Tribal paranoia

Ethnic polarisation is taking hold in Kenya reports Michela Wrong Photos by Peter Chappell

Samuel jabs his finger at the television screen, which is broadcasting images of opposition supporters lobbing tear-gas canisters back at the riot police who fired them. "They say these are ODM supporters. But look, he's a Luo, she's a Luo; that's another one. That one, he could be anything. But these are all Luos, not just 'opposition supporters'."

I stare at the screen, comparing the faces to those of Samuel and his brothers, all of whom are Kikuyus. After 15 years reporting Africa, I can usually distinguish a Dinka from a Maasai, a Tutsi from a Hutu, an Eritrean from a Djiboutian, but I'm struggling here. "How can you tell?" "Luos are stocky, very well-built. They have big jaws. It's just obvious."

It was a conversation that would have been inconceivable a fortnight ago, clunkily tasteless five years ago. Samuel, a talented painter, comes from a section of Kenyan society I have come to know and admire, and on which rests this country's future. Born in a multi-ethnic slum, he has rubbed up against members of the Luo, Kamba, Luhya and Kisii communities all his life. He belongs to a cosmopolitan urban generation that always used to bristle when asked the question "Which tribe are you?", responding defiantly: "Actually, I'm a Kenyan."

Like many of that generation, he voted across tribal lines during the recent elections, choosing the Luo opposition leader Raila Odinga - whose Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) he regarded as a force for change - instead of the Kiku yu incumbent, Mwai Kibaki. Today Samuel, who abandoned his shack when Luos set the neighbourhood aflame, is reassessing some fundamental beliefs. He would never vote that way again. And he will be very, very careful in future to live among his own. "I'm becoming more tribalistic with every passing day."

Those who know Kenya have winced at the international media's portrayal of the crisis as some sort of Rwandan Genocide Mk II, with Luos and Kikuyus pitched against one another in the wake of "tribal voting" that reflected ata vistic hostilities. Kenya's violent explosion was rooted, rather, in cynical governance, the ruthless ambitions of its politicians, the yawning divide between prospectless poor and the smug elite, and the generational exasperation of millions of youngsters chafing at the indifference of a geriatric leadership.

But if the factors are complex, their expression has been horribly crude. And the lynchings, church-torchings and manhunts have triggered an accelerated process of ethnic polarisation - mental and physical - in a country that believed it had reached a level-headed accommodation with its tribal differences. As the atrocities mount up, Kenyans are starting to think of themselves in radically different ways.

Nowhere more so than in the slums. "In my area, the kiosk owners are now asking for people's IDs before they sell you anything," says Joseph, a taxi driver who lives in a largely Kikuyu slum and is himself a Kikuyu. "If you're a Luo, they won't serve you. And everyone is saying no Kikuyu will ever rent premises to a Luo again. The Luos in Kawangware will have to leave and no new ones will be allowed to come in."

But the middle classes also feel they are being forced to choose their camp, having brushed off ethnic sensitivities along with the mud of the upcountry samba (farm). "I went to dinner with colleagues recently and there was silence round the table," says Ruth, a young journalist. "We were so aware of the landmines in the conversation - because it was a mix of ethnic groups - that no one dared say anything."

A kind of reckoning

Even mzungus (westerners) are having to recalibrate, sprouting ethnic antennae they possessed when it came to hot spots like Rwanda, but never seemed necessary in Kenya. "Somehow, we've managed to send a Kikuyu camera crew to Kisumu," one television producer confessed with embarrassment. Stuck in a Luo stronghold, his Kikuyu reporters didn't dare venture out, let alone film. Western employers are chartering planes to scoop up employees whose ethnicity was regarded as irrelevant on appointment, but who are now regarded as being at risk.

"There's been a kind of reckoning with the idea of Kenyan-ness," says Parselelo Kantai, a Kenyan writer. "It was something we'd all been talking about but hadn't got round to. Now people have to make a hard decision about whether it's a viable concept or not."

