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Kenya’s Past as Prologue

Christian Thibon
Marie-Aude Fouéré
Mildred Ndeda
et al.

An Evaluation of Political Mobilization Strategies Employed by Vigilante Groups in Kisii County during the 2013 Kenyan Elections

Wycliffe Nyachoti Otiso

Note de l’auteur

Lecturer at Kisii University, Kenya and PhD candidate in Law and Political Science at Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour (UPPA), France

Texte intégral


  • 1 Government of Kenya, Report of Commission on Post Election Violence, Government Printer, p. 34.

1The vigilante phenomenon in Kisii County in Kenya captured public attention in the past decade, owing to the severity of their sanctions and their disproportionate responses to crime and insecurity. Their targets were suspected thieves, murderers and witches. Images of torched huts and suspected offenders drew media attention with such reports grabbing national headlines. Existence of the vigilante phenomenon and links to groups like the Sungusungu are suspected to be involved in political conflicts, especially during the electioneering period. Such involvement was scarcely documented before the publication of the Report of the Commission on Post Election Violence (CIPEV).1 As a consequence to this publication, possible link between Sungusungu activities and participation in political violence was brought into sharp focus.

2Prior to this report, no study has ever established a direct link between Sungusungu and electoral violence in Kisii. Studies emphasized the use of youth groups in settling political contests. In their study, Masese and Mwenzwa (2012) found that gangs and militia like Amachuma associated with political big men had been used to intimidate opponents during political campaigns. They observed that Amachuma was initially formed to protect community interest by supporting Mr. Nyachae, a Cabinet Minister and the political big man from the Abagusii Community. Although it was formed to protect community interests by supporting Mr. Nyachae’s presidential ambitions, the group later resorted to targeting political competition through intimidation and disruption of political rallies. Such youth groups were viewed as having a natural propensity to be used as agents for instilling fear on political opponents through violence (Anderson, 2002). However, the conduct and outcome of the 2013 general elections in Kisii provide insufficient data to support the understanding that vigilante groups have a propensity to resort to political violence to influence political processes and the outcome of elections. This time there were no reports on the use of Sungusungu in settling political conflicts. This is attributable to changes that occurred during the 2008-2013 electoral cycle. One of these changes is the enactment of the Prevention of Organised Crime Act in 2010. The Act targets the formal character of proscribed groups, and as a result such youth circles have mutated from vigilante to community policing groups. However the state’s use of the law as a tool of domination has been ineffective in neutralizing the group’s activities. Instead, the group has instrumentalised opportunities within the law to continue operating and exercising political and civic rights like participating in elections (Otiso, forthcoming). Hence the changing activities of vigilante groups in Kisii require us to rethink the understanding of ‘law as domination’ model as employed by the state (Moore, 2005).

3In Kisii, the “former” vigilante group, Sungusungu, has regrouped into the Community Policing Group (CPG). Their change of name into CPG only indicates their formal transformation as their core activities remain the same: tackling crime and insecurity. From the information gathered in Kisii during the 2013 elections there is an ostensible shift in the operation and strategy of Sungusungu to that of participating in the political processes. The groups have changed the mode of accessing decision-making from participating indirectly through big men to participating directly by fronting their own in the electoral process. For instance, the CPG chairman contested for the Kisii Central county ward representative post instead of supporting incumbent political big men. This marked a shift in influencing local politics through non-violent means by directly seeking electoral positions, rather than resorting to the use of violence to influence outcomes of elections of their political patrons. The shift defies conventional assumptions that every electoral cycle in Kenyan politics is characterized by violence that is marshaled by youth vigilante groups at the service of incumbent politicians.

  • 2 See analysis in Pratten (2006). Pratten disputes the militia-style “war machines” hypothesis develo (...)

