Asian Kenyans Seek to Be Declared a ‘Tribe’ of Their Own

Ethnic interests are so entrenched in Kenya that some fret that the country will never build a sense of national identity to match that of neighboring Tanzania, whose founding father, Julius Nyerere, made a big effort to mold 120 ethnic groups into a cohesive society.

Kenya’s ethnic divisions are rooted in colonial Britain’s policy of divide and rule.

Members of the Kikuyu and the Luo, the biggest ethnic groups, worked as administrators and civil servants for the British. Today, they make up a large portion of the country’s elite: President Uhuru Kenyatta is a Kikuyu; his opponent in the presidential election, Raila Odinga, is a Luo.

In theory, Kenya’s Constitution requires the government to include employees from different ethnic backgrounds, including in the cabinet. But the rule is rarely followed.

Reaping the benefits of ethnic affiliation depends on whether your tribe is in power. Proximity can bring you business deals, jobs or school placements overseas for your children. Government employees fear being swept away under an administration from a different ethnic group, sharpening the incentive to hold on.

Politicians “hypnotize their own tribe and calculate which other ones to capture to help propel them into power,” said Ekuru Aukot, a lawyer and the president of the Thirdway Alliance, a fledgling party that aims to dismantle what he describes as “negative ethnicity.”


Shakeel Shabbir, a member of Parliament, supports the movement to have Asian Kenyans classified as the country’s 44th ethnic group. “We need a home,” he said.

Adriane Ohanesian for The New York Times

“When tribal affiliation is played at the political level, it gives false hope to people that they are, or will be, better off,” Mr. Aukot added, “even if the tribe itself doesn’t…

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