Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

John Barbieri writes about the pervasive and dangerous myths that have characterized the coverage of Kenya's post election crisis in the US and elsewhere

First, let me honorably mention that the title of this piece is borrowed from Kenyan journalist Rebecca Wanjiku [1]. As most others, I have watched in dismay and outrage at the events in Kenya following the announcement on Dec. 30th of the (manipulated) election results. I have been equally, if not more so, dismayed, outraged and disgusted by how the situation and violence there has been depicted and framed in the international media, especially here in the United States. In almost all of the recent coverage and commentary on Kenya in the mainstream U.S. media there have been three particularly dangerous and pervasive myths and misrepresentations that have appeared. All of these myths have been previously commented on by much more eminent figures than I, but perhaps it will help to restate and further comment on all of them in one place.

Three Pervasive Myths and Misrepresentations

First, this is not ‘ethnic conflict.’ Similar to the way that most African conflicts get reported, there is the ubiquitous framing of the situation as conflict solely being driven by ethnicity. This is most profoundly seen in the statements of ‘tribal conflict’; it must be made clear that this is an extremely racist, antiquated and inaccurate depiction of the situation. Though there has been an ethnic factor to some of the conflict, this factor is largely overemphasized at expense of the more pervasive factor of the rich/poor and the gross inequities in resource distribution across and among ‘ethnic lines’ (that is as if such lines could be so clearly drawn). As many have more articulately said elsewhere the situation must be re-framed as a political conflict.

More specifically, the organized violence following the elections must be framed as political elites manipulating their supporters (including paying and equipping armed militias and using the armed instruments of the State) to inflict violence on their behalf; it is so-called leaders fomenting hatred among their supporters all for their own personal benefit; and it is power-hungry politicians willing to do whatever it takes, literally willing to throw Kenyans’ lives away in their attempt to do it, and to be so disgustingly eager to use that violence as a mere pressure point on the national and international community to get/retain power. Both parties were guilty of this, but in particular the man sworn in as President has employed the disproportionate brutal force of the police and military, especially the General Service Unit.

The repercussions of depicting the situation as solely ethnically-driven can be seen in the distorted sense of history and context for all conflicts in Africa and elsewhere. One of the most pervasive historical misconstructions is especially evident in the popular writings and collective memory of the Rwandan genocide, which continue to frame the genocide as being simply the result of primordial ‘tribal conflict.’ In so doing the context and history of the genocide is obfuscated by neglecting the ongoing role played by the brutal legacy of the colonial power (Belgium in the case of Rwanda) and of national, regional and international politics following ‘independence.’

Second, this is not a ‘shock.’ We need to attack the myths and claims being reported that the developments in Kenya are a great ‘shock,’ and that this is a great blow to a ‘beacon of stability, democracy and economic growth in Africa.’ For anyone who knows the history of Kenya, the history of colonialism and the history since ‘independence,’ they know that these developments are not a shock and that they have been long in the making. The developments are directly connected to the inability of the Kenyan government to come to terms with the brutal legacy and power distributions inherited from British rule, including the constitution itself. And specifically the developments were written all over the wall leading up to the election to anyone who was paying attention to the fomenting of ethnic tension by Kibaki/PNU and Odinga/ODM, yet too few seemed willing to acknowledge it. Anyone who claims that this is a ‘shock’ is either blatantly ignorant, dishonest or practices mere wishful thinking to be so naïve. And anyone who claims that Kenya is a grand ‘beacon of stability, democracy and economic growth in Africa’ misrepresents the hardships and injustices that the vast majority of Kenyans desperately face on a daily basis; they also inaccurately depict the past five years of the ‘booming economic growth’ witnessed under the Kibaki regime, which through exorbitant amounts of corruption and increasing income inequality has ensured that the benefits from that robust economic growth has by-and-large reached only the very elite.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, is the role of the U.S. It must be made clear and people must fully understand the large role that the U.S. has been playing in Kenya and throughout eastern Africa. The U.S. has keenly been trying to build up allies in East Africa and the Horn of Africa to counterbalance other perceived ‘threat’ countries in the region. These key U.S. allies include Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Uganda and the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. These allies are meant to act as a counter-balance to the ‘threats’ of Sudan (the Bashir regime), Eritrea and the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in Somalia. The Bush administration has clearly supported incumbent Kibaki due to the fact that his government has been one of these key allies in the ‘war on terror’ in the East and the Horn of Africa. The Kibaki administration has allowed and worked closely with the U.S. on supposed ‘terrorist’ raids along the coast of Kenya. The Kenyan Anti-Terrorism Unit (with American and British support) has conducted these extralegal anti-terrorism operations along the Kenyan coast, targeting the sizeable Muslim population there. According to human rights organizations in Kenya these anti-terrorism operations have included the roundup, torture and extradition of Muslims (to Somalia, Ethiopia and elsewhere) without being charged or given a trial, similar to ‘war on terror’ operations elsewhere. The people, nearly all of whom are Muslims, being targeted are dubiously claimed to be Al Qaeda operatives or a part of other subversive terrorist organizations.