4This study examines the changing nature of vigilantism by analyzing their approaches to political mobilization. It looks at nuanced forms of engagement in political processes by the activities of the CPG using Kisii Central Ward as a case study. It also interrogates nuanced political mobilization strategies and the direct participation of the Community Policing Group in elective processes. The decline in political violence during the electioneering period in Kisii is attributable to a marked shift in vigilante activities to non-violent political mobilization discernible from the manner of participation of Sungusungu in 2013 general elections. The changing nature of its operations provides a broader perspective that serves as an alternative to the conventional assumption of armed youth group’s predisposition to use violence as their modus operandi. These patterns are in consonance with Pratten’s analysis that disputes the “war machines” hypothesis whereby the youth constitute a readily available resource to commit acts of violence. This analysis shows why it is necessary to understand the youth beyond their predisposition to use violence and also appreciate their capability seize opportunities to overcome their state of marginalization.2

5The study was conducted in Nyaribari Chache Constituency within Kisii Central Ward in Kisii County. Data was collected through observations and open informal interviews because the group under study is a proscribed organization. The exercise took a period of 12 months – some 6 months before elections and 6 months after elections. The observations were mainly done at the polling stations, tallying centers, and political rallies and campaigns.

6The paper provides a brief on vigilantism and its contribution to electoral violence. It then examines factual events from the political campaign period culminating into the general elections in 2013 with particular focus on Kisii Central Ward. The study pays attention to the concept of non-violent political mobilization as currently embraced by CPG and evaluates the group motivation to directly engage in political decision-making as opposed to campaigning for godfathers as they did in the past.

Conceptualization: Vigilantism and electoral violence

7It is difficult to speak of a universal definition of vigilantism. Rather than focus on a single definition, it is more appropriate to analyze different descriptions of vigilantism and broad commonalities that would encompass all vigilante groups. One such description maintains that vigilantism is “establishment violence” (Rosenbaum and Sederberg, 1974). According to this definition vigilantism consists of acts or threats of coercion in violation of formal boundaries of an established sociopolitical order with the intention of defending that order from some form of subversion” (Ibid.). Fleisher (2000) explains that when the state has been ineffective in protecting existing socio-political order, vigilante groups seek to fill the void in protecting that order by restoring or restructuring existing societal arrangements. Similarly, Plyler (2006) argues that mob justice as a form of vigilantism in the sense that it is a form of social control too. She views vigilante as conservative groups that are dependent on societal values associated with the state because as they operate to restore such values, they themselves are unable to articulate social alternatives with visions different from or independent of the state. However the definitions cited above do not completely fit with the organization and objectives of CPG. A more appropriate definition is provided by Abrahams (1987) who regards vigilantism as a type of self-help initiative by locals in a given area, formed with the common objective of addressing a certain problem, be it political or social. In so far as CPG is concerned, the definition by Abrahams appropriately describes the nature, objective and scope of their activities. This study adopts Abraham’s definition to analyze the nuances of CPG in the specific context of Kenya’s 2013 Elections. Since the study explores the extent to which CPG employed violence during the 2013 elections, it is also important that we describe the concept of electoral violence before we delve into the factors that led the group’s significant shift in the mode of participating in politics.

  • 3 The study of electoral violence as a distinct phenomenon has been dismissed because it is an insign (...)
  • 4 Article 105 (2) of the Constitution; Section 85 of the Elections Act.

8As we have seen with the term vigilantism, the phenomenon of electoral violence is similarly contested and there exist no scholarly consensus on its precise definition, occurrence and reasons why it should be studied separately from other forms of violence, especially political violence.3 The study adopts Bekoe’s approach that considers electoral violence to be a specific kind of political violence. In his study of the phenomenon in the context of new democracies in sub-Saharan Africa, Bekoe describes electoral violence as a subset of political activities “which is distinguished by its timing, perpetrators and victims, objectives and methods” (Bekoe, 2012: 2). From our understanding of electoral violence it is also important to pose the question: when does electoral violence occur? Straus and Taylor’s (2012) approach the study of electoral violence by examining elections six months prior to voting and three more months after the vote. They argue that it is important to study pre- and post-election periods because in most of the times the election day is relatively peaceful. This criterion is useful in the disaggregation of other types of violence that happen around election time as a coincidence. Indeed, as Bekoe cautions, “not all acts of violence around electioneering period constitute electoral violence. Incidents of violence must be related to elections” (Bekoe, 2012). However, this study examines electoral violence for a period of six months after elections in order to cover the period of electoral disputes as provided by the Kenyan Constitution.4

Reasons behind CPG shift to political participation

9In this section we examine the different reasons that motivated CPG to directly participate in electoral politics rather than continue to influence local politics indirectly through its the established former patronage networks.

