Out of Kenya's violence, rebirth
Forget tribal tags. This fight is about economic disparity. And it's a crucial catharsis.
Kenya has been sitting on a bomb for 40 years. That bomb exploded only recently, triggered by a fiercely contested and now bitterly disputed December presidential election that has left this once proud nation counting its dead, cleaning debris, and seething with rage.Skip to next paragraph
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On the other hand, the month-long chaos could be a necessary catharsis and an ironic opportunity for the East African nation's rebirth – not a downhill tumble to a Rwanda-like genocide.
For starters, a huge relief came Friday when President Mwai Kibaki's besieged government and Raila Odinga's opposition party eased earlier rigid claims to have won. And on Monday, a government negotiator said the president's party was considering sharing power with the opposition, the Associated Press reported.
But a month into the conflict, too much of the foreign reporting is superficial and sensational, littered with epithets of "machete-wielding youths," "bows and arrows," or "this tribe or that."
As a result, the world is reading, without a peep at history, that the bloodshed blamed for more than 1,000 lives and some 300,000 displaced people is orchestrated by issues between Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe and Odinga's Luo tribe.
Wrong. The crisis in this nation of almost 37 million is fundamentally about four things: a chauvinistic concept of power, skewed economics, weak institutions, and failed politics.
The genesis goes back to the early independence years.
Kenya's founding father and president from 1964 to 1978 was Jomo Kenyatta. He was from the largest tribe, the Kikuyu. In 1966, the Luo, then the second-largest tribe, began to complain that Kikuyu were getting all the best jobs.
The vice president, Oginga Odinga, father of current opposition leader Raila, was a Luo. Oginga said the government was becoming corrupt. He tried to start the first opposition party, but was placed under house arrest and labeled a Communist. Another popular Luo leader, Tom Mboya, was killed by a Kikuyu gunman. Luos protested in the streets. The government cracked down. People got killed. And the seeds of tribal suspicion were planted.
The ruling Kikuyu elite had vowed that power would never leave their tribe. Some of these hard-liners hold fervent beliefs about the superiority of the Kikuyus and their inherent right to govern – one that springs from their leading role in ending British colonial rule. "The other 42 ethnic groups are welcome to live in Kenya," a former cabinet minister recently told the Guardian, "but only we can rule."
Much of the postelection violence looks like tribal warfare, but it is really a mass revolt against this chauvinism. Kenya's postindependence generation cares little for tribal tags. Their quarrel is about decades of economic disparity.