Back in the 1970s, when Eldoret in Kenya was a relatively sleepy town, I was struck by the frontier-type mentality of many of the people I encountered there. Individuals and families came to this part of western Kenya to start a new life, and to try to make their fortune.
This had been the case in Eldoret for a long time. During the colonial era, the town was settled by groups of Afrikaners who had ‘trekked’ there in 1908. In subsequent decades, landless Africans also made their way to Eldoret and the surrounding area. Many of these African settler communities - in Burnt Forest, Kipkabus, Timboroa - provided the backbone of the Mau Mau movement in the region, which fought against British colonialism in Kenya. They were also pioneers looking for their ‘Kenyan Dream’.
Unfortunately, in post-independence Kenya, access to opportunities and resources has tended to be mediated through ethnic networks and affiliations. Land grabs are frequently organised by local politicians who mobilise people on the basis of tribal affiliation. That was evident 30 years ago - and its tragic consequences are all too clear today after a mob burned down a church in Eldoret, leading to the death of 30 Kikuyu refugees fleeing political violence.
News reports about the current political crisis in Kenya, following the disputed elections in late December, appear to be unusually ill-informed about what’s going on and what issues are at stake. Many reports claim that the outbreak of political violence and tribal unrest came like a bolt from the blue in an otherwise model democracy. A commentator for the New York Times says ‘Kenya’s disaster seems to have hit like a tornado out of thin air’ (1). Another writer says the ‘recent bloodshed is all the more tragic because Kenya has enjoyed economic progress and has avoided the sectarian violence seen on much of the African continent’ (2).
This kind of naive and ill-informed prognosis of the events in Kenya is everywhere at the moment, and it is testimony to the power of historical amnesia in contemporary times. The truth is that the violent clashes in the Rift Valley region so graphically depicted on 24-hour TV news are only the most recent example of ethnic clashes over the ownership of land.
In Kenya, public life has been dominated by the politicisation of ethnicity, since the nation won independence in 1963. Consequently, elections are often perceived to be a contest between different ethnic groups, the outcome of which will decide which community gets access to resources. Clashes during the elections of 1992 and 1997 left hundreds of people dead. The 1992 elections actually anticipated the current spate of political violence. Back then, Kalenjin politicians mobilised their supporters to drive people from other tribes off the land that they occupied in the Rift Valley. According to some estimates, as many as 779 people were killed, and 50,000 were displaced. A report on these events published by the National Council of Churches of Kenya blamed high-ranking officials for orchestrating some of the violence. Many of the most violent clashes occurred in places where conflict is unfolding again today. For example, now, as in 1992/1993, one of the worst affected areas is Burnt Forest (3). Today, as in the past, the focus of the deadly conflict is the attempt to gain access to resources - and most importantly land.
What is striking, however, is that back in the 1990s, outbreaks of violence in Kenya did not arouse much interest or handwringing in the West. So what is new today?
Rwanda on the mind
One reason why the current debate about Kenya is so ill-informed is because it is not really about Kenya. In recent times, many Western experts and commentators have lost the capacity to analyse and interpret events in Africa and Asia by using conventional political concepts. Instead, conflicts tend to be interpreted through a new political model that was constructed during the post-Cold War upheavals in the Balkans and Rwanda.
This new view of conflicts in the South and the East is based on a disoriented Western imagination, which discusses political violence through dramatic and sensationalist metaphors, such as ‘Holocausts’, ‘Genocides’, ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ and ‘Mass Rape Camps’. Consequently, when it comes to violence in Africa or Asia, genocide has become the default diagnosis of events. From the Congo to Darfur to Kenya, bloody conflicts are recast as harbingers of holocaust.
Through today’s promiscuous use of the term ‘genocide’, conflicts become transformed into morality plays about human destruction, and tend to be seen as being both incomprehensible and inevitable. Western reporters see only a sudden, inexplicable outburst of violence - a kind of murderous descent into hell - and overlook the structural causes of crises in the Third World.
Many African politicians have learned to talk the talk of Western media outlets and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and now try to use this language to secure an advantage in a conflict situation. It is worth noting that the communication strategy of Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki’s election campaign was directed by Marcus Courage, an Old Etonian public relations consultant who had previously served as an adviser to the Make Poverty History campaign. Courage helped to promote Bob Geldof’s Live 8 campaign in 2005. Is it really surprising that, once he effectively elected himself as president, Kibaki started to speak in the language and tones of a distraught humanitarian aid worker? Indeed, it was Kibaki who first raised the spectre of genocide, as his critics and opponents carried out acts of violence; it was Kibaki who advised the world media to think about Rwanda when they watched the violence in Kenya unfolding.
A statement issued by Kibaki’s party said: ‘It is becoming clear that these well-organised acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing were well planned, financed and rehearsed by Orange Democratic Movement leaders prior to the general elections.’ Sadly, significant sections of the media were all too happy to embrace this talk of genocide. Quite quickly, relatively unorganised and chaotic gangs of youth were labelled as militias, old-fashioned land grabs were recycled as ethnic cleansing, and despicable acts of human degradation were discussed as the beginning of a systematic campaign of mass rape in what was apparently fast becoming a war. The message of the media coverage was clear: this is Africa, what else should we expect?! As one reporter said: ‘The ethnic hatred of Rwanda, the political divisions of Ivory Coast, the horrific rapes that characterised the war in Congo, all came to Kenya this week.’ (4) It’s all just the same typical African barbarism, isn’t it?
Kenya has more than its share of problems, and the current crisis may well unleash a protracted period of violent upheaval. Competing groups of corrupt political cliques, who have usually managed to cobble together a political deal in the past, may not be able to do so now. But it is precisely because the stakes are so high that the last thing Kenya needs is for its problems to be transformed into a Western fantasy about ‘another Rwanda’. Kenya was not a beacon of democracy or a model of economic stability before the December elections. And nor is it the dramatic setting for a Rwanda-to-be after the elections. All that has happened is that one group of corrupt politicians overplayed its hand, got a little bit too greedy, and forced its opponents to react on the streets.
That things got out of hand, and even acquired a dynamic of their own, is beyond dispute. That local politicians and other ambitious operators embraced this conflict as an opportunity to gain advantage at the expense of their neighbours, that is also a fact. And tragically, hundreds of people have been maimed and killed, and thousands driven from their communities. That is the problem that needs to be debated and confronted, not the ‘the new Rwanda’ of the distorted Western imagination.
(1) ‘Kenya Isn’t Rwanda’, The New York Times, 4 January 2008
Democracy’s Fragility, Theday.com, 3 January 2008
(3) See ‘Neighbour Turns against Neighbour’, Daily Nation, 10 May 1993
(4) ‘Kenya’s desperation was obvious but ignored’, The Daily Telegraph, 5 January 2008