Can Politicians Exploit Ethnic Grievances? An Experimental Study of Land Appeals in Kenya


Studies of conflict-prone settings claim that political leaders can increase electoral support by appealing to perceived ethnic grievances. Yet there is little empirical research on how appeals to group-based grievances work and the types of voters most likely to respond to such appeals. To explore the political effects of ethnic grievance appeals, we conduct a survey experiment in Kenya’s Rift Valley, a region where a long history of conflict over land has sharpened ethnic tensions. We find that appeals to grievances have surprisingly little effect among most voters. We observe a positive effect only among ethnic “insiders” who feel land insecure, a small share of the sample population. Further, though imprecisely estimated, we show that exposure to prior violence may condition how some individuals respond to the appeals, decreasing support for candidates who employ divisive rhetoric. Finally, the results show that appeals to an ethnic-based land grievance are no more effective than a generic land appeal, indicating that group injustice frames have little effect. From a normative perspective these results are encouraging: they suggest that voters in conflict-prone settings may be less easily swayed by divisive ethnic rhetoric than much of the literature presumes.

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  1. 1.

    In the pilot test (August 8–9, 2015; n = 59), we found no evidence that the treatments affected trust toward out-groups, beliefs that outsiders “do not deserve to own land in the area”, or support for the use of violence toward out-groups.

  2. 2.

    Most research on elite rhetoric in Africa has focused on non-ethnic messages (Bleck and van de Walle 2012; Taylor 2017). Exceptions include McCauley (2014), who explores the effectiveness of alternative communal framing strategies, and Gadjanova (2017), who examines ethnic wedge issues.

  3. 3.

    From an ethical perspective, it would be inappropriate to expose subjects to messages that emphasize potential threats posed by out-groups. Practically, in the area where we conducted this research, there is a long history of contestation over land dating back to the colonial period. Appeals to past events, therefore, should have particular resonance. Further, Kenya contrasts other cases emphasized in the literature, where collapsing central authorities may have made appeals to fear about group security especially salient—e.g., Yugoslavia in the early 1990s (Posen 1993; de Figueiredo and Weingast 1999) or Rwanda prior to the genocide in 1994 (McDoom 2012).

  4. 4.

    These claims are likely stronger where Kikuyu residents acquired “unoccupied” land prior to the settlement of Kalenjins or other groups.

  5. 5.

    By 1962, about 40% of Kikuyus were living outside their “ancestral region” of Central Province.

  6. 6.

    Majimboism translates as “regionalism” but can be interpreted as “ethno-regionalism.”

  7. 7.

    In the 1991–1993 electoral period there were 1500 recorded deaths and 300,000 displacements. In 1997 between 300 and 1000 people were killed and 10,000 were displaced (HRW 2002).

  8. 8.

    Weekly Review March 1, 1999. Ntimama later claimed in the Akiwumi Report (1999) that he meant that Kikuyus should “lie low to avoid being preyed by the leopard.”

  9. 9.

    Simeon Nyachae, Standard, June 18, 1995, p. 3.

  10. 10.

    ICC Pre-Trial Brief, September 9, 2013, ICC-01/09-01/11. William Ruto was MP of Eldoret North in 2007.

  11. 11.

    The Naishi massacre followed the 1997 elections. Clashes began when Kalenjin raiders attacked Kikuyus. In reprisal attacks, over 35 Kalenjins were killed and 106 homes destroyed (Rutten 2001).

  12. 12.

    Interview, Mauche (3-1), Nakuru County, October 4, 2012 (Klaus 2015).

  13. 13.

    Studies of racial priming in the U.S. show that less extreme types of messages, including implicit appeals that do not directly mention racial prejudices or sentiments, affect a range of voter dispositions (Mendelberg 2001; Valentino et al. 2002, 2018; White 2007; Huber and Lapinski 2006). Inspired by these works, we think there is much to be gained from studying various types of ethnic messages, even if we are precluded ethically from examining some of the more extreme variants.

