Expect US Africa policy to be led from Pentagon rather than State Department or White House, in near term if not for the next four years [updated]

(https://flic.kr/p/6fgHxc)

The President himself has never been to Africa and has shown no particular interest or inclination toward engagement on any of the various issues on his plate regarding the United States’ activities in and relationships with African countries.

In some respects this suggests a level of continuity through inertia that is unavailable in those areas to which Trump has some personal connection or exposure through his business organization or personal relationships (Russia on one hand and Mexico on the other, for instance).

Trump seems to be networked into the Safari Club and is politically very much indebted to Franklin Graham (the  American evangelist/missionary who has been especially engaged in Sudan and otherwise in Africa) but I don’t think that this will put much claim on Trump’s attention, as he already ordered a cutoff in U.S. funding to organizations that separately have connections to programs touching on abortion (a significantly broadened approach to the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations’ rules) as an early low cost “deliverable” to “pro-life” supporters on an issue he doesn’t personally have any particular feelings or opinions on. [Graham does not make specific candidate campaign endorsements–my perception of his influence for Trump is subjective from my vantage point as a white Southern American Protestant, who has been involved in congregational mission efforts that include support for one of Graham’s programs.]

Trump did not get where he is by building a reputation for paying his debts (any more than for forgiving his debtors), so I will be surprised, pleasantly, if Graham were to influence Trump on non-abortion related health issues that involved spending rather than cutting, like famine relief or other things that had some political purchase under “compassionate conservatism” in Africa during the G.W. Bush administration.

Trump is pretty clearly anti-conservation domestically and probably disinclined to have anything much to do with things involving wildlife or the environment in Africa other than to reduce funding for any direct or international programming in these areas, Safari Club notwithstanding.  Generally speaking my big game hunter friends are more concerned about wealth accumulation and tax cutting–Trump’s policies will leave them net ahead even with a likely loss of habit and species diversity (and better situated to buy private reserves).  Along with the expected big overall aid cuts, I would speculate that  conservation programs may be especially attractive targets to “zero out” to give Congress political bragging rights for some program “kills”.

So outside the military and Department of Defense we will probably see Trump to be as slow to fill key policy positions on Africa as Obama was, but with more turnover in the next tiers of the bureaucracy.

Because the Defense Department has already been the big repository of funding to maintain policy expertise in the U.S. on Africa (as elsewhere) during the Bush/Obama years, as funds and political bandwidth are reduced in other areas, we will be more dependent on those functions under the portfolio of Secretary Gen. Mattis at the Pentagon.  It is very fortunate that he stands out as unusually well-qualified and genuinely respected.

In the event any of the major players in the hospitality/tourism/”conferencing” business–say the Kenyatta family of Kenya–were to entice the Trump Organization into their market, certainly that would be expected to profoundly change everything I have observed here.

In that regard, perhaps we will see “The Scramble for Trump” as a new frame for engagement in the post-development era.

What to read about the ivory burn

Image

Don’t get me wrong, I hope some great good for conservation comes out of the burn this time. From a global perspective, perhaps the spectacular publicity can in fact matter in the future and in the big picture Kenya is a small place and fodder for the larger good. That’s really beyond my scope in this blog.

For understanding the event as it relates to Kenya and elephants and conservation and government in Kenya, please read Owaahh: The Politics of Ivory and Fire.

Gathara’s World: Burning Ivory, Burying Elephants: How the Government of Kenya Harms the Conservation Cause.

Why Botswana will not burn illegal ivory

“The West” is not a Country either–the U.S. and U.K. do not have the same interests in Kenya

The Star reports that:

President Uhuru Kenyatta is set to hold talks with UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron during his three day visit, the first to a western capital since his election.

Human rights activists in the UK are reportedly organising to hold demonstrations to protest what they say is a ‘hypocritical manner’ manner in which the British government has made a U-turn against in its stand towards the Kenyan government.

In the U.K., unlike in the U.S., the Kenyan election stirred a significant discussion in the national legislature, in this case the House of Commons. Here is the link to the Hansard or transcript from March 20.

The biggest difference in interests is that Kenya, a British colony within the lifetimes of current political leaders, is important to the British economy. Kenya is not very important to the U.S. economy. It might be someday, and the U.S. would notionally like to be more engaged economically in East Africa, and not only because the Chinese are; nonetheless, as of today the level of trade and investment is not a higher order immediate interest for the United States.

