Mapping Human Needs as a Conflict Driver: Kenya’s Electoral Violence

In this engaging essay, Kenyan scholar Carolyne Njihia writes on electoral violence in Kenya and what the triggers are.

Conflicts observed in East Africa are not just about power and resources, but are rooted in the denial of human needs such as identity, security, respect, and recognition.  Exclusionary governance systems, which deny ‘others’ equal rights and opportunities, have triggered many of the conflicts in the region. This article looks at Kenya as a case study, linking electoral violence to inequitable provision of human needs.

Although Kenya has been identified as an economic powerhouse in Eastern Africa, its development has been hampered by the cyclic electoral violence that occurs every five years, pre and post-election.  Electoral violence has had negative effects on the social, political and economic development of the country. National cohesion and the security of Kenyan citizens have been deeply affected, leading to citizen mistrusting each other as well as the ability of the state to keep them safe.

 The magnitude of the electoral violence in Kenya has been different with each election cycle. The worst was the 2007/2008 which led to the death of approximately 1,300 people and the displacement of an additional 650,000 people.  Due to this past experience, the 2013 and the 2017 elections were conducted in a fearful mode as Kenyans did not want a repeat of the violence in 2007.  The 2017 elections were also disputed and there was a re-run of the presidential elections following a Supreme Court ruling. Although there were reduced cases of post-election violence in these elections, there have been a myriad of questions regarding the conduct of the electoral body and how the elections were carried out.   The entire country from governmental to non-state actors focused on preaching peace and nationhood as opposed to scrutiny on the transparency of the elections.  Any attempts at questioning the electoral process were buried under the peace messages due to fear of a relapse to the violence witnessed in 2007/2008.  These two elections (2013 and 2017) were considered “peaceful” in terms of absence of physical violence but not it terms of structural violence since the voices of citizens demanding for transparency and accountability were not heard –a state referred to as negative peace by Johan Galtung, where the underlying causes of conflict such as fear, insecurity, poverty and inequality are not addressed.

According to UNICEF 2017 Kenya country profile, access to basic quality services such as health care, education, clean water and sanitation are often a luxury for many people. Large segments of the population, including the burgeoning urban poor, are highly vulnerable to climatic, economic and social shocks.  A majority of Kenyans are living far below the poverty line and the gap between the rich and the poor is very wide. These Kenyans who are struggling to meet their basic needs have become very disillusioned and discontent about their situation in life, especially when they see the growing fortune of the very wealthy. Incidentally in 2015, Kenya was declared a middle income economy, reflecting a country that is growing steadily economically. However this growth is not being experienced   equally across all segments of the population, with the poor reporting that more than before, it is much more difficult to access their basic needs.  This disparity needs a reference point and most citizens tend to link politics and ethnicity as a barrier to being able to access their basic needs.  This triggers violence against those perceived to be benefiting from the regime that is in place.

Politics in Kenya, has been linked to the distribution of resources, more popularly referred to as the “sharing of the national cake”.  The distribution of the national resources then has been linked to ethnicity where members of the ethnic community who associate with incumbent ruling regime are seen as benefiting more from the national resources at the expense of other communities.  These perceived or real differences in the ability of groups to access their human needs lead to conflict and in worse cases inter-ethnic violence. This has been described by the horizontal inequality theory which suggests that economic and political inequality between groups drives conflict. The prime cause of conflict arises from inequalities among groups, which is their relative position compared to other groups. For example if  other groups are wealthier, benefiting more from public spending , taxes or resources then this can be a source of conflict. Paul Collier has written extensively on  the greed vs  grievance  theory which  points out that collective violence can be the result of relative deprivation  and the ‘grievance’ this produces amongst members of  the group that perceives itself to be deprived  thus acting violently.  Relative deprivation is viewed as the “disparity between people’s expectations and the reality of their situation.” It is the difference between the goods and conditions of life to which people believe they are rightfully entitled, the goods and conditions which they can presently maintain, or believe themselves capable of attaining and keeping in the future. This situation is further aggravated by having a reference group which is a point of reference for what they expect to have. This becomes the motivation for collective violence as a result of psychological frustration-aggression. 

It is important to note that collective needs and fears of a group becomes a group identity as they experience the same conditions and develop a similar world view.  Therefore when a certain group’s basic needs are not met, then this becomes a basis for group formation and identity.  The collective violence occurs because the goods and conditions expected by the citizens are not just luxuries but are basic human needs which are essential for their survival. Human needs by their very existence are non-negotiable meaning that people will go to whichever lengths to be able to meet them.  While traditional models of basic human needs have looked at needs along the lines of the three basic needs which are food, shelter and clothing, in recent times however, other “higher” needs have also been included in the human needs category. Human needs have evolved to include concepts such as protection, identity, recognition, participation and understanding. These “emerging” needs are fundamentally harder to achieve and require conscious efforts by governments to be able to achieve them. The need for identity within groups is not a negative thing but it should be harnessed for problem solving and social cohesion rather than violence and conflict. Unfortunately, in Kenya just like in other conflict settings, identity as a need has been exploited for political interests and to cause chaos.

The argument in this article is that if citizens have access to basic needs they require to live a dignified life, then ethnicity and local politics will not be a matter of life and death after every election cycle.    Changes need to be made on how conflicts are mapped, highlighting the fact that access to human needs is a major driver for violence.  It requires the formulation and implementation of proper government policies and solid structural systems to ensure all citizens have access and enjoy the basic human needs regardless of the regime that is in place. Citizens will then be able to vote for key policy issues and governance mechanisms as opposed to voting for ethnic blocks which they believe are the only means they can be able to access their basic needs. The more physical and psychological needs of a group are met, the less likely they will use violent means to achieve them.  

Selected Bibliography:


 Ted Robert  Gurr (1970) Why Men Rebel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Chikwanha Barbara  (2012) Governance, Citizenship, and Conflicts in the East African Community,Africa Peace and Ethnopolitics Conflict Journal, 5:1 (2012)

Galtung Johan (1969) Violence, Peace, and Peace Research. Violence, Peace, and Peace Research International Peace Research Institute, Oslo  Volume: 6 issue: 3, page(s): 167-191

Stewart, Frances (2000) ‘Crisis Prevention: Tackling Horizontal Inequalities, in Oxford Development Studies, 28(3)

Walsh, Dawn. (2015). How a Human Needs Theory Understanding of Conflict Enhances the Use of Consociationalism as a Conflict Resolution Mechanism: The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. Ethnopolitics. 15. 1-18. 10.1080/17449057.2015.1024012.


Unicef 2017 country profile. Available at

Carolyne W. Njihia is a PhD student in development studies at St. Paul’s University, Kenya and a Project Manager with Saferworld where she works on peace building, governance and human rights programs.