Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Pulling the tribal card: What Africa can teach us about Kenya

Ever since reading this, I’ve followed from afar the career of the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina.

He’s currently teaching in the U.S. and recently published a piece in the New York Times regarding the post-election violence in Kenya, in which he argues that the country’s experiment of subverting “tribalism” in the name of creating an all-encompassing “Kenyan” identity was actually a success compared to the work of other states. It should be said that the experiment was not without its contradictions, but these issues did not boil over until the imagined “victory” of President Mwai Kibaki.

Our Kenyan identity, so deliberately formed in the test tube of nationalist effort, has over the years been undermined, subtly and not so subtly, by our leaders — men who appealed to our histories and loyalties to win our votes.

You see, the burning houses and the bloody attacks here do not reflect primordial hatreds. They reflect the manipulation of identity for political gain.

Wainaina points out that five years ago, Kenyans voted in a broad, inclusive government which had backing from the country’s major ethnic groups. What these supporters wanted in response, Wainaina claims, was the Kibaki government to become functionally inclusive and tackle the country’s endemic corruption. Kibaki did bring Kenyans a more professional government, but he also shied away from his broad coalition of backers and sought support of his ethnic group, the Kikuyus.

In 2007, opposition candidate Raila Odinga created a movement that looked much like the Kibaki’s 2002 coalition. When Odinga’s supporters lost the fraudulent vote (where they also participated in electoral irregularities), the country exploded. While neither Odinga nor Kibaki began as ethnically-driven leaders, “but in the days since the disputed election they have stoked tribal paranoia and used it to cement electoral loyalty.”

In Macro
It’s a situation eerily similar to previous African “ethnically-based” conflicts investigated by Bill Berkeley in his book The Graves Are Not Yet Full. Berkeley argues that some of Africa’s bloodiest wars in the past decade-and-a-half, often portrayed as primordial conflicts between rival tribes, are much more (and less) complicated than they seem.

By evaluating struggles in Liberia, Uganda, Zaire, Rwanda, South Africa and Sudan, Berkeley found that this supposed long-standing tribal animosities in each country has long been stoked by leaders bent on securing and holding on to power. Underlying these leaders’ dreams has been a fictional narrative they’ve spun based on the romantic notion where a specific group must vanquish the supposed wrongs caused at the hands of other groups.

This doesn’t happen only in Africa. If you look at the break up of Yugoslavia, you’ll see the same methods in action – on all sides. In fact, Berkeley claims, political leaders stoking tribal or ethnic violence has become the paramount human rights issue of the post-Cold War world.

What makes African conflicts much more telegenic is that the killers are often illiterate, dressed in rags and cheap flip-flops wreaking havoc with primitive weapons. But if you look behind the scenes, you’ll find the people often pushing them on are very educated, urbanized and smartly dressed intellectuals.

The roots of violence
But people are not spurned to kill from a few well chosen words. This is where a tyrannical system comes in handy. In the countries he investigates, all governments participated – in one form or another – in race based dictatorships erected to skew one group over others in terms of government control, economic benefits, education standards and justice. In some countries, these systems were built during colonial times, where European lords famously gathered disparate peoples into competing “tribes.” Occasionally it was propped up by cynical Cold War benefactors after independence.

This division and domination, Berkeley argues, becomes stitched into the fabric of society and seeps into the minds of the inhabitants, rendering the countries vulnerable for cynical manipulation by cunning rulers. People, however, still need real events to set them off. Most often, the criminal state supplied a motive. When crimes go unpunished; when the rule of law appears to break down and people feel they have to take matters into their own hands; when poverty is acute and scarce resources are fought over. In a lawless world, tribalism becomes a form of self defense. It’s like joining the mafia.

He quotes from Richard Sandbrook’s book The Politics of Africa’s Economic Stagnation.

Ethnic consciousness, we must affirm, is neither irrational nor ephemeral. From the perspective of ordinary people, ethnicity appears no less sensible a basis for political mobilization than class. Ethnic mobilization, after all, is just a means to an end, a way of forging a coalition to pursue scarce material benefits.

Back to Kenya?
Ethnic-based or tribal-based conflict is not inevitable in Africa. The right conditions have to exist, and those conditions must be properly manipulated. Even with the sad history in these affairs, it appears too early to see which way Kenya will fall.