Similarly, Kenya was an ally during the U.S.-supported invasion of Somalia by Ethiopian forces to overthrow the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in southern Somalia exactly one year ago. What was, and still is, routinely missed in the story of the UIC is how they helped to implement order, stability and social services that had not been seen in southern Somalia for nearly 15 years; and how the UIC was primarily an effort to depose corrupt warlords (many of whom were being backed by the U.S.), not to impose an international Al Qaeda-like jihadist movement as many claim(ed). Kenya’s (i.e., the Kibaki administration’s) role in the military operations included working with U.S. forces along the Kenya-Somalia border and the ubiquitous sharing of ‘intelligence,’ but they also played a more direct role as well. At the onset of the invasion, the Kenyan military, seemingly at the behest of the U.S., closed off its border with Somalia and refused entry to all Somalis, including refugees, trying to flee southern Somalia. Soon after, the U.S. conducted air strikes in southern Somalia killing at least 30 people, most, if not all, of whom were probably fleeing civilians, not ‘Al Qaeda operatives’ as was alleged. In short, the Bush administration had clear ‘national security’ ambitions in seeking that Kibaki, as a key ‘war on terror’ ally in eastern Africa, stay in power. Also, add to this the vested American, UK and other European business interests in Kenya as well, who likely did not care for Odinga’s ‘social democratic’ platform which was posing the threat of more taxes and redistributive wealth.

The biggest blow to U.S. credibility and neutrality in the matter, though, came immediately after the election results were announced. Incredulously, the U.S. State Department quickly came out and congratulated the man sworn in as President on his ‘victory.’ This was done despite the fact that every diplomat in the country clearly knew of the irregularities in the election and the hastily swearing in process of the President. Realizing its mistake the State Department quickly moved to retract this congratulatory statement, and then issued a statement calling an end to the violence and for the situation to be resolved through ‘constitutional and legal remedies.’ However, it is quite clear that these ‘remedies’ are blatantly weighted in the incumbent’s favor and thus will merely support the status quo: Kibaki and corruption. Since January 4th the U.S. has been pursuing the diplomacy route with Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer, who has now departed, and Ambassador Michael Ranneberger leading these attempts. However, it is was disturbing that despite Frazer’s close watch and ongoing separate talks with both sides, she (and therefore the U.S. in general) was not able to prevent Kibaki from disastrously going ahead and filling the most critical posts in the President’s cabinet.

More recently it should be no surprise that the few Heads of State who have come out and congratulated Kibaki on his ‘victory’ are also key ‘war on terror’ allies of the Bush administration. These Heads of State include: President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (who has received much aid from the Bush administration and has been crucial in supplying troops for the AU force in Somalia), transitional President Abdullahi Yusuf of Somalia (who the U.S., Ethiopia and Kenya helped reinstate after the overthrow of the UIC), Sheikh Sabah of Kuwait, King Mohammed VI of Morocco, and Prime Minister Themba Dlamini of Swaziland. An excerpt from Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf’s congratulatory message to President Kibaki is worth quoting: ‘…both our countries must remain strong partners on the global war on terror and steadfast Allies in protecting freedom.’ Further still, Uganda’s starch dependence on Kenyan supply routes and Museveni’s close relationship with Kibaki must be stressed, and therefore the widespread reports that the Uganda People’s Defense Force is masquerading as police, destroying property and killing people in western Kenya must be seriously addressed!

As others have already made clear (e.g., Mukoma wa Ngugi [2], Wandia Njoya [3], etc.), it should not be assumed that Odinga/ODM is somehow inherently antithetical to the interests of the U.S. and of international capital; the extravagant fuss over Odinga’s Hummer was perhaps one highly illustrative example of his true nature as an elite who gladly enjoys connections to the West and living well above the rest of Kenyans. Also, it should not be believed that U.S. support for corrupt and autocratic Kenyan leaders started with Bush-Kibaki, it is well-documented how the U.S. had been keenly supporting and arming the preceding 24 year dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi during the final years of Cold War geopolitics and beyond. Lastly, all of this is not meant to suggest a direct U.S. connection to the manipulated election results, but still the overall interests and role of the U.S., and other international actors, in Kenya must be made clear. (For more facts and figures on the U.S.’s military ties to Kenya and incumbent Kibaki see Daniel Volman’s excellent short article [4].)

The Poverty of International Journalism

In all, it has been disgusting how reporters have been so eager to energetically document and provide inaccurate and inhumane commentary on the bloodshed, but have been too unconcerned in trying to actually understand the situation and report what Kenyans are really saying and thinking; although this should certainly come as no surprise. The inspiration and title for this article comes from Kenyan journalist Rebecca Wanjiku’s blog ‘The Poverty of International Journalism,’ and this excerpt about a broadcast on CNN is worth quoting at length:

Understanding the local language is very important when reporting from foreign countries. For instance on Sunday [January 6th 2008], there was on television an injured man and those carrying him said in Swahili "tunampeleka hospitali" (we are taking him to hospital?) But the journalist's translation was that he had been asked "are you shot or cut?" with the response coming back that he was actually the victim of a shooting. It is unlikely that this was an innocent mistake, the journalist may simply not have cared what was true and what was not, and it is unlikely either that the world audience would have noticed, but using video like this to underline a story you are making up is dishonest reporting. I have faith that Kenyans will soon be embracing each other, and that we will soon get back to the urgent yet more mundane tasks of kujitafutia riziki – putting food on the table. I hope CNN will be around to cover that and not simply rush on to the next big story. By the way, how comes CNN does not cover American soldiers or civilians bleeding and writhing in pain, yet has no second thought for the dignity of the dead and dying from other countries?

