Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Trouble With Using Tribalism to Explain Kenya

I was rather embarrassed this morning to have recommended KQED’s Forum program to some Kenyan friends.  Michael Krasny was hosting a conversation about the importance of Kenya’s elections (which you can listen to here).  The conversation featured Amos Njuguna (of USIU in Nairobi, currently resident at Berkeley’s Center for Effective Global Action), Jeffrey Gettleman (East Africa’s bureau chief for the New York Times), and Joel Barkan (of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies). 

The trajectory of the conversation, dominated by Gettleman, punctuated by moments of more sensible commentary from Njuguna, with sporadic input from Barkan, exemplified the conceptual blinders donned by too many commentators in the U.S. and Europe when discussing this or any other election in Kenya in particular and Africa in general.

We heard a lot about tribes, with Gettleman explaining that for us to understand how Kenyans vote, we need to understand the apparently-pervasive influence of tribalism, which he and many others would have us believe to be an age-old mode of social organisation, its origins lost in the mists of the history that such commentators deny to Kenya.  “Tribes” are also, this school of thought would have us believe, entities with fixed, impermeable boundaries.

This is not to pick on Gettleman too much, although among many academic Africanists (who generally see social and economic processes as complicated things which require difficult analysis), the easy generalisations and casual assertions that won him his Pulitzer cause a great deal of wincing.  He is following in the footsteps of a great many other commentators, dating back to the early years of colonisation when Europeans, seeking a way to enforce their dominance and appropriate land, mapped “tribal structures” (based on theories of imperial governance gleaned from earlier colonial experiences) onto all of the societies they encountered in East Africa and other parts of the continent.  Today, “tribe” provides the readiest, most comfortable, and least complicated way of explaining why people behave the way they do, and has served that role since colonisers arrived in Kenya during the late 19th century. 

The sort of analysis on display on Forum is also representative of the broader fashion in which media engage with Africa.  Mahmood Mamdani, a renowned Africanist based at Makerere and NYU, wrote of journalists’ coverage of Darfur, “War may be serious business, but you would never know it from the casual manner in which African wars tend to be reported in the Western media.  Africa is usually the entry point for a novice reporter on the international desk, a learning laboratory where he or she is expected to gain experience.  Reporting from Africa is a low-risk job: Not only are mistakes expected and tolerated, but often they are not even noticed”.*

Reliance on the category of “tribe” obscures as much as it reveals.  For example, “tribalism” is often used to explain what is characterised as the “spoils” system of Kenyan elections, wherein victors claim the right to resources and redistribution.  A cursory examination of Kenyan history would show that much of this rhetoric relates not to “tribalism” per se, but to an historic sense of who won freedom for Kenya.  Kenya’s struggle for independence against Britain was bloody, but also geographically discrete thanks to the creation of a localised squatter economy by colonial rule.  Those who participated in this economy made up the bulk of those fighting the British.  Participation maps only problematically onto “tribe”, depending on selective reading of both sources and the ambitions of those waging the struggle. 

The claim that those who participated in the war against the British are entitled to their share of wealth and power in Kenya has been tribalised over time, but the organisation that we know as “Mau Mau” adopted a Kiswahili name and an anti-colonial platform which did not restrict itself to the concerns of a particular tribe and indeed, some historians would suggest, became a civil war between members of the same tribe.**  This war, fought, the Forum experts tell us, at a time when Kenyans were already preparing to vote along tribal lines”, was one in which communities were divided into “loyalists” and “insurgents”, or “traitors” and “patriots”, depending on where they stood in relation to the colonial state.  Supposedly impermeable tribes, which should as described have closed ranks against all outsiders, were riven by divisions as deadly and violent as those which can supposedly be explained as being exclusively between tribes since.

If a public figure were to claim that participation on different sides of the American Revolution could be explained exclusively by recourse to the national origin/ethnicity of Americans of European ancestry, they would clearly be laughed out the door.  And this same standard should be applied to people who discuss the history and politics of other countries, particularly those countries on which they purport to have some expertise.

The point is that “tribes” have no independent, material existence.  They are only ever called into being by those for whom they serve a purpose, whether that be politicians who see the creation of a social cleavage as working to their benefit, or journalists who want an easy category to substitute for serious thought or investigation (and this is something of which Kenyan journalists are often as guilty as their western counterparts, as pointed out in a Nation op-ed).  “Tribes” have no material, literal basis, and suggesting that they do makes a mockery of individuals’ capacities to assess their living conditions, worldviews, and positions within a range of social, economic, cultural, geographic, and religious hierarchies. 

Pick up a copy of something like Healing the Wound: Personal Narratives about the 2007 Post-Election Violence in Kenya, edited by Kimani Njogu.  Interviewees inevitably reference different tribes, but do so in a way which reflects very local experiences, both positive and negative.  Most of them do not have hatred for their neighbours, but rather with the leaders who call “tribalism” into being out of convenience, and for purposes of personal gain. 

Of that same violence, Gettleman said, “This was all based on ethnic lines, they were targeting supporters of an opposition politician”.  That is a contradiction.  As he recognises in his second clause, this violence was political.  “Tribalism” or “ethnicity” as utilised elsewhere by the same commentator, is intrinsic, fundamental, deeply and inescapably cultural.  Gettleman and others desperately want to have it both ways.  On the one hand, they need Ruto and Kenyatta to be the bad guys who engineered violence.  At the same time, they want that violence to be an intrinsic feature of what they are happy to characterise as a “tribal society”, in which case it needs no engineering and produces no “bad guys”. 

Step back and take a place like Nairobi.  Its social divisions are as akin to those that are visible in any large cosmopolitan city—religious, economic, social, local—as they are peculiar to Kenya. 

But very little of this featured in the conversation, and after Njuguna tried to describe specific steps that Kenyans have been taking collectively to prevent the violence that others would have us believe is foreordained, Krasny brought the conversation back around to the well-worn wallow: “Well, but it’s about the tribes, really, isn’t it?”


There was another point of interest that arose during the conversation, which relates to the way in which foreign interests—embassies, NGOs, militaries, businesses—have been invoked by the Jubilee coalition (the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto team) to rally Kenyans around the flag. 

Krasny took a call from a Kenyan who argued that the British have a vested interest, and clearly prefer Raila Odinga.  This is a popular trope.  But neither this caller, nor other commentators, have been able to cite any particular interests of the British or of other international powers which would be so adversely affected by the election of Uhuru Kenyatta.  I think that their favouritism towards Raila (which I seriously doubt extends towards the kind of tampering that Ruto alleged) is rather a product of paternalism, wherein, as with Morgan Tsvangirai of Zimbabwe, Odinga represents a rather dated version of the western darling committed to good governance. 

Some of Ruto’s claims were obviously risible.  He invoked a “sudden” British military presence, which is actually perpetual as per the SFOA with Britain.  One commentator pointed out the alliance of convenience between Ruto and Kenyatta (both indicted at the ICC), implicitly speculating that they are running to secure themselves a kind of mutual de facto immunity from prosecution, which seems plausible.  But Barkan dismissed his own point, sadly contending that even removing the ICC and every other contingency wouldn’t change anything, because ethnicity is the only important variable in Kenyan elections.


* Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror.  New York: Doubleday, 2009: 19.

** Daniel Branch, Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya: Counterinsurgency, Civil War, and Decolonisation.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent commentary. Thank you for deconstructing facile excuses, i.e. tribalism, for lack of analysis of the complexity of Kenyan society.