"Tribal Conflict" in Kenya

Among the many things that infuriate me about the lack of adequate international news coverage in America, the bullshit trope of “tribal conflict” in Africa ranks pretty high.

In the fantasy world of many journalists, as well as many Americans, foreign peoples – especially Africans and Middle Easterners – fight because they “always have.” The only tragedy, in the eyes of these self-proclaimed experts, is that now tribal conflicts are played out with modern technologies of warfare.

But the tragedies that grip Kenya, Darfur, and Somalia, to name a few, aren’t tribal conflicts transplanted into modern times, the only difference being that spears have been exchanged for AK-47s and machetes. Rather, the direct intervention of foreign governments in these countries, from the time of colonialism to the present, plays a major role in creating and exacerbating ethnic conflict, as do concrete economic and political conditions of poverty, inequality, and disenfranchisement.

Take this story about Somalia, published a year ago, which asserts that “clannism” is the major problem.

Somalia, which has been an archetype of Africa’s ills for so long, has waited 16 years for [its transitional] government. The United Nations has invested millions of dollars into propping it up. American officials are so intent on its succeeding that, in the interests of regional stability and counterterrorism, American forces have ventured onto Somali soil for the first time in more than a decade to hunt down the last of the Islamist leaders who held a firm grip on much of the country until just a few weeks ago.

But whether Somalia pulls itself together now or explodes into bloodshed again depends not on American troops, foreign peacekeepers, investment or aid. It depends on clans. “Clannism,” said Ali Mahdi Mohammed, an influential clan leader and once a contender for president, “is our national cancer.”

It was clan animosities that tore down Somalia’s last government in 1991, clan militias that humiliated American troops in 1993, bringing a troubled aid mission to a hasty end, and clan warfare that has consumed countless lives and reduced Mogadishu, Somalia’s once- beautiful capital by the sea, to a pile of bullet-pocked bricks.


What about colonialism? Who drew Somalia’s boundaries? Couldn’t have been Britain and Italy, could it? And what about the Cold War? What about Africa’s being a site of contestation between the US and the USSR for decades, with both of them funneling in vast amounts of money and weapons, both of them propping up dictators (like Somalia’s Siad Barre, who didn’t fall to rebels until, funnily enough, 1991)? What about the US-backed Ethiopian strike in 2006-2007 on Somalia’s Islamists, and the continuing Ethiopian presence in the country? I suppose all that counts for less than “clannism,” right?

If we can understand that “clannism” doesn’t explain everything in Somalia, supposedly one of the most “ethnically divided” countries in the world, then we can look at other African countries in a fresh light, removing them from the narrative of generalized “African tribal conflict” and analyzing the unique contours of each situation.

We have to keep this in mind as we filter through the reports coming out of Kenya now. As Irin News pointed out a few weeks ago, “It’s the economy, stupid (not just ‘tribalism’).”

The wave of violence that engulfed Kenya after the presidential election has been widely described as tribal or ethnic in nature. But analysts in the east African country point to basic economics as the true cause of the unrest.


While specific ethnic groups – there are more than 40 in Kenya – were targeted during the violence, the tensions that led to such clashes were not the result of ethnicity per se, but, according an editorial in the Sunday Nation newspaper, an almost inevitable consequence of the country’s economic system: ”œKenya practises a brutal, inhuman brand of capitalism that encourages a fierce competition for survival, wealth and power. Those who can’t compete successfully are allowed to live like animals in slums.”

In Nairobi, more than 60 percent of the population live in slums, some of which lie a stone’s throw away from the city’s most luxurious houses.

According to a report (Pulling Apart: Facts and Figures on Inequality in Kenya) by the Nairobi-based Society for International Development (SID), Kenya is the 10th most unequal country in the world in terms of wealth disparities. Of Africa’s 54 states, it is the fifth most unequal.