In Kenya, as in most African states, self-image cannot be disentangled from colonial story. The British imperialists who settled the country did not invent its tribal configuration. Speak to any elderly Kenyan and they will tell you that their gran dparents were keenly aware of differences between Kamba and Kikuyu, Kikuyu and Maasai, with cattle raids and small wars against rivals across the lines peppering village existence.

But historians say that ethnic identity was a surprisingly malleable concept, becoming set in stone only with the colonial state. As white settlers rushed into Kenya in search of land, indigenous people were allocated "tribal reserves" and issued with the kipande, a pass defining their ethnicity. Some of Kenya's ethnic labels today did not exist before the colonial experience - the term "Kalenjin", for example, started being used only in the late 1940s, as a convenient way of grouping the Nandi-speaking peoples.

Acting on the well-established principle of divide and rule, British administrators allotted certain tribes certain functions: Maasais made good soldiers, the farming Kikuyus - deemed money-hungry and too clever by half - were meant to feed the nation, Kambas made for excellent houseboys. Those stereotypes are still in common use today, bandied about among Kenyans as though they capture eternal truths.

Under Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, a cynical system of presidential patronage reinforced these distinctions. In the top-heavy post-colonial state, prosperity depended on access to State House. Encouraging his fellow Kikuyus to settle outside their usual confines, Kenyatta made clear that those groups which supported the opposition would not be invited to "eat" from the national table, paying for their disloyalty by blocking their way to civil service jobs, private sector contracts and infrastructure. It is no coincidence that Kisumu, Odinga's home town in western Kenya, is today a decaying urban centre, its fish, rice, sugar and cotton industries either stagnating or dead in the water.

As poverty levels soared under Daniel arap Moi, ethnic hostility simmered. Moi, a Kalenjin, capitalised on the suspicions of the smaller tribes, presenting himself as the only leader who could keep the Kikuyus' vaunting ambition in check. You could detect the antagonism in the coded language: politicians railed against "a certain community" (the Kikuyus) or "the people of the lake" (the Luos). But the lid stayed on, thanks to Moi's iron grip. Kenyans of all stripes came to see themselves as brothers in suffering, victims of a sleazy and brutal leader.

When Mwai Kibaki won the 2002 elections at the head of a multi-ethnic coalition, many expected such tensions would dissipate. But the new president threw out the draft of a new constitution trimming his executive powers, sacked his coalition partners and withdrew into an ethnic citadel. While western governments expressed delight at the new administration's economic performance, Kenyans complained that the Kikuyus were at it again. The "Mount Kenya Mafia" - cronies from Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe and its neighbouring Embu and Meru groups - was playing the old patronage game.

Important ministries, critics noted, rested in the hands of "a certain community", with only inconsequential portfolios going outside the ethnic circle. With them went dodgy procurement contracts, local investment and jobs for the boys. "Go to any government department and you will be able to tell the minister's eth nicity by looking at the faces of the staff," one Nairobi-based journalist told me.

The conviction that only Kikuyus and their cousins were "eating" meant Odinga's campaign promise of majimboism - federalism - found a ready audience. The notion sounds uncontroversial to outsiders, but ordinary Kenyans interpreted it very differently. To their ears, maj im boism meant that, in future, only Luos would be allowed to own land in Luo areas, only Kambas would be allowed to run shops in Kambaland.

Raila Odinga was officially declared the loser of the rigged elections, but majimboism is in effect already being practised on the ground. The old kipande, with its ethnic labels, may have gone, but Kenyans can usually pinpoint tribal affiliation on the basis of name alone, spelled out on national identity cards. These are now being demanded at makeshift barricades by young, angry men wielding machetes and clubs. Already, a quarter of a million Kenyans - most of them Kikuyus fleeing Rift Valley homes - have been displaced and made homeless.

"Majimboism is already here in our country," says one Kikuyu kiosk owner, who, like many Kenyans in an increasingly paranoid nation, does not want his name used. "People have learned never to move to an area where you don't belong. Or go there to work but never move your family there. Then, if there is trouble, you can pick up and go. It's good to stay where you belong."