Disconnection from patronage networks

  • 5 Interview with A, Location CPG Leader, April 5, 2013, Kisii Interview with B, CPG member, February  (...)
  • 6 Interview with B, CPG member, February 15, 2013, Kisii.
  • 7 Interview with A, Location CPG leader, April 5, 2013, Kisii; however, it was unclear from the inter (...)

10During this study we carried out informal interviews with the CPG members and the location leader to find out whether they were in agreement on the decision by the group leader to run for the county ward elections. The CPG leader for the location stated that the group had reached the conclusion that the time was ripe for the group to participate in local political decision-making activities. He stated that the group could only achieve this objective by directly participating in the local politics rather than through patron-client networks because the latter method did not realise tangible benefits to the members. The group wanted to delink itself from such networks owing to unreliability of their former patrons.5 In the past, CPG relied on the goodwill of political patrons comprising former Kisii Municipal Council councilors to recruit their members for the task of maintaining law and order in the town. However, the relationship between CPG and its patrons only lasted for a while because the political patrons could not keep their promises regarding payment for services rendered.6 Thus the decision by the CPG to directly seek political posts raises scenarios that require deeper interrogation about the disintegration of these patronage networks and how this affects former clients. A study on the interplay between neopatrimonialism, violence and land tenure systems in Enoosupukia in the 1990s by Scott Matter (2010) found that in neopatrimonial networks, the security of clients, personal access to power and economic resources was dependent on the whims of the patron. The clients were involved in a loose and asymmetrical relationship that carried the risk of getting disconnected at anytime. The result of disintegrated patronage network meant that they were in a vulnerable position and open to further marginalization and domination through both the State institutions – which the former patrons easily accessed –and the law. However, CPG voluntary disconnection from its former patronage network appears to have galvanized the group not to renegotiate a return to their former patronage networks but instead to directly seek access to political power and economic resources. The decision by the CPG to directly get involved in elective politics was well received by the group members without objections.7 The members were galvanized around the group leader because they were convinced that 2013 elections provided them an opportunity to influence local decision-making given their proven record of having restored security in Kisii County.

The role of the County Assembly in the new dispensation

  • 8 Observations made at political rally held in Kisii Municipal Stadium, February 28, 2013, Kisii.
  • 9 Articles 185 (1), 185 (2), 185 (3) and 185 (4) of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 and Chapter III of (...)
  • 10 Article 185 (4) of the Constitution of Kenya, 2010.

11Prior to enactment of the new Constitution in 2010, the functions of the local government were regulated by an Act of Parliament and the Mayor and heads of departmental committees had a lot of discretion in administering the resources of the municipal council. The ward was represented by a Councilor in the previous system. The public did not rate the position of Councilor highly because of its minor responsibilities and attendant remuneration. However, under the new system the position of the member of County Assembly is for valid reasons viewed to be more powerful than that of a Councilor. The perception that the County Assembly would comprise “honourable members” – who would be the ‘equivalent’ of a member of National Assembly – was cultivated during the referendum campaigns for the 2010 Constitution and also reinforced by candidates during the 2013 election campaigns.8 Indeed, the Constitution positions the county assembly as a more robust institution than the former Council Assembly. The County Assembly is entrenched in the Constitution with specified legislative, oversight and approval functions.9 The desire by the CPG to have some influence in county affairs is in recognition of the vast powers vested in the County Assembly to steer the management of institutions in the exploitation of county resources.10

12In fact the perception of CPG regarding the power of the County Assembly has been vindicated by the assertion of county assemblies in Nakuru and Kiambu counties. The two assemblies have recently flexed their muscles to an extent of stalling the workings of their county executives. In a brief showdown for supremacy the County Assembly in Nakuru rejected the Governor’s nominees and threatened to impeach him for purporting to appoint people of his choice in disregard of a court order. Similarly, the Kiambu County Assembly twice rejected the Governor’s nominees to the County Executive and went ahead to impeach the Speaker of the assembly on account that he was the Governor’s gatekeeper. While there seems to be a good working relationship between the Kisii Governor and the County Assembly, members of the County Assembly are not precluded from exercising such powers in future to protect their vested interests as it is stipulated in the Constitution and the County Governments Act.