The 2004 report, using UN Development Programme figures, states that Kenya’s richest earn 56 times more than its poorest: the top 10 percent of the population controls 42 percent of the country’s wealth, while the bottom 10 percent own 0.76 percent.

Inequality pervades every aspect of Kenyans’ lives, according to the report, citing enormous disparities – both in the capital and at national level – in almost every sphere of life: income; access to education, water and health; life expectancy; and prevalence of HIV/AIDS.

A person born in the western Nyanza Province, the bedrock of ODM support, can expect to die 16 years younger than a fellow citizen in Central Province, Kibaki’s home turf. Child immunisation rates in Nyanza are less than half those in Central.

Another impoverished region is North Eastern Province. While almost every child in Central attends primary school, only one in three does in North Eastern. More than nine out of every 10 women in North Eastern have no education at all. In Central, the proportion is less than 3 percent. In these two provinces, there is one doctor for 120,000 and 20,000 respectively.

These reports of inequality have a hauntingly familiar sound to them. Many have worried about the potential for genocide in Kenya, drawing explicit comparisons with Rwanda. These significance of these comparisons increases when we consider that some analysts, notably Jared Diamond in his book Collapse, have argued that ethnic tension wasn’t the only factor in conflict – conditions of overcrowding, overuse of land, pervasive poverty, and dwindling economic opportunities also played a role in fueling the genocide. And as in Somalia, these aren’t recent developments – they flow out of the larger histories of colonialism, Cold War maneuvering, and neo-colonial exploitation and interference by Western powers.

Indeed, it’s hard to explain why, whether in Rwanda or Kenya, neighbors suddenly turn to bitter foes, unless we bring in perspectives that go deeper than “tribal conflict.” One Kenyan expert agrees:

Analysts point out that the problem of ethnicity in Kenya emerged during the colonial period and has worsened since independence as it has become a key factor in national politics.

“Ethnicity per se, in the absence of its politicisation, does not cause conflict. There is evidence to suggest that where ethnic conflict has emerged in Africa, there have always been political machinations behind it,” wrote Kenyan academic Walter Oyugi in Politicised Ethnic Conflict in Kenya: A Periodic Phenomenon.

Politics in Kenya has long been a battleground for communities’ tussles over land and power. Parties tend to be formed along ethnic lines. Before every election, campaign rhetoric reinforces divisions between ethnic groups, with politicians pledging to protect the interests of ”œtheir” people against the threat of dispossession or impoverishment at the hands of ”œothers”. Thus whole communities are polarised, a ”œthem-and-us” mentality entrenched between former friends and neighbours.

In times of tension, modern technology can amplify this polarization and politicization of identity. In Kenya as in Rwanda, partisans have used the radio and other devices to spread messages of hate.

Inflammatory statements and songs broadcast on vernacular radio stations and at party rallies, text messages, emails, posters and leaflets have all contributed to post-electoral violence in Kenya, according to analysts. Hundreds of homes have been burnt, more than 600 people killed and 250,000 displaced.

While the mainstream media, both English and Swahili, have been praised for their even-handedness, vernacular radio broadcasts have been of particular concern, given the role of Kigali’s Radio-Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in inciting people to slaughter their neighbours in the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

With modern technology at its disposal, cynical politicians fanning the flames, and outside groups paralyzed by indecision (or supplying one group with weapons, like France shipping machetes to the Hutu in 1993-4), we simply cannot call the conflict in Kenya “tribal.”

Not only journalists, but also policymakers would do well to keep this perspective in mind. The world community has done surprisingly little thinking about how to put countries torn about by ethnic conflict back together. I don’t think that simple high-level meetings are sufficient. I think that some attention to the structural causes of conflict, especially poverty and inequality, is necessary.

In the meantime, the problem of international paralysis on issues of genocide and ethnic conflict rears its head once again. The opposition has called for international peacekeepers. I say heed that call, before the situation spirals further out of control. Again, the high-level talks are important: but with both sides digging in for a long, drawn-out process of negotiating, someone must act quickly in order to prevent tremendous loss of life. The more violence that can be forestalled now, the quicker Kenya can turn its attention back to including all of its citizens in a dialogue about the issues that affect them all.

