Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Saturday, January 12

Tribalism in Kenya

In yesterday’s New York Times, Aidan Hartley, author of The Zanzibar Chest, writes in an op-ed of the violence unfolding in Laikipia, in central Kenya, due north of Nairobi. The conflict there, between the Pokot and Samburu tribes, isn’t new—these groups, like other Nilotic pastoralists throughout the region, including in Uganda and Sudan, have a history of reciprocal cattle raiding and interclan feuds. But today’s fighting has been subsumed by the outbreak of bloodshed throughout the country. From Kisumu in the West to Mombasa in the East, there have been reports of rioting and ethnic violence ever since the flawed vote that led to the contested reelection of Mwai Kibaki. USAID reports 255,000 people have so far been displaced and 486 killed.

“Nobody wants to believe Kenya is a typical African basket case,” Hartley writes. “Kenyans know only they themselves can prevent fresh chaos. … The African saying that ‘when elephants fight, the grass suffers’ applies tragically.”

The post-election turmoil follows campaigns dominated by rhetoric that was ethnically charged but vacuous. Hartley observes: “In the campaign rallies I attended, I saw no debate about policies, despite the country’s immense health, education, crime, and poverty problems. The Big Men arrived by helicopter to address the voters in slums and forest clearings. When they spoke English for the Western news media’s benefit, they talked of human rights and democracy. But when they switched to local languages, it was pure venom and ethnic chauvinism.”

Much of the media’s attention since the violence erupted has been on its ethnic underpinnings. Comparisons to Rwanda have even been tossed around. Kibaki, the incumbent, and Raila Odinga, his main opponent from the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), used the election to pit the Kikuyu, Kenya’s most populous and (marginally) privileged ethnic bloc, against other populations, such as the Luo, Odinga’s tribe. The main substantive divide was over distribution of wealth and power: Odinga proposed decentralization—or majimbo (devolution)—and more reallocation of wealth to underserved populations. This brought him support from urban youth and the lower classes. But even this plan was rooted in ethnic resentment—in calling for redistribution, Odinga appealed to other groups’ sense that the Kikuyu are favored by the government (Kibaki, like Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, is Kikuyu). In the run-up to the election, Africa Confidential reported, “More than ever, this election campaign has been about ethnicity and faith.” (Africa Confidential also reported “a growing suspicion within the Odinga camp that the President's men will play dirty should the need arise” and that “text messages have been circulating, alleging a detailed election-rigging plan by the government.”)

The Times’ coverage of the crisis has painted a particularly dire picture of the ethnic rift. Jeffrey Gettleman, the paper’s reporter in Kenya, has repeatedly noted the historical proportions of the violence and the damage it has done to Kenya’s image abroad, drawing analogies to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. On January 2, for instance, in explaining the “explosion of ethnic violence that is threatening to engulf this country,” which was “last week one of the most stable in Africa,” he quoted a retired professor who said: “It reminds me of Rwanda.”

On January 3 he wrote: “Within the span of a week, one of the most developed, promising countries in Africa has turned into a starter kit for disaster. Tribal militias are roaming the countryside with rusty machetes, neighborhoods are pulling apart, and Kenya’s economy, one of the biggest on the continent, is unraveling—with fuel shortages rippling across East Africa because the roads in Kenya, a regional hub, are too dangerous to use. Roadblocks set up by armed men, something synonymous with anarchic Somalia, have cropped up across the country, in towns on the savannah and in the cramped slums.”

On January 7 Gettleman opened his article: “Kenya’s privileged tribe is on the run.”

But does Kenya really recall the specter of Rwanda?

Tavia Nyong’o, a professor at NYU, writes in The Nation (the American magazine, not the Kenyan newspaper) that “the admittedly dire situation unfolding in Kenya today … is not another Rwanda.”