  • 11 Interview with C, May 2, 2013, Kisii.

13Secondly, the CPG members also realized that it would be difficult to influence the Governor through proxies because the accountability structures under the new Constitution are more rigid compared to those under the old dispensation.11 Members of CPG were also motivated to seek County Assembly elective posts upon realizing that the new Constitution envisaged members of the County Assembly would playa vital role in the county governance through direct contact with the Governor. They also appreciated the changes that were introduced by the new Constitution especially devolution.

The economic reasons that prompted CPG to participate in elective politics

  • 12 Interview with A, Location CPG Leader, April 5, 2013, Kisii.

14Chapter 11 of the 2010 constitution contains the economic safeguards for Kenya’s devolved units and this played a big role in motivating the CPG to seek political posts in the Kisii County Assembly. CPG stated: “We wanted to increase our influence in the management of county resources”.12 The rationale of establishing county governments is to ensure increased political, economic and social participation by all citizens through decentralization of governance structure. The constitutional language resonates well with CPG’s rationale for contesting in ward elections. In particular, Article 174 (c) specifies one of the objects of devolution as giving “powers of self-governance to the people and enhance participation of the people in exercise of powers of the State in making decisions affecting them”. Article 174 (d) also recognizes “the right of communities to manage their own affairs and to further their development”.

  • 13 CRA Revenue Recommendations for Financial Year 2013/14; retrieved from

15Furthermore, Article 203 (2) of the Constitution stipulates that the national government shall not disburse to the county governments less than 15% of all the revenue collected in the county. The intention of CPG to increase their “influence in management of county affairs” was not only in the clamour for political participation but also for economic benefits as members anticipated a huge revenue allocation for Kisii County which did not compare with the meager allocations the government accorded the former Gusii municipality. The Commission on Revenue Allocation had prior to the 2013 General Elections published revenue sharing criteria for all counties which indicated that Kisii would receive the 5th highest allocation nationally. Although the figures were later revised in the 2013/14 financial budget the Kisii County was still allocated a favourable KShs. 5.29 Billion,13 which was still a sharp increase compared to previous allocations.

Displaying power in the city

  • 14 Interview with R. Otundo, Elder, December 11,2012.

16The CPG leader puzzled many observers when he opted to vie for the Kisii Central Ward instead of Bobaracho Ward where he hails from though it is only 5 kilometers away for the town centre. It was difficult to determine whether most of the CPG group members were registered in town centre and whether this was a factor arriving at the decision to vie for Kisii Central ward. However, a significant majority of its membership operates their activities in the town centre, and the group also enjoyed popularity among members of the informal sector like hawkers, touts and motorcycle taxi operators. Because CPG enjoyed wide support in the town centre, members felt that their leader would exert more influence in Kisii Central Ward than in Bobaracho Ward. The activities of the CPG including the provision of security, patrols and garbage collection are all done in the town centre, and contesting in the home ward would have pitted the CPG leader against his own clansman which would have complicated his chance of success as clanism is an important factor in Gusii land elective politics. Contests for elective seats in Kisii are an inter-clan affair. Whenever there are more than one leading contestants from the same clan or community, the clan or community initiates negotiations whereby one of the contestants is encouraged to drop his/her ambition in support of the other.14 Such a negotiated communitarian settlement avoids splitting votes between candidates from the same clan and increases the chances of a clan to clinch the elective post. Ultimately, Mr. Nyangeso emerged the winner by a slim margin over Mr. Ongaki. Mr. Nyangeso comes from the same clan as CPG leader, had he vied for the elections in Bobaracho Ward, members of his clan would have split their votes between the two which would have worked in favour of Mr. Ongaki. In this case, the outcome of the election vindicated the decision of the CPG leader not to vie for election in his home Ward.