It is too early to say how far this de facto ethnic partition will go, how deeply the scars of the past weeks reach. Working against the trend is urbanisation, which forces tribes to live cheek by jowl, socialising and working with each other, dating and marrying one another. What is undeniable is that ruthless politicians, seeking the most effective issue around which to rally support, in the age of multiparty democracy, have pushed the concept of the nation state to breaking point.

"This crisis is a direct result of Kibaki politics," says Kantai. "Five years ago, no one was talking about Kikuyus or Luos. It just wasn't an issue."

Kenya's ethnic groups

The population is roughly 34 million, made up of more than 40 groups, the largest of which are the Kikuyus, Luhyas, Luos, Kalenjins and Kambas.

Ethnicity has seldom been an issue in Kenyan politics and some group labels such as Kalenjin became common only in the 1940s under British rule.

The largest group, the Kikuyus, makes up 22 per cent of the population. Their traditional home is central Kenya, to the north and west of Nairobi. Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent president, is a Kikuyu.

The opposition leader Raila Odinga is a Luo. Luos and Luhyas together make up 27 per cent of the population; they traditionally come from western Kenya.

Kalenjins, from the Rift Valley district, are the next-largest group. Kibaki's predecessor Daniel arap Moi is a Kalenjin; he was elected with support and opposition from both Luo and Kikuyu politicians.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked
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We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white women

Alt-right women are less visible than their tiki torch-carrying male counterparts - but they still exist. 

In November 2016, the writer and TED speaker Siyanda Mohutsiwa tweeted a ground-breaking observation. “When we talk about online radicalisation we always talk about Muslims. But the radicalisation of white men online is at astronomical levels,” she wrote, inspiring a series of mainstream articles on the topic (“We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white men,” wrote Abi Wilkinson in The Guardian). It is now commonly accepted that online radicalisation is not limited to the work of Isis, which uses social media to spread propaganda and recruit new members. Young, white men frequently form alt-right and neo-Nazi beliefs online.

But this narrative, too, is missing something. When it comes to online radicalisation into extreme right-wing, white supremacist, or racist views, women are far from immune.

“It’s a really slow process to be brainwashed really,” says Alexandra*, a 22-year-old former-racist who adopted extreme views during the United States presidential election of 2016. In particular, she believed white people to be more intelligent than people of colour. “It definitely felt like being indoctrinated into a cult.”

Alexandra was “indoctrinated” on 4Chan, the imageboard site where openly racist views flourish, especially on boards such as /pol/. It is a common misconception that 4Chan is only used by loser, basement-dwelling men. In actuality, 4Chan’s official figures acknowledge 30 percent of its users are female. More women may frequent 4Chan and /pol/ than it first appears, as many do not announce their gender on the site because of its “Tits or GTFO” culture. Even when women do reveal themselves, they are often believed to be men who are lying for attention.

“There are actually a lot of females on 4chan, they just don't really say. Most of the time it just isn't relevant,” says Alexandra. Her experiences on the site are similar to male users who are radicalised by /pol/’s far-right rhetoric. “They sowed the seeds of doubt with memes,” she laughs apprehensively. “Dumb memes and stuff and jokes…

“[Then] I was shown really bullshit studies that stated that some races were inferior to others like… I know now that that’s bogus science, it was bad statistics, but I never bothered to actually look into the truth myself, I just believed what was told to me.”

To be clear, online alt-right radicalisation still skews majority male (and men make up most of the extreme far-right, though women have always played a role in white supremacist movements). The alt-right frequently recruits from misogynistic forums where they prey on sexually-frustrated males and feed them increasingly extreme beliefs. But Alexandra’s story reveals that more women are part of radical right-wing online spaces than might first be apparent.

“You’d think that it would never happen to you, that you would never hold such horrible views," says Alexandra. "But it just happened really slowly and I didn't even notice it until too late."


