For over a week now, post election violence in Kenya has dominated the news. A country formerly seen as one of the most stable in Africa has turned overnight into chaos, violence and ethnic clashes that are being compared to the nightmare of Rwanda 13 years ago. What happened ?
The most frequently used headlines for the election-related violence has been “tribal killings” between the dominant Kikuyu and the Luo. The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle have used words like “savage” in the front page and described the Mungiki ethnic group as “blood drinking” in last week’s articles.
In framing the conflict this way, the media not only misleads and oversimplifies the problem, worse, it affirms existing stereotypes that all of Africa’s problems can be reduced to savage tribal violence. The implication is that still, fifty years after independence, most African institutions lack the “sophisticated political and economic contentions” of other countries in the West. It becomes obvious in such scenarios to consider “humanitarian” intervention to bring in much needed civilization.
What the Kenyan election controversy has uncovered is that it much more to do with economics than with ethnic rivalry. Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in a recent article on the subject stated “They don’t seem to recognize sufficiently that Kenya like Africa as a whole has only two tribes: the haves and the have-nots.”
Much of the violence is concentrated in well known slum areas like Kibera and Mathare in the capital Nairobi. At around this time last year, we were in Nairobi for the World Social Forum. What we observed in the city were the obvious contradictions that can be seen in many African cities – well paved roads, fancy hotels and banks not unlike those in London or New York. But, spread throughout the city were the poor. In pockets within the city were the slums where the poorest of the poor reside in conditions unimaginable for human survival. It is in such areas that the violence is concentrated; people who have nothing to fear and nothing to lose.
When violence erupts so suddenly, the immediate response of the most vulnerable is to leave their homes and flee. Already there are reports of Kenyans leaving for neighboring Uganda in the thousands. What is alarming in this case is that there are already in Kenya millions of refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda. Kenya has provided safe sanctuary and passage to millions of refugees escaping conflicts in the Horn of Africa.
The Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia & Sudan) is the most volatile region in the continent. Assistant Sec. for African Affairs Dr. Jendayi Frazier stated in a talk in San Francisco that she spends 70% of her focus on issues related to the five countries in Horn. The violence in Kenya, if not abated soon, has the potential to engulf an existing volatile situation into further chaos.
Nothing short of an independent investigation into charges of election rigging will begin to restore confidence of Kenyans. It is the first step toward long term cessation of violence and hostility that can then lead to political stability. It is important that both candidates exhibit the necessary leadership in resolving a crisis.
The worst proposal to “solve” yet another problem in Africa is the consideration of a military alternative, as in AfriCOM (an Africa Command center) which the State Department announced a year ago.
Expected to go into full operation in September of this year, AfriCom is being promoted as “security” measure to end conflicts and provide humanitarian assistance to Africa’s hotspots. The current violence in Kenya will, no doubt, be used as yet another reason why the US should speed up the operational phase of AfriCom.
As we have seen in the case of Iraq, military responses to deeper economic and political problems are no solution at all. They in fact exasperate and further divide communities along religious, ethnic and economic lines.
Let Kenyan leaders step in to propose solutions to the elections.