  • 15 Greene, J. and J. Butcher‘Proximity and Power’The American, May 8, 2008; retrieved from www.america (...)

17The CPG also figured that Kisii Central Ward is more strategic. The ward covers Kisii town centre where the Kisii County headquarters are situated. The County Assembly, the Governor’s and County Executive offices are also housed here. The CPG has also its headquarters in proximity to the County headquarters, and consequently its base is in strategically placed in proximity to power. As Green and Butcher15 argue, proximity to government headquarters is a visible way of displaying power and influence by groups. It is a means of reminding everyone that it is a powerful group and a symbol of the resources it commands. However, it is not only of symbolic but pragmatic importance in that, had he won the election, he would have easily balanced between County Assembly duties and providing leadership at CPG. The CPG administrative headquarters are situated less than one kilometer away from the Kisii County headquarters. This also informs CPG decision not to contest elective seats in Bonchari constituency, which is where CPG was born over a decade ago. Though CPG traces its roots to and remains active in Bonchari constituency, its political operational base has since shifted to Kisii town centre. It is for these reasons that CPG campaigns were concentrated in the town centre. The CPG had the perception that the devolved government priority to the development needs of Kisii Central Ward over the other wards, and hence CPG would gain access to large budgetary allocations to initiate a number of development projects within the ward, and therefore boost its profile, popularity and legitimacy amongst the citizens.

Mobilization of security as a campaign strategy

  • 16 Interview with D, businessman, May 6, 2013, Kisii.
  • 17 Out of the 18,304 of the registered voters within Kisii central ward, the polling stations within t (...)

18Judging from the election results, the CPG candidature was well received, even though the CPG leader failed to win the election. There were suggestions that the choice of party (TNA) contributed to attracting cosmopolitan vote especially amongst the large non-Kisii business community represented in the town centre. Further, use of provision of security as the main campaign message seems to have resonated well with the business community. Members of the business community were urged to vote for CPG for the protection of their businesses. As one businessman noted, “In his campaign message, he emphasized that if he was to get elected into office, he was to ensure that every resident of Kisii Town, irrespective of race or ethnic group, was to be accorded full security”.16 The election results show that the campaign message worked to an extent, because the majority of votes for CPG candidate were garnered in the town centre.17

19This strategy is in tandem with Fourchard’s (2012) analysis that depending on context provision, security can be a resource for mobilization of political support depending on the setting and levels of insecurity in a certain area. The CPG leader sought to assure citizens of a safer town centre because he was aware that security was a concern for business community. His “restoration of peace” campaign message however did not appeal to the rural population in Kisii Central Ward because CPG’s influence was mainly concentrated in the town centre and waned as one moved towards rural sections of the Kisii Central Ward. In the end the majority of the rural population in the ward voted for incumbent councilor, Mr. Monyenye who eventually won by a small margin. The incumbent put to use his financial clout and his 25 years experience in local politics to capture the seat. But despite the gruesome competition exhibited by the two candidates during the campaigns, there were no incidents of violence at the tallying centre or elsewhere in the ward, after the returning officer announced the results at Keumbu Social Hall on 5 March 2013.

20While the desire to directly participate in local elections by the CPG leader may have failed in the Kisii Central Ward, the group strategy to participate in a more indirect form bore fruits in Bonchari constituency. None of the location leaders directly vied for elective posts in Bonchari constituency but they instead opted to support contestants at the constituency and the ward levels. In Bomorenda Ward, for instance, John Ombati was supported by the CPG group and won the seat. At the constituency level, CPG supported John Oroo Oyoka who lost the parliamentary vote to Zebedeo Opore by a margin of 5 votes when the results were announced on 4 March 2013, an election Mr. Oyoka disputed in an election petition citing electoral malpractices. The court ordered a recount of the votes and instead found that Mr. Oyoka was the real winner by 9 votes, and subsequently declared the election of Zebedeo Opore as invalid; the court confirmed Mr. Oyoka as the Member of Parliament for Bonchari constituency. It is important to note that the advent of Sungusungu in Kisii traces its origin to Bomorenda Ward in Bonchari constituency (Masese and Mwenzwa, 2012).

