Old Colonial Stereotypes

An op-ed on the Kenyan elections in 2008 was cross-posed to africanews (here), and in the UK Independent's comment section. 

The headline of last Friday's editorial in the Times summed up how we see Africa. "In one shameful week, Kenya has made the journey from prospering democracy to tribal battleground."

There are two images here; neither of them has much to do with Kenya, and everything to do with the Western imagination. The first is Kenya as a prospering democracy: in a continent full of tragedy, we see Kenya’s apparent success as a vindication of all our efforts. It is not primarily because of deep seated economic and political divisions in the country that we try to mediate, instead, to quote the BBC, “The AU is sending its chairman, Ghana's President John Kufuor, knowing that Kenya as a model must survive.” 

Kenya represents a model state: a place of apparent calm, of stability: a state beneficial to economic interests in the Global North, for, as the BBC point out, “The desire [to save the model] is not just humanitarian. The African Union, the US and the EU all have an interest in the stability and development of Kenya.”

Instead of analysing the history of political division in the country, whenever a problem emerges the media move directly to the second image: that of the tribal battleground. Either it is a success (we take all due credit), or it is a tribal battleground (ancient loyalties – nothing to do with us). 

Our insistence on ignoring the political dimension of the Kenyan crisis is summed up by a recent headline in the International Herald Tribune, "Tribal violence spirals in Kenya". Ethnic clashes are presented as if they were an explanation, rather than the phenomena behind which there are political currents in need of explanation. 

Xan Rice’s breathless article on Eldoret in yesterday’s Guardian is typical. We read of war songs, children with bows and arrows, a half burned bible – visceral images that evoke a world of destroyed youth, tribal savagery and the most heinous acts in a sacred place. What we are not able to read about is the history of land struggles in Eldoret, the population movements of Kikuyu into the area, the ambiguous position of the Kalenjin. In short, what we are not able to read about is anything that would help us to understand these events.

Our lack of understanding is exemplified by the immediate invocation of Rwanda. Rwanda? It is remarkable to note the deliberations that went on in American when they were considering if events in Darfur could be called genocide. One could uncharitably assume this was because such a claim in Darfur accompanied talk of the necessity of invasion.

In Kenya, safe in the knowledge that this is no Rwanda (for a start, it’s Kenya), and thus no need for intervention, we can happily invoke Rwanda and ask people to come together to hold talks. It depoliticises the conflict, it refers to our broken obligations (here is one conflict we can intervene in); it immediately robs us of the possibility of understanding the politics of the situation. 

That we avoid the politics of the status quo can be seen in the fact that the fascination with the church killing is in inverse proportion to our interest in the people who have been doing the most killing. The police. 

The police are not, of course, a tribal unit. They are the representatives of a predatory state. This is a police force that, if we remember the Mungiki raids of earlier this year, has no problem entering slums and shooting at random. To confront the police role in the killings would be to confront the role of the state in creating this situation.

Our reliance on these images of Africa, old colonial stereotypes resurrected once more to explain the present, prevents our understanding of the situation. It prevents us even knowing what the right questions to ask might be.  
We must also go one step further. Rather than seeing tribalism and the maintenance of the model as opposed, we must see how one allows for the other. 

It is the insistence that the status quo must be maintained that allows tribalism to continue, and any question of serious reform to be occluded. Equally, it is tribalism (both the image the media presents and the policy of the Global North that this image dictates, and its inverse: the system of politicized ethnicity) that allows for the maintenance of the status quo.