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  • Ok, who was the outside influence in Kenya in this time?

    The strong tribal affiliations and corrupt leadership (my family, my tribe, “the others”), is responsible for many of Africa’s ills. The tribalism leads to discrimination against “the others”, just like Norther Ireland.

    By the way, why did the Shona in Zimbabwe take it upon themselves to treat the Matabele so badly?

    And, finally, how long have you lived in Africa, and in what countries?

  • “Indeed, it’s hard to explain why, whether in Rwanda or Kenya, neighbors suddenly turn to bitter foes”

    Go to QuaZulu-Natal and find out why. It’s are over 90% Zulu, and the Zulu fight among themselves…

    I believe the Xhosa & Basoto have a phrase to describe their neighborliness “Hereditary Enemies”
    And a question: Supposing the colonial powers did mess up the “natural boundaries” (arguable that there were any natural boundaries) in Africa, why didn’t the African’s themselves resolve these over the past 40 years?

    If you want a “Natural Boundary” try to find the one that encompasses the Zulu & Matabele – both Zulu speaking, both from the same roots…or try to find the boundary between the Shona & Matabele in Zimbabwe, or the Ebo & Youraba in Nigeria…

    Or name the African Leaders who have transcended tribal roots, other than Nelson Nandela (one of the Greats)….

  • Certainly conditions of inequality in Kenya are caused by more than just tribalism. How about the flows of global capital? And where are the weapons that are now being used made?

    I don’t think that one necessarily has to have personal experience about an issue to write about it. You suggesting that I need to have lived in Africa in order to talk about it authoritatively is simply a dodge to avoid discussing the argument.

    But for what it’s worth, I lived in Senegal for nine months.

    Additionally, the Irin articles I cite in my piece draw on quotes from Kenyan experts whose ideas support the conclusions I am making here.

    I think that this idea of tribalism, especially when it’s trotted out to explain forty years of events in 55 countries, is little better than pure racism.


  • I lived in Africa for over 20 years, and then left. Sometimes I regret leaving.

    One can’t blame all probems on tribalism, true. One could blame a significant part of the failings to corruption, and the complete lack of any concept of “The Common Good”. I point to Nigeria: $500 Billion in oil earnings, and no sign of it in the country. I point to Zimbabwe, where for small personal gain, the rulers destroyed the major industry of the country, agriculture. I point to Zambia, I point to Malawi, I point to Ghana, I point to Kenya, I point to Sierra Leone, and I point to Liberia, all have suffered for the same reasons — pis poor governance with no semblance of “The Common Good”.

    I wrote this, more or less, many years ago about Africa, and got myself in immense trouble:

    It took England 700 or more years to evolve a system of law, and the rule of law. In those 700 years we have had many bloody civil wars, among them, wars of the roses, the cromwell civil war, and the bloody purges of Henry VIII and Mary. How could we expect Africa to evolve to a system close to ours in less than 200 years?

    Expecting Africa to reach our levels in one or two generations is unreasonable – we, the english did not.

    So no, I’m sorry I don’t believe you have the experience, background or knowledge, or know enough of the history to write the piece above.

    Please go and read “Ladder of Bones”. Especially one short nasty part about Madame Tinabu, whose name graces a square in Lagos, Nigeria, to the eternal shame of the Nigerian people.

  • There are some, not many, who have transcended their tribal roots. Pitifully few. Interesting the ones you name are from the ex-French colonies (I’m more familiar with the ex-british colonies).

    I might put Kofi Annan in the list…He’s exceptional…I believe.

    In Africa there is no “Parlimentary Inertia, or Loyal Oppostion” to check the rulers, as there is, sometimes, in Europe.

