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-TÃ©lÃ©vision 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.