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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Crisis in Africa – Part II

Published: February 29, 2008
Section: Opinions

Americans in general have the habit of reflexively referring to Africa as a singular entity in lieu of specifically mentioning one of the over 50 separate and distinct countries within the continent. This fact alone is the root cause of much of the ignorance and confusion amongst people in this nation regarding both the history and contemporary problems facing the various places throughout Africa. The fact that people here have the tendency to refer to “Africa” just one large place of general homogeneity is actual quite ironic, as much of the problems that exists throughout the continent are derived from ethnic clashes that are rooted in forced diversity. This is unfortunately the case in Kenya today.

Kenya is probably one of the few countries that the average American could name if asked outright. It is a nation known for its relative peace and stability by those involved in global politics, but has garnered much of its notoriety from its natural beauty and a once thriving tourist economy. Now however, the storied former British colony is in the midst of a possible civil war where terms like “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” are being used by both sides of a conflict that has become so bad that even the usually recalcitrant Bush administration has decided to act. The current violence started after a disputed election, and has persisted due to reasons beyond politics and suspect electioneering.

Ethnicity is an extremely controversial issue throughout many nations in Africa. After the end of Colonization, political scientists and historians began to notice the development of what was later called the “balkanization” of Africa. Simply put, without overbearing and powerful European armies occupying the countries that they themselves created, these newly created countries began to war not only with one another, but within their own borders as well. The borders created by the 1885 Berlin Conference may have prevented the European powers from going to war over their colonies in Africa, but now large swaths of land have created nations that split entire cultures, enclosed groups of ethnic rivals, and either elevated or disenfranchised people within their traditional lands. In Kenya, the Kikuyu, a major but my no means the majority ethnic group, have done considerably well for themselves economically since the end of colonialism –much to the dismay of the other 47 groups in the country.

Kikuyu domination has been a fear of the other groups, particularly the Lou, especially in light of the fact that the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, as well as the majority of those involved in the government since Kenya’s founding in 1963 have been of Kikuyu decent. The establishment of Kikuyu farms and settlements in Kenya’s profitable Rift Valley, and the perception of Kikuyu’s being “arrogant” about their success in the country have also contributed to a feeling of general resentment and hatred for a people who call themselves the “Jews of Africa”. The lasting memories of the Mau Mau insurrections (which were lead by Kikuyu militants) also aid those wishing to condemn the Kikuyu and isolate them from complete power, through the establishment of and ethnically designed federalism called Majimboism. Majimboism itself has now become a rallying cry for the opposition, lead by Raila Odinga, the Luo presidential candidate who has since been accused of using “Majimboism” as a code word for forced relocation and violence against those who resist it.

The result of all of this pent up animosity was the explosive violence that sprang up after the disputed Presidential election in December of last year. In what was expected to be a close and contentious race (especially given the propensity of the Kenyan Government towards corruption) sitting President Mwai Kibaki won re-election after besting Raila Odinga by a surprising margin. Odinga’s supporters took to the streets alleging voter fraud (which by all means seems to be the absolute truth) and demanded the installation of their Luo leader. Soon street violence devolved into targeted assassinations and ethnically-based murders in some of Nairobi’s largest slums and neighborhoods. Bloody machete attacks and arson were used against Kikuyu’s, who in turn responded with murderous rampages of their own in the strongholds of their traditional rivals. Today close to 1,000 people might be dead, and there is currently a movement of some 600,000 people who are relocating to their “traditional” homelands as a way of insulating themselves from more violence, and possibly in anticipation for a government which will be run partly at least, by the “federalist” Odinga. What ever solution is reached however, it is doubtful that that the vast majority of these people will ever return to their original homes where they were minorities, but relatively secure financially compared to surviving off of the charity of their fellow Kikuyu’s or Lou’s.

The violence has quelled a bit during since December, but it could ignite once again if the talks mediated by Kofi Annan and President John Kufuor of Ghana fall through. Right now it seems like Odinga would become the country’s “Prime Minister” or head of government while Kibaki would remain as the President, or head of state, with slightly diminished powers. Odinga is still wary of this proposal however; as it was offered to him in 2002 in exchange for his endorsement of Kibaki in his surprising presidential win (a win which many believe provoked what was a dormant issue of ethnic rivalry under the previous administrations).

So what was once one of the few bright spots in Africa has now joined the long list of countries that have been recently affected by ethnically based violence. The tourist economy, which has never recovered from a Hotel Bombing and attack on an Arkia Airlines jet in 2002, is now in shambles as the country must now try to erase their appearance amongst the clichéd scenes of mob violence that have become the norm for the media’s coverage of Africa. But even today the true reasons for this conflict have not yet been fully addressed, as simply blaming “age-old ethnic rivalries” will not suffice in explaining this awful development in Kenya. A complicated political and economic reality still exists as the Kikuyu’s have effectively controlled the political arena and much of the economic powerhouses of Kenya despite making up only a fifth of the total population (this in a country with one of the highest income gaps in the world). All the while the are many Kikuyu’s who also believe that the current crisis has been goaded by the British, who have never forgiven the Kikuyu for the Mau Mau raids of the 1950’s and have remained as a force in Kenyan politics even after independence.

The US has a special reason to act to promote stability in Kenya as the neighboring countries of Somalia, Ethiopia, and Uganda all depend on a strong and successful government in Nairobi. Terrorism is also a huge concern as radical Islamic groups from the Persian Gulf have infiltrated Kenya from Somalia and could easily recruit during a time of economic and political hardship. The current reality of Kenya is difficult to predict, yet what the relatively quick and undoubtedly horrendous downfall of the nation really shows is just how fragile the region of East Africa is and how precarious even the “safe” nations of Africa are 50 some years after independence.