    The US is deliberatly missing from the example of good governance. There is no concept of “Loyal Opposition” in the US — it’s sometime the press — I could make snarky remarks about US racism and corruption, but that’s another topic.

  • Once a divide and conquer policy is successfully entrenched, how do you remove it?

    Yes, Kwazulu Natal is an excellent example. The Inkatha Freedom Party was strongly encouraged, financed and armed during the apartheid years since they were prepared to accept the white governments “homelands” policy.

    The enmity and fear of the Xhosa and the ANC (which has strong Xhosa roots) was delibrately stirred up by the Apartheid government, even to the extent of using black ops / false flag atrocities. Read the TRC report if you have trouble grokking this.

    Ok, so now after years of conflict there are only two viable parties… ANC and IFP. The leader of the IFP has, ahh, shall we be kind, and say, has a bit of history.

    But he likes what power he has… can you make him go away? He attained his power through feeding the fear and enmity between the Zulu and Xhosa. Will he do anything to make that fade? Nah.

    Interestingly enough the Sotho peoples never gave into this crap and the puppet governments own soldiers help to oust the homeland puppets as soon as the white government collapsed.

    Why the difference? Many many factors I suspect. Some cultural, Zulus have a very strong “warrior” tradition. Some economic, Zulu’s formed cohesive and isolated blocs within the gold mine migrant labour systems. Seperating men from their families is never a good way of creating peace. Women create peace, men make war. Those may be the origins, but the fear &enmity divide stays in place because the IFP and in particular Buthelezi wouldn’t stand a chance without it.

    There is only ever one enemy, and that is the military. It doesn’t matter which side they purport to be on.

  • …the knowledge and experience required to offer authoritative comment on a given topic emphatically does not constitute a personal attack. Asserting those things constitutes a personal critique – saying that you lack knowledge and experience and then lambasting you for offering the comment, now that would be a personal attack. The breadth of topics that many bloggers offer commentary on, yourself included, leaves them vulnerable to this type of critique – and frankly there’s some validity to it.

    I’m in enthusiastic agreement with the notion that there’s more to such conflicts than tribalism, particularly as tribalism is commonly defined, but flat statements that one “cannot call the conflict in Kenya ‘tribal'” are pretty much guaranteed to cause extreme skepticism among folks with experience in the region and with such scales of social organization, generally (I would fall into the latter category). To my mind such conflict is much more than tribalism, and tribalism as shaped by modern states is an awful lot different than folks commonly think, but I think you’ve been a little over-enthusiastic in denying the importance of the tribal component.

    “A survey data set containing imputed values should not be analyzed uncritically as if all the data were real values.” ~ Graham Kalton

  • Hi Synoia, since I have never lived in Africa, I guess I mustn’t question your wisdom on that. But to ascribe the Troubles to ‘tribalism’ is really a misleading oversimplification – the colonialist myth, if you like. Unless of course ‘tribalism’ includes not only ethnic or sectarian divisions but the social, political and economic forces, including British colonial power, that produced and maintained the conflict, exacerbated by international interventions, both covert and publicly political, by countries from the USA to Nicaragua.

    Wikipedia’s article on Wolfe Tone is very good, I’d recommend it if you’re unfamiliar with the background.

  • I agree with much of Alex’s original post. Wider forces than particular ethnic/cultural identity are always at work – these identities themselves always have a history that is rooted in politics and economics, in conflict or otherwise, in Africa as elsewhere.

    You can’t discount a historic cultural dimension to such conflicts. But we could certainly avoid calling them ‘tribalism’ in Kenya, for example, when pretty much the whole history of Europe and US could be just as easily cast in the same crass terms if you wanted to avoid trying to understand it. I seem to remember learning in school about the tribal conflict in Germany between the Aryans and the Jews.

    Synoia, you ask for examples of African leaders who’ve transcended their ‘tribal roots’. Did it occur to you that it’s just as rare to find any Western leader who has, in your broken terms?

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