Tuesday, March 19, 2013
As opposition candidate Raila Odinga's challenge to Kenya's recent presidential election results proceeds in the Kenyan court system, the international media continues to dance around the issue of ethnicity or "tribalism," at times trying desperately to avoid the "T" word and at times sinking into the depths of racist stereotypes, intentioned or not. Michaela Wrong writes in the New York Times, for instance, of the difficulty of writing about Kenya's elections without talking about tribalism given the apparent ethnic divide between the two major electoral coalitions. Mukoma wa Ngugi criticizes Wrong in the UK Guardian, accusing her of defending a "discredited analytic framework," and challenges western media outlets to accurately cover African issues in a meaningful way or risk being completely ignored by Africans generally. The general critique seems to be that the Western media seems to focusing intently on the so-called "tribal" divisions within the Kenyan electorate while breathlessly awaiting a repeat of the 2007 election violence, despite the fact that it seems unlikely to materialize. For the vast majority of Americans, who likely know little about Kenya beyond the "tribal warfare" narrative of the tragic 2007 elections that was forwarded by the mainstream American media, the images of Kenyans hacking each other to death over an election speak for themselves: "tribal" or not, these are inexplicable events happening in an inexplicable place that is beyond the realm of what is "normal."
All of this serves to further alienate human beings from one another through the time-honored method of ignorance. To the extent that journalists should know better and report better, it is their fault. Wrong notes in a dispatch for the New York Times, for instance, that she is constantly told that "we Kenyans are totally tribal." She correctly notes that this "tribalism" is not "irrational" but fails, in her defense of the term as it applies to this election, to ask why Kenyans might vote along ethnic lines. If it is not irrational, then what is the rationale? Is it because they hate members of other tribes? Or is there a better explanation that the media might need to convey to the world and in particular to the west? Kenya's electoral violence stems not from primitive tribal blood feuds but rather from a system of governance created by Kenyan elites and western institutions and made possible by arbitrary colonial boundaries. Or, as Wrong herself writes quite accurately, "What Kenya desperately needs is an end to a political culture that treats state resources as a winner’s preserve rather than national assets benefiting all citizens equally."
In many post-colonial African countries, a system of governance labeled "The Politics of the Belly" by famed academic Jean Francois Bayart developed in which state resources became the personal reward of those in power rather than the assets of a society at large. This is not so different, of course, from the corruption that suffuses government across the globe, but is unique in the historical context in which it developed. African dictators, armed, funded, and defended by either the Soviets or the West during the heart of the cold war, came to view external resources (loans, grants, aid) as their cash cow. Developing a domestic economy and encouraging the creation of a middle class would spread the wealth and encourage the growth of rival actors who might challenge the throne. And so in Mobutu's Zaire, Bongo's Gabon, Mugabe's Zimbabwe and, yes, Moi's Kenya, those at the top learned to keep the West happy and to use the funding that followed to buy off enough politicians, generals, and businessmen to maintain power.
When many of those dictatorships transitioned to multiparty democracies, largely in the 1990's, these systems of patronage remained in tact but altered their form. Instead of buying fealty, elites began to buy votes, and to create a spoils system that might hold together a coalition of voters. These coalitions became, not surprisingly, largely based on ethnicity, not simply because ethnicity is a cheap method of coalition building, but also because a prisoner's dilemma quickly emerged: what happens if I don't appeal to ethnicity and my opponent does? To ask whether the Luo truly hate the Kikuyu or the Kalenjin is akin to asking whether the French really hate the Germans or vice versa. It sure seemed like it in 1942, and it sure doesn't seem like it today. Which means something else is going on. The would-be winner of this year's election, Uhuru Kenyatta, is a Kikuyu and his running mate, William Ruto, is a Kalenjin. After the 2007 election, it was Kikuyus and Kalenjins who were fighting each other; Kenyatta is under ICC indictment for allegedly organizing the killing of Kalenjin women and children. Ruto is under ICC-indictment for allegedly organizing the killing of Kikuyu civilians. Now they are running together. Most of the violence in 2007 was far from spontaneous and was planned by politicians in conference rooms. Tribalism? Really?
If Kenyans do indeed vote along ethnic lines, it is not mysterious, nor is it "tribal." Kenyan UC Irvine Professor Ngugi Wa Thiong'O notes that the real winner in an election in which two politicians who have been indicted for war crimes won more than 50% of the vote is former dictator Daniel Arap Moi. Moi, writes Thiong'O, who wrote his first novel on toilet paper from inside one of Moi's prisons in 1978, destroyed Kenya's institutions and created a corrupt one-party state. When multiparty democracy was instituted, Moi used violence to intimidate the opposition and retain power for another decade, setting the stage for the corrupt ethnicity-based coalition system we see today. Moi's regime was underwritten by years of western support in exchange for his loyalty to the capitalist cause, just as today's Kenyan government, despite ill-advised admonitions from American officials, will receive American support for its war against Somali militants, regardless of its own violence and corruption.
This is not as easy to write about as is "tribalism." Those Africans are cutting each other up with machetes again...all because one tribe got more votes than another tribe, can you believe it? In the United States, of course, we are far more civilized. Our presidential elections have no racial element to them. Our citizens do not kill each other over religion or race or sexual orientation. And when an American citizen decides tragically to slaughter innocent women and children, he does not stoop to the primitive use of a machete: that's what semi-automatic weapons are for. If there's one story the media should further in explaining Kenya's elections to the West, other than explaining why such "tribal violence" happens in the first place, it's the story of the sad side to universal humanity. The sad trait that we all share: our willingness to seek power by any means necessary. When people kill each other because of their differences, there's almost always something else going on. This is as true of Kenyans as it is of any other people, no more, no less.