By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
FOUR MONTHS AGO, I WAS CHEWING miraa with two friends at a disco in Westlands, an upscale yuppie neighborhood in Kenya's capital city, Nairobi. Miraa, or Catha edulis, also known as qat, is a bush that grows in East Africa. Chewing the leaves gives a stimulant effect that is a little bit like Ecstasy, a little bit like speed, only milder, and it is legal. Suffice it to say, if the three of us weren't baring our souls that night in Westlands, we were coming pretty close. Somehow the conversation turned to soccer.
"There are no players from the coast on the national soccer team," Abdul said.
"Well, there's one guy. The Kikuyu choose their own people. It's just like law, business, government jobs. If you're from the coast, you have to be the best soccer player in the world to get on the national team."
He looked over at our other friend, Gabriel, who was once a professional player for one of Kenya's regional teams. "He's right," Gabriel said, nodding solemnly.
Since independence in 1963, two tribes, the Kikuyu and Kalenjin, have dominated Kenya's political and economic life. Although the country has experienced an economic boom under incumbent president Mwai Kibaki, the 77-year-old Kikuyu economist now at the center of Kenya's constitutional crisis, little of that affluence has trickled down to most of Kenya's 40 ethnic groups.
I remembered the above conversation as I watched the situation in Kenya worsen this week. After the country's disputed December 27 election, in which Kibaki is widely believed to have wrested re-election through vote tampering, nearly 500 people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced when disenfranchised voters lost hope that the country's corruption and pervasive economic inequities would be addressed. Last week, as envoys from the African Union and the U.S. rushed in to try to broker a deal between Kibaki and his rival, 63-year-old Raila Odinga, the violence ebbed.
But on January 8, Kibaki abruptly changed his tone. Casting aside efforts to negotiate a power-sharing agreement, a recount, or another election, Kibaki acted as if a second term was a fait accompli, or, as some put it, a coup d'etat. He appointed 15 cabinet members, including several former political rivals, a divide-and-conquer strategy aimed at isolating his rival. The dismay felt by most Kenyans after Kibaki's power grab had less to do with tribal loyalties than most news reports would have us believe, and more to do with the struggle to maintain constitutional government, a struggle that has been seen of late everywhere from Pakistan to the United States.
Many people are expressing shock over the violence in Kenya. The country is a regional hub: Commodities for East and Central Africa are funneled through the port of Mombasa, along with supplies for U.N. peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts. Many of the continent's journalists and aid workers are based in Nairobi and Al-Qaeda terrorists have occasionally made Kenya a home base too. They all come for the same reason: The phones and ATMs work. For Americans, Kenya is Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in Out of Africa, the African country where you can take your children to see elephants and lions without worrying about whether little Jason will be conscripted into the Lord's Resistance Army.
But when postelection violence broke out, the U.S. media lost no time in pounding the Heart of Darkness tom-toms. Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times took the lead, describing "gangs from opposing tribes hacking each other to death" in a Nairobi slum, and virtually every major news outlet followed suit. Unlike their counterparts in Britain and Canada, American reporters seemed to be missing the real story. This is a constitutional moment for Kenya, a country where the literacy rate is 85 percent and people have embraced a strong national identity. Whether they are Kikuyu like Kibaki, or Luo like Odinga, or Swahili, or they identify with any of the dozens of other ethnicities living here, Kenyans were horrified by their leader's power grab, just as Americans seated in front of their televisions watched in stunned disbelief as Tom DeLay's thugs shut down the presidential-vote count in Florida in 2000. The vast majority of Kenyans are not hacking their neighbors to pieces with machetes, but talking about the need for clean elections and constitutional government. Often they are doing it on Internet bulletin boards, which have been deluged with postings expressing outrage over what many are calling "a civilian coup."
But all cliches are a little bit true. Kenya's politicians have a long and sordid history of manipulating ethnic tensions to amass power, starting with Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, who advanced the interests of his Kikuyu political cronies. Kenyatta was succeeded by Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin who fostered resentment against the Kikuyu to deflect attention from his regime's massive corruption. Kibaki, elected in 2002 in the second free election in Kenya's history, was considered an antidote to his predecessors' corruption.
While the U.S. press is fixated on tribalism, leftists tend to blame Africa's problems on colonialism. The most striking incident of the past few weeks occurred in the central Kenyan town of Eldoret, where 50 people were burned to death after taking refuge in a church. As Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society, pointed out, Eldoret is where the British took land for white farmers and drove off the local Kalenjin in the 1940s and 1950s. At independence, the whites sold to the highest bidders, who happened to be rich Kikuyus. They moved in other Kikuyus to work the land and the Kikuyu "occupation" is deeply resented.