Saturday, 2 February 2008

Kenyan clashes

Kenya has seen civil clashes following the disputed general elections a month ago. The international media reporting has often been along the lines of "Conflict arrives in one of Africa's most prosperous and stable countries". The conflict has had a clear ethnic dimension, which has surprised some observers, with clashes between the Kikuyu group (from central Kenya, and associated with the incumbent president), and the Luo group (from Western Kenya and associated with the rival presidential candidate who claims to have been cheated in the election).

Kenya does not have a history of ethnic tension along the lines of, say, Rwanda, but Kenyans are fully aware of their ethnic identity and I have heard anti-Kikuyu sentiments in the capital Nairobi relating to corruption. Nevertheless, the ethnic diversity in Kenya would seem to provide some protection against ethnic tension - the majority of the country are neither Kikuyu nor Luo and would not want to see their country destroyed for an in-fight. The situation is very different in the ethnically torn countries of Rwanda and Burundi, where almost everyone is in one of two ethnic groups, although there is considerable debate whether ethnicity is meaningful in those countries, or just a terrible social construct. So, the Kenyan tension is a bit surprising, and it seems unlikely that the worst predictions of a war will happen in Kenya, at least for ethnic reasons.

The poverty in Kenya is perhaps more of a explanatory factor behind the conflict. Although described as prosperous, the comparison is with the surrounding countries, several of which have seen conflict in recent years. Growth in Kenya is lower than many other stable African states, which has been ascribed partially to a high rate of corruption. For the often very industrious and enterprising Kenyan workforce, the rate of growth must be disappointing and frustrating for their manifest ambitions.

It is also possible that the recent advent of multi-party democracy provided a focus for ethnic tensions, by the identification of ethnic groups with certain political parties. The ethnic diversity again provides a caution against subscribing too exactly to this theory, since the two major political parties must have supporters from many different ethnic groups, purely because of the size of the votes each received.

Perhaps the exit of former president Daniel Arap Moi from politics was another indirect contributory factor. Arap Moi, like Mobutu in Zaire, was widely criticised for corruption and suppressing democratic institutions but survived for decades in power. The skill of an Arap Moi or Mobutu in controlling a country and balancing ethnic groups and tensions cannot be underestimated. Kenya may need a new Arap Moi, but one with the skills and ideas for a democratic regime. Sadly, as political stalemate and ethnic clashes continue, it seems that neither of the main players have them.

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