21Even though Mr. Oyoka’s victory was slim, it is noteworthy that CPG still wields significant political influence in Bonchari, the area in which it was founded. On a similar note we ought not to dismiss the influence of CPG in its new operational base in Kisii Central just because it lost the ward elections. The results in Kisii Central Ward indicate that the elections were quite competitive. Most significantly is that CPG was able to craft a theme of the need to engage a political process that was devoid of violence throughout the 2013 electioneering period in both Kisii Central Ward and Bonchari Constituency. This marked a shift in political process engagement in Kisii County. But whether the shift will be permanent, inalterable or sustainable will very much depend on underlying factors that are context specific. There is need for further research to interrogate the proximate factors that motivate people or groups of people to engage in violence; the factors should be understood through the political systems, historical contexts and cultural constructions applicable to a specific community in which a vigilante group operates (Pratten and Sen, 2007).


22There is an ostensible shift in the involvement of youth groups during election times, which is attributable to several factors. Firstly, there is a change in the mode of participation with every electoral cycle since 2002. In 2002 there were no clear links between youth groups and political violence as compared to the clear implication of vigilante in the 2008 post-election violence. In the 2013 elections, non-violent means to political participation were reflected in peaceful political campaigns both at party nomination and general elections. Secondly there was a tactical change in political mobilization as the CPG abandoned the hitherto patron-client networks for direct participation in politics and sought elective posts in the County wards. The conduct of national elections and subsequent resolution of presidential election dispute, reflect the peaceful atmosphere in which the political process was conducted. The 2008-2013 electoral cycle signals an ostensible acceptance of the need to change the way we conduct our politics. In any case the CIPEV report is explicit that violence should not be the method of choice to resolve political differences and to obtain political power. While the CPG and like youths promise to adopt non-violent means in political participation even at the face of an election loss, it is however unclear whether change in mobilization will be sustained in the current electoral cycle ending in 2017. There is need for further research to interrogate such changes and determine whether they constitute permanent transformation or non-sustainable temporary changes which may not hold whenever the groups get frustrated by political outcomes.



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1 Government of Kenya, Report of Commission on Post Election Violence, Government Printer, p. 34.

2 See analysis in Pratten (2006). Pratten disputes the militia-style “war machines” hypothesis developedby Deleuze and Guattari (see Mbembe, 2003)..

3 The study of electoral violence as a distinct phenomenon has been dismissed because it is an insignificant source of violence and it does not necessarily lead to significant contribution to the level of violence at the national level. Bekoe (2012) reiterates the importance of studying electoral violence even if it is short-term violence, with generally low levels of tension, it has a great impact on state democratization process.

4 Article 105 (2) of the Constitution; Section 85 of the Elections Act.

5 Interview with A, Location CPG Leader, April 5, 2013, Kisii Interview with B, CPG member, February 15, 2013, Kisii.

6 Interview with B, CPG member, February 15, 2013, Kisii.

7 Interview with A, Location CPG leader, April 5, 2013, Kisii; however, it was unclear from the interview whether it was the personal decision of the leader to seek direct political participation that was endorsed by the group or the whether the decision originated from the group.

8 Observations made at political rally held in Kisii Municipal Stadium, February 28, 2013, Kisii.

9 Articles 185 (1), 185 (2), 185 (3) and 185 (4) of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 and Chapter III of the County Governments Act.

10 Article 185 (4) of the Constitution of Kenya, 2010.

11 Interview with C, May 2, 2013, Kisii.

12 Interview with A, Location CPG Leader, April 5, 2013, Kisii.

13 CRA Revenue Recommendations for Financial Year 2013/14; retrieved from

14 Interview with R. Otundo, Elder, December 11,2012.

15 Greene, J. and J. Butcher‘Proximity and Power’The American, May 8, 2008; retrieved from

16 Interview with D, businessman, May 6, 2013, Kisii.

17 Out of the 18,304 of the registered voters within Kisii central ward, the polling stations within town- Gusii County hall, Gusii municipal hall, Kisii primary, Nyanchwa primary, Gusii stadium and Masongo, had 11,195 registered voters, which constitutes 61% of the total votes.

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