We are less inclined to talk about radical alt-right and neo-Nazi women because they are less inclined to carry out radical acts. Photographs that emerged from the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville this weekend revealed that it was mostly polo shirt-wearing young, white men picking up tiki torches, shouting racial slurs, and fighting with counter-protestors. The white supremacist and alt-right terror attacks of the last year have also been committed by men, not women. But just because women aren’t as visible doesn’t mean they are not culpable.  

“Even when people are alt-right or sympathisers with Isis, it’s a tiny percentage of people who are willing or eager to die for those reasons and those people typically have significant personal problems and mental health issues, or suicidal motives,” explains Adam Lankford, author of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.

“Both men and women can play a huge role in terms of shaping the radicalised rhetoric that then influences those rare people who commit a crime.”

Prominent alt-right women often publicly admit that their role is more behind-the-scenes. Ayla Stewart runs the blog Wife With a Purpose, where she writes about “white culture” and traditional values. She was scheduled to speak at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally before dropping out due to safety concerns. In a blog post entitled “#Charlottesville May Have Redefined Women’s Roles in the Alt Right”, she writes:

“I’ve decided that the growth of the movement has necessitated that I pick and choose my involvement as a woman more carefully and that I’m more mindful to chose [sic] women’s roles only.”

These roles include public speaking (only when her husband is present), gaining medical skills, and “listening to our men” in order to provide moral support. Stewart declined to be interviewed for this piece.

It is clear, therefore, that alt-right women do not have to carry out violence to be radical or radicalised. In some cases, they are complicit in the violence that does occur. Lankford gives the example of the Camp Chapman attack, committed by a male Jordanian suicide bomber against a CIA base in Afghanistan.

“What the research suggests in that case was the guy who ultimately committed the suicide bombing may have been less radical than his wife,” he explains. “His wife was actually pushing him to be more radical and shaming him for his lack of courage.” 


Just because women are less likely to be violent doesn’t mean they are incapable of it.

Angela King is a former neo-Nazi who went to prison for her part in the armed robbery and assault of a Jewish shop owner. She now runs Life After Hate, a non-profit that aims to help former right-wing extremists. While part of a skinhead gang, it was her job to recruit other women to the cause.

“I was well known for the violence I was willing to inflict on others… often times the men would come up to me and say we don’t want to physically hurt a woman so can you take care of this,” King explains. “When I brought other women in I looked for the same qualities in them that I thought I had in myself.”

King's 1999 mugshot


These traits, King explains, were anger and a previous history of violence. She was 15 when she became involved with neo-Nazis, and explains that struggles with her sexuality and bullying had made her into a violent teenager.

“I was bullied verbally for years. I didn't fit in, I was socially awkward,” she says. One incident in particular stands out. Aged 12, King was physically bullied for the first time.

“I was humiliated in a way that even today I still am humiliated by this experience,” she says. One day, King made the mistake of sitting at a desk that “belonged” to a bully. “She started a fight with me in front of the entire class… I’ve always struggled with weight so I was a little bit pudgy, I had my little training bra on, and during the fight she ripped my shirt open in front of the entire class.

“At that age, having absolutely no self-confidence, I made the decision that if I became the bully, and took her place, I could never be humiliated like that again.”

Angela King, aged 18

King’s story is important because when it comes to online radicalisation, the cliché is that bullied, “loser” men are drawn to these alt-right and neo-Nazi communities. The most prominent women in the far-right (such as Stewart, and Lauren Southern, a YouTuber) are traditionally attractive and successful, with long blonde hair and flashing smiles. In actuality, women that are drawn to the movement online might be struggling, like King, to be socially accepted. This in no way justifies or excuses extreme behaviour, but can go some way to explaining how and why certain young women are radicalised. 

