Kenya’s Problems Aren’t Uniquely African

It’s not just “tribal enmity plus poverty equals violence.’

Blurry film of a policeman beating a demonstrator; a photograph of angry slum-dwellers storming a food depot; headlines featuring the word violence. That, more or less, sums up the news from Kenya, or at least the news that has filtered into our general consciousness over the last several weeks. Unless you were paying very close attention, you were probably tempted, as I was at first, to dismiss these events as yet more evidence of Africa’s ungovernability. Uganda, Rwanda, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan, Sierra Leone—tribal enmity plus poverty equals violence. Kenya is another country evolving into a failed state. Doesn’t it prove, once again, that Africa is an exception to all the rules about global development, democratization, and “progress”?

Actually, it doesn’t. In fact, the closer one looks at Kenya, the less exceptional Africa seems. What was most striking to me about the recent violence in Kenya was not how much the country resembles Rwanda, but rather how much it resembles, say, Ukraine in 2004 or South Korea in the 1980s. Perhaps the real story here is not, as one headline had it, about “The Demons That Still Haunt Africa,” but rather about how Africa is no different from anywhere else.

I am exaggerating, somewhat, to make a point. Of course Kenya is special, like all countries are special, and of course there are some notably bloody Kenyan ethnic conflicts. Kenya’s Kikuyu tribe, which constitutes about one-fifth of the country, has dominated the country’s politics and economics since independence and is profoundly resented for it. Among other things, the disturbances of recent weeks have included a wave of attacks on the Kikuyu sections of a Nairobi slum and Kikuyu-Luo violence in the Rift Valley.

But step back a few paces, remember that most countries have ethnic conflicts of one kind or another, and look at the broader picture. The immediate cause of the current unrest was not ancient ethnic hatred. The immediate cause was political. As in Ukraine, an election was held, and one of the candidates appears to have stolen it. This was no piece of subtle fakery, nor did it involve anything so legalistic as a supreme court. On the contrary, with TV cameras rolling, Kenyan paramilitary police stormed the conference center where votes were being counted—and where the challenger, Raila Odinga, was said to be ahead of the incumbent, President Mwai Kabaki—and expelled journalists and foreign observers. Soon afterward, an election official emerged to declare Kabaki the winner. Violence, apparently prepared well in advance, broke out immediately.

There will be many explanations for the viciousness of what followed, but one of them, surely, is that this particular election fraud took place at a crucial moment in Kenyan history. As any student of revolution knows, popular uprisings generally take place not in the poorest of countries, but in those that have recently grown richer. The Kenyan economy grew 6.4 percent in 2007, a figure that will rapidly translate into fewer infant deaths, better nutrition, and steadier jobs—as well as increased ambitions, both personal and political. The more hope you have for the future, the more frustrating it is to be badly governed.

And Kenya, famously, is extraordinarily badly governed. On the international “perceived corruption” rankings put together by anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, Kenya came in 150th, alongside Liberia and Sierra Leone, countries recovering from long-term civil war. Year on year, Kenyans told the organization that they pay more and more bribes. Judges are for sale, lawmaking is arbitrary, and government jobs are doled out according to ethnicity, not merit. No wonder there is widespread frustration.

Thus, there is nothing mysterious about the anger or the unrest, nothing that requires more Live Aid concerts or global outpourings of emotion, nothing especially “African” about Kenya’s problems at all. Kenya needs a cleaner, more democratic, more rule-abiding government; it needs to eliminate the licenses and regulations that create the opportunity for bribery; it needs to apply the law equally to all citizens. The West can help Kenya change these things by encouraging these values through the nature of the aid it gives and the strings attached to aid. Ultimately, though, Kenya’s political elite will have to decide what kind of country it wants its children to live in. Yes, there are cultural factors; yes, Kenya is unique; but in the end, politics, not culture, lie at the heart of the country’s current problems.