Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The root of Kenya’s problems is politics, not tribal affiliations

“Ancient tribal hatreds” is a common explanation by Westerners for conflicts in Third-World nations, particularly Africa. However, that simple explanation tends to overlook decades, even centuries, of cooperation and tolerance between many diverse groups. Usually, the truer answer is the same as it is the world over – old-fashioned politics. When people believe the system is fair and credible, peace usually prevails. When citizens believe the system is unfair and not credible then the reactions of those out of power will range from mild resistance to open revolt.

Kenya has been one of the more stable and democratic countries in Africa but not withhout underlying polictal problems that have fed the current conflict.

On December 27th, general elections were held. President Kibaki under the Party of National Unity ran for re-election against a split opposition – the main faction led by Raila Odinga. Early vote counts seemed to favor Odinga but Kibaki won by a substantial margin leading to charges of vote rigging. Reports by international observers of problems with the vote counting fueled further anger. Supporters of Odinga went on a rampage and much of the violence has been directed against members of the Kikuyu tribe – the dominant political group in Kenya associated with President Kibaki. Retaliation by Kikuyus as well as firing upon unarmed protestors by the countries security forces have added to the resentment of Odinga supporters. (See this previous post regarding the violence in Kenya.)

Anne Applebaum has these observations in Slate:
… Unless you were paying very close attention, you were probably tempted, as I was at first, to dismiss these events as yet more evidence of Africa's ungovernability. Uganda, Rwanda, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan, Sierra Leone—tribal enmity plus poverty equals violence. Kenya is another country evolving into a failed state. Doesn't it prove, once again, that Africa is an exception to all the rules about global development, democratization, and "progress"?

Actually, it doesn't. In fact, the closer one looks at Kenya, the less exceptional Africa seems. What was most striking to me about the recent violence in Kenya was not how much the country resembles Rwanda, but rather how much it resembles, say, Ukraine in 2004 or South Korea in the 1980s. Perhaps the real story here is not, as one headline had it, about "The Demons That Still Haunt Africa," but rather about how Africa is no different from anywhere else.

I am exaggerating, somewhat, to make a point. Of course Kenya is special, like all countries are special, and of course there are some notably bloody Kenyan ethnic conflicts. Kenya's Kikuyu tribe, which constitutes about one-fifth of the country, has dominated the country's politics and economics since independence and is profoundly resented for it. Among other things, the disturbances of recent weeks have included a wave of attacks on the Kikuyu sections of a Nairobi slum and Kikuyu-Luo violence in the Rift Valley.

But step back a few paces, remember that most countries have ethnic conflicts of one kind or another, and look at the broader picture. The immediate cause of the current unrest was not ancient ethnic hatred. The immediate cause was political. As in Ukraine, an election was held, and one of the candidates appears to have stolen it. This was no piece of subtle fakery, nor did it involve anything so legalistic as a supreme court. On the contrary, with TV cameras rolling, Kenyan paramilitary police stormed the conference center where votes were being counted—and where the challenger, Raila Odinga, was said to be ahead of the incumbent, President Mwai Kabaki—and expelled journalists and foreign observers. Soon afterward, an election official emerged to declare Kabaki the winner. Violence, apparently prepared well in advance, broke out immediately.

There will be many explanations for the viciousness of what followed, but one of them, surely, is that this particular election fraud took place at a crucial moment in Kenyan history. As any student of revolution knows, popular uprisings generally take place not in the poorest of countries, but in those that have recently grown richer. The Kenyan economy grew 6.4 percent in 2007, a figure that will rapidly translate into fewer infant deaths, better nutrition, and steadier jobs—as well as increased ambitions, both personal and political. The more hope you have for the future, the more frustrating it is to be badly governed.

And Kenya, famously, is extraordinarily badly governed. On the international "perceived corruption" rankings put together by anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, Kenya came in 150th, alongside Liberia and Sierra Leone, countries recovering from long-term civil war. Year on year, Kenyans told the organization that they pay more and more bribes. Judges are for sale, lawmaking is arbitrary, and government jobs are doled out according to ethnicity, not merit. No wonder there is widespread frustration.

Thus, there is nothing mysterious about the anger or the unrest, nothing that requires more Live Aid concerts or global outpourings of emotion, nothing especially "African" about Kenya's problems at all. Kenya needs a cleaner, more democratic, more rule-abiding government; it needs to eliminate the licenses and regulations that create the opportunity for bribery; it needs to apply the law equally to all citizens. The West can help Kenya change these things by encouraging these values through the nature of the aid it gives and the strings attached to aid. Ultimately, though, Kenya's political elite will have to decide what kind of country it wants its children to live in. Yes, there are cultural factors; yes, Kenya is unique; but in the end, politics, not culture, lie at the heart of the country's current problems.


Tim said...

With my job, I often get asked questions about emerging conflicts and acts of violence, and whether I think they fit the genocide mold. I've seen a fair number of people writing/speaking about Kenya and how it seems to be on a crash course with 1990's Rwanda, and I've been regularly responding that the two actually have very little in common, and it's good to see that others are noticing the same sort thing.

Comrade Kevin said...

Competence in government demands increased individual involvement, transparency, and a belief that the people shape policy--not the ruling elite.

Anonymous said...

As a UU minister on her second trip to Kenya in three weeks, I was really happy to read your comments; this is absolutely a political situation.

I've been here for a conference with emerging UU East African congregations (there are several!) And I think with all its problems, Kenya is a wonderful country.

If you are interested in my ongoing impressions, I'm blogging them at www.revrose.com. In the meantime, thanks so much for your post.


Anonymous said...

Its more than a political problem in Kenya. Kikuyus need to stop believing that they are a superior tribe and start treating fellow Kenyans from an individual basis.Its so discouraging to find Kenyans who work at the same company not talking to each other simply becouse they don't belong to the same tribe(that is ancient mentality).No tribe is superior. Africa Unite.

Anonymous said...

I think that people should stop pointing fingers at different tribes, as much as they would like to blame "Kikuyus in believing they are a superior tribe" that is just sheer nonsense. There are many Kikuyus who have been born outside this stereotype and work just as hard as any other Kenyan to fend for their families and earn an honest living. I don’t think that, that is a fare judgment. No matter what the situation every beings life is valuable. The problem lies in the building stones of Kenya. Fuelled with corruption, politicians are driving the people into a blind war merely to rob the country. Do not be so easily fooled!