“At the age of 15 I had been bullied, raped. I had started down a negative path you know, experimenting with drugs, drinking, theft. And I was dealing with what I would call an acute identity crisis and essentially I was a very, very angry young woman who was socially awkward who did not feel like I had a place in the world, that I fit in anywhere. And I had no self-confidence or self-esteem. I hated everything about myself.”

King explains that Life After Hate’s research reveals that there are often non-ideological based precursors that lead people to far right groups. “Individuals don’t go to hate groups because they already hate everyone, they go seeking something. They go to fill some type of void in their lives that they’re not getting.”

None of this, of course, excuses the actions and beliefs of far-right extremists, but it does go some way to explaining how “normal” young people can be radicalised online. I ask Alexandra, the former 4Chan racist, if anything else was going on in her life when she was drawn towards extreme beliefs.

“Yes, I was lonely,” she admits.                                                       


That lonely men and women can both be radicalised in the insidious corners of the internet shouldn’t be surprising. For years, Isis has recruited vulnerable young women online, with children as young as 15 becoming "jihadi brides". We have now acknowledged that the cliché of virginal, spotty men being driven to far-right hate excludes the college-educated, clean-cut white men who made up much of the Unite the Right rally last weekend. We now must realise that right-wing women, too, are radicalised online, and they, too, are culpable for radical acts.  

It is often assumed that extremist women are radicalised by their husbands or fathers, which is aided by statements by far-right women themselves. The YouTuber, Southern, for example, once said:  

“Anytime they [the left] talk about the alt-right, they make it sound like it’s just about a bunch of guys in basements. They don’t mention that these guys have wives – supportive wives, who go to these meet-ups and these conferences – who are there – so I think it’s great for right-wing women to show themselves. We are here. You’re wrong.”

Although there is truth in this statement, women don’t have to have far-right husbands, brothers, or fathers in order to be drawn to white supremacist or alt-right movements. Although it doesn’t seem the alt-right are actively preying on young white women the same way they prey on young white men, many women are involved in online spaces that we wrongly assume are male-only. There are other spaces, such as Reddit's r/Hawtschwitz, where neo-Nazi women upload nude and naked selfies, carving a specific space for themselves in the online far-right. 

When we speak of women radicalised by husbands and fathers, we misallocate blame. Alexandra deeply regrets her choices, but she accepts they were her own. “I’m not going to deny that what I did was bad because I have to take responsibility for my actions,” she says.

Alexandra, who was “historically left-wing”, was first drawn to 4Chan when she became frustrated with the “self-righteousness” of the website Tumblr, favoured by liberal teens. Although she frequented the site's board for talking about anime, /a/, not /pol/, she found neo-Nazi and white supremacist beliefs were spread there too. 

“I was just like really fed up with the far left,” she says, “There was a lot of stuff I didn't like, like blaming males for everything.” From this, Alexandra became anti-feminist and this is how she was incrementally exposed to anti-Semitic and racist beliefs. This parallels the story of many radicalised males on 4Chan, who turn to the site from hatred of feminists or indeed, all women. 

 “What I was doing was racist, like I – deep down I didn't really fully believe it in my heart, but the seeds of doubt were sowed again and it was a way to fit in. Like, if you don't regurgitate their opinions exactly they’ll just bully you and run you off.”

King’s life changed in prison, where Jamaican inmates befriended her and she was forced to reassess her worldview. Alexandra now considers herself “basically” free from prejudices, but says trying to rid herself of extreme beliefs is like “detoxing from drugs”. She began questioning 4Chan when she first realised that they genuinely wanted Donald Trump to become president. “I thought that supporting Trump was just a dumb meme on the internet,” she says.

Nowadays, King dedicates her life to helping young people escape from far-right extremism. "Those of us who were involved a few decades ago we did not have this type of technology, cell phones were not the slim white phones we have today, they were giant boxes," she says. "With the younger individuals who contact us who grew up with this technology, we're definitely seeing people who initially stumbled across the violent far-right online and the same holds for men and women.

"Instead of having to be out in public in a giant rally or Klan meeting, individuals find hate online."

* Name has been changed

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked