to African regimes only: John Lie’s book, Modern Peoplehood, “explores the formation of modern peoplehood in Europe and its spread to the non-European world.” Lie describes how “geopolitics ultimately shaped national borders, and the modern state was crucial in forging and disseminating peoplehood identity” (Lie 99). See Lie, J. Modern Peoplehood. Harvard University Press.
[2] Nellis, John. The Ethnic Composition of Leading Kenyan Government Positions. Uppsala: The Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1974.
[3] Peterson, D.; Macola, G. ed., Recasting the Past: History Writing and Political Work in Modern Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press 2009. Also see McIntosh, Janet, In the Edge of Islam: Power, Personhood and Ethno-Religious Boundaries in Kenyan Coast.
[4] Walsh, Martin. “The Segeju Complex? Linguistic Evidence for the Precolonial Making of the Mijikenda.” Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Shungwaya is an ancient settlement in East Africa thought to occupy the area north of the Tana River near present day Somalia. Its location and existence have been subject to debate among scholars. See the works of R.F Morton, E.R. Turton, Thomas Spear and James de Vere Allen.
[7] Nurse, Derek. “Segeju and Daisu: A Case Study of Evidence from Oral Tradition and Comparative Linguistics.” History in Africa. Vol. 9, (1982) Pp 175-208.
[8] Interview with Athumani Kibada. Telephone. July 16, 2012.
[9] The story about the said conflict was narrated not in real time but mythic time. When the local historian was pressed to provide the time scale of this period of conflict between Digos and the Segeju, he estimated to be about two hundred years ago.
[10] Baker reported that local Segeju headman like Lumwe in Chongoleani (of present day Tanzania) continued to battle with Digos over land and political control in the coastal strip of Tanga up through the mid 20th century. See: Baker, E.C. “Notes on the History of the Wasegeju.” Tanganyika Notes and Records. 1949.
[11] The Constitution of Kenya, 2010,
[12] Willis, Justin “The King of the Mijikenda and Other Stories about the Kaya: Heritage, Politics, and Histories in Multiparty Kenya”. Peterson, D.; Macola, G. ed., Recasting the Past: History Writing and Political Work in Modern Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press 2009.
[13] Such political techniques are not unique to Kenya but documented in other parts of Africa. See Geschiere, Peter. Perils of Belonging. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
[14] Ibid.
[15] “Kaya Elders to Pick Their Man for Presidency” by Philip Mbaji. The Star. 21 August 2012.
[16] Kenya Vision 2030 Official Website.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Special thanks to Ahmad Kipacha of The Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology in Arusha.

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