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Political Violence in Kenya: Land, Elections, and Claim-Making 


Cambridge University Press (May 2020)


Reviewed in Foreign Affairs, Perspectives on Politics, African Studies Review, Journal of Modern African Studies, Democratization, Politique étrangère, and Washington Post’s the Monkey Cage


This book is a study of land and violence. It examines an enduring puzzle in the study of electoral violence: How do elites organize violence and more so, why do ordinary citizens participate? In doing so, it aims to explain the process and production of electoral violence, specifying both where violence occurs and where it does not. Existing studies tend to attribute the occurrence of electoral violence to institutional features of the state, ethnic polarization across society, or the rationalist calculations of political elites. Yet most theories, which observe phenomena at the national-level, fail to specify the significant local-level variation in the incidence and scale of electoral violence. Drawing on original evidence from Kenya, the book offers a new approach to the study of electoral violence by analyzing violence as a process of social mobilization that requires coordination between elites and ordinary citizens, rather than an event based solely on the strategic calculations of elites. In examining electoral violence as a co-production, the book explains why elites succeed in organizing violence in some localities, yet face significant constraints across most others.


The book argues that in contexts where land shapes livelihood and identification, and where tenure institutions are weak, land narratives can serve as a key device around which elites and citizens coordinate the use of violence. I present a theory about how rights to land structure the process and organization of violence at the local level. I argue that the escalation of electoral violence is part of an historically-rooted process involving three main stages: 1) inequality in land rights identity-based groups, 2) the formation of contentious land narratives between these groups, and 3) the ability of elites to use these land narratives to organize electoral violence. Contentious narratives thus provide the key mechanism through which distributional inequalities affect the occurrence and dynamics of violence. In democratizing and agrarian societies, each of these factors is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the escalation of election-time violence.


The evidence for the book is based on 15 months of multi-method fieldwork across Kenya’s Rift Valley and Coast Region and relies on two main empirical strategies: a comparative case study analysis that includes 230 in-depth interviews and a household-level survey that I administered to 750 individuals. Broadly, the book finds that electoral violence is most likely to escalate where: 1) there is moderate land rights inequality between two nearby group who are ethnically distinct; 2) there are salient and contentious land narratives between these two groups; and 3) there is a “strong patron” who can deploy these land narratives to convince or compel ordinary citizens to participate in violence. Where each of these factors exists, residents are more likely to link the outcome of elections with their ability to access, re-claim, or secure their land. In these cases, violence becomes a means of ensuring the preferred candidate at all costs, or a mechanism to pre-empt or defend against violent eviction.


In sum, this book contributes to studies of contentious politics and electoral violence by analyzing electoral violence as a joint production. This view of violence shifts the focus from one that is a primarily elite-driven process to one in which elites must organize, collaborate with, or coerce local supporters. The book demonstrates how land and narratives around land provide a key device around which elites and citizens coordinate the use of violence—providing the frames that make violence possible. 


This book provides a powerful analysis of collective land narratives, and connects these narratives to elite and citizen coordination of electoral violence. This insightful and compelling research connects institutional factors that shape land access and security to the construction of narratives, which ultimately reflects on the relationship between democratization, political violence, and post-conflict politics.'

-Rachel Beatty Riedl, Cornell University


‘Why do elections turn violent in some local contexts but not in others? Based on comparisons of communities, interviews, and a novel survey in Kenya, Klaus finds that it is the interplay of contentious land narratives, land inequality and politicians acting as land patrons that allows elites to mobilize citizens for violence – and citizens to follow. With its thorough argument and rich empirical approach, Klaus takes us to a new level of understanding of a phenomenon that plagues democracies around the world.'

-Ana Arjona, Northwestern University


‘Klaus tackles a question central to the success of fragile democracies – when will ordinary people use violence during and after elections? Land, as the resource that most shapes identity and economic well-being, is central to her argument. Klaus's multifaceted empirical strategy is impressive. Her extensive qualitative evidence yields unique insights into how people understand land inequality and the process by which conflict escalates. A remarkable contribution to our understanding of electoral violence.'

-Kimuli Kasara, Columbia University


‘… the book offers a remarkable contribution to understanding the microfoundations of electoral violence. Scholars interested in the micro-level analysis of political violence would benefit most from reading this book.’

-Christine Olukhanda Source: Democratization

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