A few thoughts about ethnic polarization in Kenya as we wait on the ICC

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I want to touch here briefly on what I have seen and heard in regard to ethnic “issues”–prejudice, discrimination, suspicion, solidarity, hate speech, and such–in Kenya.

An important thing for outsiders to realize is how complex, and deliberately obscured, these things are in Kenyan politics–and how much of what is said in popular fora in the United States is at least misleading if not flatly wrong factually and in some cases deliberately malicious. (I have finally just now brought myself to read the whole Chapter 4 on “Kenya, Odinga, Communism and Islam” in Jerome Corsi’s book The Obama Nation which was published shortly after I returned from Kenya in the summer of 2008 during the American presidential campaign.  It was a major bestseller and thousands of Americans may have read more about Kenyan politics in that chapter than they have ever read elsewhere over their lifetimes.  Corsi has a Ph.D in Political Science from Harvard, so he is certainly credentialed far beyond me, and he is way too smart to get into the “birther” nonsense that captivated so many American politicians for a few years, but he paints a picture of the Kenyan election and the post election violence that is very much at odds with my understanding and experience, as well as anything I heard expressed internally at the International Republican Institute, or through my family’s church in Kenya or from our missionary friends or at my children’s missionary supported school.  In other words, malicious.)

One of the most important and interesting things that I have learned (so far) from my Freedom of Information Act requests to the State Department relating to observation of the 2007 Kenyan election was that the Ambassador’s staff reported to him and up the chain during the campaign that while there was hate speech showing up on both sides of the ODM/Odinga and PNU/Kibaki contest, the greater weight of it was directed against Odinga.  This surprised me because I had relatively limited separate interaction with anyone else at the State Department besides the Ambassador and his personal approach and attitude in my dealings with him certainly gave no hint of this background from his staff in the context of his tactics in addressing the Kenyan campaign.

The bottom line here is there is plenty of this “negative ethnicity” to go around and most of it you will never see in the newspaper or otherwise in the media–even in Kenya, much less of course internationally.  My personal experiences before the election in 2007 involved going to lunch with young middle class professional Kenyans–essentially strangers to me–who would openly and unashamedly if privately express the type of stereotypes about members of other tribes that you or I might hear in a private club in New Orleans about “the blacks” (if you are “white like me” anyway).

The attacks on Kikuyu in parts of the Rift Valley that underlie the ICC charges against Ruto and Sang were sick and sickening (as were those in 1992 and 1997) and so were the attacks in Naivasha and elsewhere that underlie the ICC charges against Kenyatta.  So was the post election violence in Nairobi and Kisumu and other places that were not covered in the ICC charges. The families in Nairobi that I knew that suffered personally from the violence in those early weeks of 2008 were from various “tribes”.  The families that sheltered in our compound happened to be Luhya and Luo; my staff were diverse but Kikuyu were more represented than others.  All of us who were there are all colored emotionally I am sure by our personal experiences in that searing time.

Whether Ocampo as ICC prosecutor used good judgment choosing to bring charges against only six individuals as “most responsible” I do not have enough information to evaluate.  To be frank, there are aspects of Ocampo’s approach as a lawyer and public figure during those last years of his tenure at the ICC that I am not personally enthused about.  To be fair, as a real man and a real lawyer, he was never going to be as “big” as so many Kenyans looked for him to be when they were painting his picture on matatus and such, and he realistically never had any chance for more than some very small success against the dragon of impunity in Kenya.  Just as the Government of Kenya was never really going to prosecute the post election killers, the Government of Kenya was never really going to cooperate with the prosecution by the ICC.  Now we will have to see if the Trial Chamber is willing to pursue enforcement of the Government’s obligations or not.

Personally, I am not inclined to believe that the facts of the charges against the remaining three ICC defendants are based on either mistaken identity, or on some massive international conspiracy to frame them.  I could be wrong of course.  As far as Uhuru, I tend to credit the observation of a Kikuyu friend who said “I don’t support Raila, but its an open secret” that Uhuru did the gist of what he is accused of doing.  I heard things about these matters in Nairobi in “real time” in early 2008 from the same types of general discussion that covered a lot of other important information that you won’t ever see in a Kenyan newspaper.  But all hearsay.  Maybe if the cases are dismissed, someday we will find out who really did it.

The most important question though is whether Kenyans want to treat each other differently badly enough to change the underlying kind of prejudice that makes a dangerous minority of Kenyans vulnerable to the hate speech from the politicians who will continue to use it until it stops working for them. Better democracy and effective governance for broader development in Kenya will depend on this change.

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