Zack Gross
Zack Gross

Writer / Facilitator / CoordinatorHomeResumeProjectsArticlesLinksContact

Kenyan Crisis More Than a “Tribal” Thing

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday, January 13/08

Zack Gross

I was in Kenya a few years ago.  It is a beautiful country, especially for tourists, with vast tracts of land and exotic wild animals, just like a scene from The Lion King, for the group looking to go on a safari. 

The cities are a little tougher.  Nairobi, the capital and home to United Nations buildings and international conferences, also has one of the world’s largest slums, and merchants grate up their doors and windows at sundown every day. 

Even though the media calls Kenya one of Africa’s most stable countries, it has been the scene of political violence, especially as people have struggled to rid themselves of dictators such as Daniel Arap Moi who, for twenty-four years, refused to leave until 2002.

It is easy to blame the current violence and political meltdown in Kenya on “tribalism.”  However, the fact is that political and economic conditions in that country have led to poverty and frustration for the average Kenyan, whatever their tribal affiliation. 

The disputed recent election results gave rise to outrage, some of which was manifested in tribal violence, but in some cases this violence was promoted by politicians to increase their own personal power.

Many instances exist in Africa, over the past generation, of ethnic struggle and even genocide. 

In Rwanda, almost one million people died in the genocide of Hutus upon Tutsis in 1994.  The 2006 election in the Democratic Republic of Congo divided the country along ethnic lines and intermittent fighting continues even today.  In the late Nineties, in Ivory Coast, southern politicians campaigned against northern ones, leading to civil war. 

Looking behind the headlines, it is when the exploitative economics in a country puts the maximum stress on its people that the checkerboard of ethnicity begins to break down.

The reality of life in Africa, the world’s poorest continent, is that people generally survive on just a dollar or two per day, living under tremendous economic pressure.  A lost crop means family, or even community, disaster.  A broken bicycle means the end of a desperately needed job.  Although Kenya may seem to possess a viable economy fueled by agriculture and tourism, people there are still very poor and very frustrated. 

Kenya has recently had to deal with a serious drought, affecting agriculture, and with instances of internal political violence and external terrorism (bombings in Nairobi and Mombasa), cutting into the tourist industry.   The frustration arises when the poor see that poverty is caused by political corruption as much as by natural disaster. 

Many of the tribal and class disputes in Africa today are the legacy of colonialism.  Centuries ago, European countries “explored” Africa, taking over large tracts of territory and creating artificial nations, not based along tribal lines, but on the relationships among European colonizers.  Thus, even today, these nations, now independent, struggle with ethnic divisions.  As well, given the political corruption and many instances of dictatorship, citizens often feel more confident to rely on their tribal connections than on good government.

Kenya has been ripe for political violence.  Many unemployed and underemployed young men are waiting with diminishing hope for the chance to make a living.  In many cases, they cannot marry as they have nothing to bring to the union.  HIV/AIDS is still a problem in the country.  Infant and maternal mortality rates are high.  Women still play a diminished role due to traditional male dominance.  A bill to bring in a promised health care plan for Kenyan citizens has been shelved as too expensive to taxpayers. 

On the other side, promises made by developed nations to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to reduced poverty, improve health, educate children, and enhance the role of women significantly by 2015 are not being met. 

One of the provisions was that Western countries would increase their development assistance budgets to 0.7% of their Gross Domestic Product, but only five small countries have done this.  Canada’s assistance is at 0.33% and the United States is at 0.15%.  As well, rich nations have subsidized their own agriculture rather than open their markets to imports from developing nations.

The disputed national election result has brought all of the above issues to a head.  There have been decades of dictatorship since Kenya became independent in 1963.  In these more democratic times, the Kenyan leadership, which had campaigned on an anti-corruption ticket, is mired in scandal.

Unfortunately, the violence that comes from this situation may serve only to make things worse.  People revert to their tribal affiliations and fight with one another.  Property destruction, along with injuries and deaths during violence, and a resulting refugee problem, have all set communities back in their efforts to improve living conditions.  

Tourists stay home out of fear for their safety.  Reports say that in some cases, hotels are 80% empty, causing lay-offs.  Efforts at political mediation are underway but have been, so far, unsuccessful.

It is important to look behind the scenes, the rhetoric and the easy answers to understand the situation in Kenya, and in many other African countries. 

What is happening in Kenya can, will, or already has, happened elsewhere on that continent.  Until issues of poverty, corruption and human rights are dealt with, so-called “stability” will only be a thin veneer over a volatile situation.

Zack Gross is program coordinator at the Manitoba Council for International Cooperation (MCIC), a coalition of 36 international development organizations active in our province.

* * * * *

Return to Articles page