Saturday, January 12, 2008

Kenya As a Resource Problem

Rob Crilly, journalist based in Nairobi, points us to this article in Spiked by Frank Furedi, "Kenya Is Not the New Rwanda," on the paucity of explanation in media discussions - such as they are - of Kenya's recent violence. Furedi suggests that, rather than US media portrayals have it of an inexplicable upswelling of ethnic violence, the issue is land and resources. And this issue is ongoing, as it is across Africa.
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?

The answer is, in part, Rwanda.
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...

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.

Furedi would have us focus on the structural conditions of the conflict, as we rightly should.

In general, I don't think there's any need to go back full-stop to Marxist analysis of global conflict. But the fleeing from such analysis on the part of Western/Northern analysts and the media misses a lot. It turns policy into patchwork problem-solving or despairing incomprehension. And it renders incomprehensible a better understanding of some common developing world perspectives and concerns about exploitation. These are very real concerns, but the taint of Marxist language has trivialized and concealed them by and to Western analysts. In many ways, the ideas and attitudes emblematic in the media analysis criticized by Furedi saturate much of the developed countries' relationships with the rest of the world, and certainly run deep in international agencies dominated by Western theories and principles. This all paints a picture of a world of incomprehensible events, and thus facilitates a mistaken reduction to a simple, more recognizable vocabulary, even when this vocabulary explains nothing at all.

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