“Calls for peace to prevail cannot sidestep the present chaos, which has its roots not in ‘atavistic tribalism’ but in a bold power grab by a tight clique around the president. True, stifling of legitimate means of protest has given vent to violent means. But the Western penchant for ‘disaster porn’ coverage hasn't shed much light on the situation, as horrifying images of mayhem and murder inevitably lead to ill-informed speculations regarding long-suppressed hatreds boiling to the surface. CNN, for example, described the crisis as taking shape between a ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ tribe. In fact, Kenya is a polyglot nation of more than thirty different ethnicities, none of which are a demographic majority. Tribal violence is an effect of the crisis provoked by the rigged election, not its cause.”

In contrast, in Rwanda, an imbalanced ethnic dichotomy saw the Tutsi, elevated under the colonial power, become an oppressed minority upon independence and the sudden sea-change of Hutu rule. For decades, the tensions continually gave way to violence, and massacres in Burundi, Rwanda’s neighbor with the reverse balance of power, would be reciprocated in Rwanda, and vice versa. In 1990, Tutsi frustration spawned an insurgency; after four years of war, a thorough peace process, and finally the promise of democracy, Hutu extremists carefully orchestrated the mass slaughter of Tutsis throughout the country in order to preserve the power slipping from their grip.

Kenya shares few of these characteristics. It is much larger and ethnically diverse than Rwanda, with a history of stability and relative prosperity. While there are ethnic tensions in Kenya, as there are throughout much of East Africa, they have rarely effected large-scale violence; when violence has occurred, it has often been associated with elections.

But Kenya today does mirror Rwanda 14 years ago in one important way: violence now, as then, is the direct result of the machinations of politicians. According to Nyong’o, “Kenyans once looked to Kibaki as the man who could deliver [democracy, transparency, and accountability]; their disappointment in him has now turned to bewildered astonishment and anger that he would let Kenya burn rather than admit electoral defeat. Ironically, Odinga helped bring Kibaki to power five years ago by brokering a coalition of regional leaders to unseat longtime Kenyan strongman Daniel arap Moi. Kibaki chose to abandon the coalition that put him in the presidency, however, and to take advantage of the very executive powers he had vowed to curtail.” And Odinga, for his part, waved the flag of majimboism; this might seem a denunciation of centralized corruption, but, according to Hartley, “on a local level, majimboism is interpreted another way: without functioning national institutions, decentralization becomes synonymous with mob rule. A few months ago a drunken power broker in a village wagged his finger and declared that after the elections all ‘outsiders’—meaning Kikuyus and whites—would be kicked out and their farms taken.”

Even Gettleman notes that, in Nairobi, “people from different tribes live side by side and often work in the same office. They are aware of ethnic differences and sometimes joke about them, but it usually does not go further than that.” What has changed today from a month ago is the passage of a drawn-out and emotionally charged presidential race, which exploited the latent ethnic prejudices of voters, followed by a deeply flawed and patently unfair vote that added anger and frustration to the mix. Kibaki and Odinga stirred up today’s violence, and only they can put it to rest.

Kenya’s leaders’ inability to hold the common good above their own thirst for power is infuriating. It has also become a sad cliché in Africa. One would have hoped that Kenya had risen above such reckless egoism, but these last couple weeks have washed away the veneer of inviolability and revealed institutions that are perhaps no stronger than in Kenya’s less exemplary neighbors.

As Hartley concludes, “We can be certain that the violence will simply worsen the poverty that is itself the root cause of all Kenyan crises. Already we are seeing layoffs and a potential collapse of the tourism and agricultural industries. On the political front, perhaps the best we can hope is that Big Men will reach a deal and the tribes will put away their machetes and rifles. Then the Western press will trickle home, content that democracy has been re-established, while the people of Laikipia return to their daily struggle to survive.”

I hope that Kenya’s leaders will arrive at a quick settlement that produces no further violence. In Laikipia, of course, fighting between the Pokot and Samburu will likely persist, as it had before the elections, and as it does between other similarly impoverished, neglected tribes throughout the region. There, and now around the rest of the country, people will have to return to the slow, painstaking process of building a stable democracy with a viable economy.

(Ed. Note: We know there has been a gap in content on AM of late—our New Year's resolution, which we hope won't go the way of most resolutions, is to redouble our efforts to post consistently.  Sorry for slacking, but thanks for checking in.  Happy New Year. -Aaron)


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