Monday, January 21, 2008

Tribalism: Kenya's Ticking Timebomb

A few months ago, few would have predicted that scenes of violence and chaos would unfold in Kenya. Although throughout much of Africa such violence and suffering has become commonplace, Kenya was always perceived in a different light from the rest of the continent. Kenya, whose economy and stability easily trump those of its neighbors, did not seem as susceptible to violence and chaos as the rest of Africa.

This prosperity and peace, though, masked a stark premonition of the violence to come. Although different on the surface from much of Africa, Kenya shared one essential trait with the rest of the continent: tribal animosities. These ethnic divisions, long suppressed by economic wealth and enforced order, were unbound in the aftermath of last December’s disputed elections. Now, the wave of violence initiated by Opposition Leader Ralia Odinga’s Luo tribe against President Mwai Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe, the largest ethnic group, is putting Kenya on the verge of internal collapse.

While violence on this scale is unusual for Kenya, the effect of tribal divisions on politics is not. Indeed, the political parties of Kenya are predominantly tribal based, and governmental policies have often benefited the tribe in power at the expense of the others. The relative power of certain tribes over time has greatly impacted the economic and political gaps in Kenya. The elite status that the Kikuyu enjoy in business and politics is a result of their favoritism under the rule of the first President, Founding Father Jomo Kenyatta, and under current President Kibaki. The Kalenjin, seen as somewhat subordinate to the Kikuyu and the Luo, got a taste of power and wealth that they have yet to fully relinquish under the authoritative rule of Daniel Arap Moi. The Luo, although the second largest tribe, have never had one of their own as President. They have been at the wrong end of all the tribal enrichment policies, particularly Kikuyu ones, leaving a bitter taste in their mouth. Indeed, far from toning down ethnic differences, Kenya’s leaders during its time of peace have intensified tribal differences.

Only the strong authority of such leaders prevented an earlier ethnic implosion of Kenya. The fact that, since independence, Kenya has had only three leaders in nearly 45 years should be a testament to the powerful hold that Kenyan leaders have had over their country. Some leaders have been so formidable that the major tribes were forced to put aside their differences and ally against the encroaching government. As colonial rule floundered in the 1950s, the British tried to play off the Luo against their historical (and current) enemies, the Kikuyu. The Luo, though, judged the British presence to be so imposing that they allied with their adversary Kikuyu against the British, forcing the British to relinquish Kenya as its colony. After leading the ousting of the British and becoming the first ruler of modern Kenya, Kenyatta ruled assertively and effectively. With the aid of his popularity and savvy, Kenyatta was strong enough to maintain order. After Kenyatta’s death in 1978, Moi wielded a heavy hand of power for nearly 25 years, crushing all unrest and any opposition to his rule. Moi’s chokehold on the country once again spawned an alliance between the Luo and the Kikuyu. When Moi finally stepped down, the Kikuyu and Luo backed Kibaki, who defeated Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Jomo Kenyatta and Moi’s handpicked successor, in the 2002 election.

The power of Kibaki, though, did not amount to anything close to what his predecessors possessed. Kibaki used a hands-off approach, letting his ministers perform most functions of government (his old age may have left him with no other option). Kibaki’s passive rule resulted in inefficient, uncoordinated rule that allowed the long-brewing tribal animosities to emerge from the shadows. These revived tensions would greatly impact the December elections. The Luo, led by Odinga, played on the resentment towards the wealthy Kikuyu to build up a coalition strong enough to challenge Kibaki. The close election laden with allegations of fraud on Kibaki’s part became the spark that set off these mounting tribal tensions into full-fledged violence.

Kenya could not have been engulfed by violence at a worse time. The 2002 elections marked the end of a ruthless regime that heightened the tribal tensions even as it suppressed them. If these elections had led Kenya down the path of democracy, then, as long as the government was strong, effective, and fair, perhaps people would have started to participate based on economic and personal motives rather than tribal ones. If this happened, tribal differences would have steadily decreased in meaning over the years. Unfortunately, Kibaki’s style of government was neither strong nor effective nor fair. If he had accepted defeat, though, perhaps the democratic current would have endured. But by cheating his way to victory, Kibaki ruined the best chance for lasting democracy – and the steady eradication of tribal differences.

Aside from obvious political and security consequences, the reemergence of tribal fighting has had and will continue to hurt the economies of Kenya and the rest of the Horn of Africa. Although Kenya’s past stability was somewhat misleading, it nevertheless enabled Kenya’s economy to become one of the most dynamic in all of Africa. Now, the recent tribal violence has disrupted Kenya’s sources of wealth. Kenya’s reputation as a popular tourist destination is dwindling. Many Western tourists who booked safaris and other attractions for the summer are making new travel plans, dealing a blow to the hotels, wildlife parks, and other accommodating businesses that revolve around tourism. Trade has suffered as well. Kenya’s infrastructure has been vandalized by the raging tribal gangs, hurting the flow of goods and decreasing domestic and foreign confidence in the Kenyan market. Mombasa, the main port of Kenya, has been engulfed in violence even as fewer ships sail into its harbor. The impact of this disruption of trade is not confined to Kenya. Mombasa has long been a source of goods and wealth for the rest of the Horn of Africa, particularly landlocked countries such as Uganda. With Mombasa in disarray, the Kenyan infrastructure damaged, and overall economic activity declining, the Horn economies would do well to brace for a recession.

While the economic situation is foreboding indeed, the recent chaos in Kenya may end up having a far worse long term effect. No matter how important tribal identity is, peace and prosperity invariably have some effect on population, particularly future generations. As tribal differences were muted, whole new generations of Kenyans started to buy into the fact that they were different from the rest of Africa. They felt that Kenya had succeeded in finding peace and prosperity where others had failed. In younger generations, confidence started to grow in the institutions and economy of Kenya. Now, with this onset of chaos, these perceptions are losing hold. Kenyans are starting to think that maybe they are not so special after all; that maybe the past success was a lie; that maybe tribal differences have doomed Kenya like they have the rest of Africa. Mindset can be so crucial to the success of an individual and a nation. As Kenya descends into chaos, the mindset of future generations will turn from a motivation for prosperity and peace and revert back to one strictly based on tribal loyalty. Should the instability continue, Kenya may very well continue down this path to the point where the people may have the same one-sided ethnic mindset that thrives in much of Africa. Should that happen, Kenya would indeed cease to be different and would become another African failure. And then Africa would have lost perhaps its brightest silver lining.

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1 comment:

Harleywydeglyd said...

i belive that our government should get involved in trying to help africa be a better stable place. i understand that they do not have anything that we can benifit from but with all of africa trying to reach out for help and us not doing much is not proper. I know that kids in our high schools are touched by what we see about the affects of genocide and darfur and everything else and i would like to try and get people to join in on a huge charity for all of this..i am touched by what i see and i would like to see a change.
*Jessica*