  14. 14.

    While we find no statistically significant evidence that treatment assignment affected responses to the manipulation check (Table A17 in the SI), we prefer the conservative approach of including respondents who “failed” the manipulation question. Robustness tests (Figure A3 in the SI) show that the main results are not sensitive to this choice.

  15. 15.

    The actor was a Luo who grew up on Kenya’s coast, a diverse area where Swahili tends to be less accented. In pre-testing, we found that respondents were generally unable to guess the actor’s ethnicity based on the recordings. In the full sample, only 11 respondents (1.3%) said they thought the candidate was Luo.

  16. 16.

    Table A18 in the SI shows no evidence that the placement of the land questions affected candidate evaluations. Table A14 shows that among those who received the land questions after the treatment, treatment assignment had negligible effects on our main indicators of perceived land access, land security, or fear of eviction.

  17. 17.

    It is well established that interviewer ethnicity can affect answers to politically-sensitive questions (Adida et al. 2016). Dionne (2014), however, notes that respondents may sometimes prefer non-co-ethnic interviewers (e.g., in the case of deviant sexual behavior).

  18. 18.

    Balance statistics (Table A4 in the SI) show that the treatments are well balanced across pre-treatment covariates.

  19. 19.

    In addition to the tests reported here, we also examined a number of other hypotheses suggested by prior literature, focusing specifically on whether the following factors moderate the effects of the appeals: education, strength of ethnic identification, wealth, age, and gender. Results are presented in Table A16 in the SI.

  20. 20.

    We are unable to test for conditional affects related to local ethnic composition or perceptions about which ethnic group settled an area first. We are limited both by a lack of information about local conditions as well as a research design that produced little variation across these dimensions (see sampling details in the SI).

  21. 21.

    Tables A11 and A12 in the SI show that the results are not dependent on model specification. Alternative models that account for possible censoring (tobit) and the discrete nature of the outcome options (ordered logit) produce substantively similar results.

  22. 22.

    Results from an interacted model in SI Table A8 show that the difference between Kalenjins and Kikuyus is not significant for T1 (diff. = 0.24; p = 0.30) nor for T2 (diff. =14; p = 0.54).

  23. 23.

    The minimum detectable effect (MDE) for the Kikuyu sample is 0.43 on the 5-point scale used to measure candidate support. Power calculations indicate that we would need a prohibitively large sample of over 1600 respondents to determine whether the effects for T1 (− 0.18) are statistically significant.

  24. 24.

    Fully interacted models in Table A9 in the SI confirm that land-insecure Kalenjins and Kikuyus react differently to the treatments, as indicated by the triple interaction between the treatments, ethnic group, and perceived land insecurity.

  25. 25.

    We also show in SI Figure A2 that neither land size nor perceived land inadequacy condition responses to the treatments, whereas the interaction with prior eviction is positive for both treatments (though significant only for T2).

  26. 26.

    The interacted model in Table A10 in the SI indicates that the triple interactions between each treatment, ethnic group, and past violence are not significant.


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We thank Abel Oyuke and the team of enumerators for help with implementing the survey. In cleaning the data, we thank Faith Rotich, Precious Kilimo, John Mbugua, Wendy Kangethe, and Job Orenge. Thanks also to Kim Yi Dionne, Marc Bellemare, Jason Kerwin, and other participants at the Midwest Group in African Political Economy (MGAPE). The research design was approved by the Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects at Dartmouth College (Study No. 0002848). Replication files for this paper are available in the Political Behavior Dataverse (

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Correspondence to Jeremy Horowitz.

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Horowitz, J., Klaus, K. Can Politicians Exploit Ethnic Grievances? An Experimental Study of Land Appeals in Kenya. Polit Behav 42, 35–58 (2020).

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  • Ethnic appeals
  • Ethnic politics
  • African elections
  • Kenya