It has been Kenyan journalists and bloggers, like Rebecca, and other local reporters who have been the real champions of correctly depicting and analyzing the situation, and who are actually raising the real desperate concerns of Kenyans. Rather than condescendingly prescribing analysis and treatment from London, New York or even the U.S. embassy in Nairobi (which is, although not as geographically removed, as cognitively removed from the concerns of Kenyans), the mainstream media needs to listen, understand and make clear the history and context of the current situation, and stop speaking so ignorantly and arrogantly about it.

And good journalists need to call out fellow journalists who are perpetuating the pervasive myths and stereotypes (e.g., Canadian journalist Arno Kopecky’s Daily Nation article [5]). I would like to take this opportunity, then, to call out CNN reporter Zain Verjee. Miss Verjee, as someone who grew up in Kenya, and therefore should know better, it is despicable how you have been playing up the ‘ethnic conflict’ angle in your TV reporting. Why are you doing this? Are you callously using the plight of your countrymen/women to simply boost your career ambitions? Why is it that you so seldom let other Kenyans actually speak, and rather choose to just speak ‘on their behalf?’ Why is it that as someone who has worked on campaigns to spread awareness of violence against women have you not been more vigorously reporting the disproportionate effect that the violence and displacement has had on women in Kenya? Why is it that I have not once heard you mention the role the U.S. is playing in Kenya? Miss Verjee I am sorry that you were hit by a teargas canister during your recent reporting (although it should not have been a surprise given your attempt to ‘get the story’), but perhaps you might now feel some of the brutality that so many Kenyans have endured and perhaps now you may start honestly speaking on their behalf and letting their voices be heard.

The situation in Kenya, like all political conflicts (e.g., eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Darfur, eastern Chad, Iraq, Pakistan, Burma, Sri Lanka, etc.), should be vigorously reported, but it must be framed and depicted accurately by incorporating a proper historical context and the perspective of the people there. The perspectives/stories of people there must be told, but they must not be simply trivialized and sensationalized, as is so often done, particularly in the simplemindedness of televised ‘reporting.’ It is so sad that in the business that is U.S. TV reporting we seldom actually hear the voices of people telling their stories from around the world; rather we too often get a voice-over by some clearly intelligible Western (i.e., ‘white-sounding’) reporter. Why not use subtitles!?! Why must these people be robbed from having their voices heard, why must we be robbed from hearing them?!? Or why not find articulate English speakers (there certainly are an abundance of them in Kenya) to speak on their own behalf, and not demean their ‘foreignness’ by using unwarranted subtitles? And why do we have to wait for ‘crisis’ situations to hear these voices? Why do we hear, or rather really just see, only the bad? Why do we not hear and see good, fun, silly, playful, uplifting and empowering stories being told every day? Why do we not hear and see stories with depth about love and dreams as often as we superficially see stories about loss and despair?

In conclusion, news without a proper sense of history and context is just a list of jumbled half-truths, and news without a proper respect for and input from the people who are actually affected is just a list of callous stereotypes. In the past week, now that the violence has slightly eased, the U.S. media seems to be losing interest in the situation in Kenya. Forgive the extreme vulgarity, but the mainstream U.S. media appears to send the following double message: we are not interested in Africans or African politics, that is unless there is a full out Rwanda-like bloodbath (with pictures of gruesome machete attacks and all, of course) so we can stereotype all Africans as the savages we think they are. I hope that all journalists, reporters and editors may heed these calls and start acting responsibly and start reporting the truth coming ‘out of Africa.’

* John Barbieri is an independent reporter who lived in Kenya from Jan.-June 2007, and is the founder of the US Coalition for Peace with Truth and Justice in Kenya. He can currently be reached at [email][email protected]

*Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at

* Please click on the link for the article notes


1. Rebecca Wanjiku (1/7/08). ‘The Poverty of International Journalism.’ Kenya Imagine.
2. Mukoma wa Ngugi (1/10/08). ‘Let us not find revolutionaries where there are none.’ Pambazuka News.
3. Wandiya Njoya (1/1/08). ‘Kenya's Crisis: A Drama Scripted For The Last Five Years.’ The Zeleza Post. Do read all of her other awe-inspiring articles on Zeleza Post as well. five-years
4. Daniel Volman (1/5/08). ‘U.S. Military Activities in Kenya.’ Association of Concerned African Scholars.
5. Arno Kopecky (1/5/08). ‘Violence and cynical foreign news crews.’ The Daily Nation.