Further, in the global system that the U.S. has helped create, the U.S. does not really have the same relationships to even the largest companies that may be headquartered in the U.S. as the British and some other European nations still have with their business champions. Not to say that the State Department doesn’t want to sell Boeing v. Airbus, but there is no American equivalent of BAE, for example. Further, it is British rather than American companies that are the key players in Kenya in banking and finance, tea, horticulture, tobacco, printing, public relations consulting, etc.

As of the last few years, roughly 60% of the roughly 5,000 Americans living in Kenya, according to the State Department, were connected to missionary work. The British, not as much as far as I know. Moreover, there are perhaps five times as many British passport holders in Kenya as Americans.

The United States has a reported official established presence of more than two dozen federal agencies in Kenya, so we do have interests, but they are heavily weighted toward “global” security matters, along with international crime/drugs, etc., and what we might call diplomatic and security logistics. In other words, it is convenient for people to locate in and transit out of Nairobi to support a variety of functions that don’t relate uniquely to Kenya. Its an easier place to fly in and out of and has lifestyle appeal, along with being a locus of the same type of thing for people in other agencies, from other governments and international organizations. It is not that this geographic interest doesn’t matter, its just that it really is not of first order importance. A lot of the aid programs that we conduct in Kenya could easily be moved to other countries that are even more in need if less convenient, for instance.

When al Qaeda wanted to attack Americans and U.S. interests in East Africa, they bombed our Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania–not some critical infrastructure or something or someplace else that the Embassies are there to protect.

Kenya is a tourist destination with direct flights of modest duration from the U.K., but still no U.S. direct flights. In the U.S., Kenya is on the tourism “map” along with other various other locations in Africa, but at a much lower relative level; the British are Kenya’s greatest source of tourists. The British newspapers cover Kenya in a completely different way, and to a much greater extent, than American papers.

I have referred to Kenya as Americans’ favorite African country, but this is within the context of the whole “Africa is a Country” perception problem. It was one of the British princes who had the bad form to be quoted to the effect that “Americans don’t do geography”. The British still know their way around their former empire and distinguish Kenya from its neighbors much more readily than do Americans.

Certainly the British MPs wax eloquent about the key importance of training the British military in Kenya, noting that this was said to have played a major role in allowing Britain to mount its Falklands Islands operations some thirty years ago. Of course, realistically, the UK military in this century is primarily derivative and it is hard to see that the world would be so much different if the British had to train in one of the other former colonies–the U.S. for instance–instead of in Kenya. Military training in Kenya is surely good for British political and military morale, but i think it is the economic issues that really make Kenya uniquely important for the UK, whereas for the U.S. the scales tip overwhelming to the “security” direction.

Obviously the International Criminal Court is another area of difference. The British are members, along with other Western European nations, whereas the U.S. is with the Chinese and Russians in standing outside (whether we are nominally favorable or nominally derogatory seems to depend on which of our parties is in power but we seem to have a fixed commitment to stay out). In this sense, the election of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto is in one particular respect inconvenient for the British in a way that is not as challenging for the United States, but given the ordinary primacy of the specific over the general, and the immediate dollar or pound over longer term security in democratic politics, it is not really surprising that the UK has been more aggressive and quicker in seeking publicly to “get right” with Uhuru Kenyatta following his elevation to the Kenyan Presidency than has the United States.

At Easter, chicks come home to roost for U.S. for helping to underwrite impunity in Kenya; but “we” do not need Uhuruto

The United States looked the other way on a stolen 2007 election in Kenya.

Even though our Ambassador himself saw the changed tally forms at the Electoral Commission in Nairobi. We supported a “settlement” that created a temporary prime minister spot, without defined authority, for the apparent winner (not only did the exit poll done at the instance of the Ambassador and funded by USAID show a substantial win for the opposition candidate Odinga, but a separate State Department analysis in January concluded “advantage Raila.”).  “We” nonetheless called on Kenyans to accept the “results”. While we withdrew our congratulations to Kibaki and later asserted that we did not know who won, we were not willing to be publicly honest about what “we” had seen at the ECK as well as what else we did know.

To help pressure for a settlement, we eventually issued “visa ban” letters to three members of the Electoral Commission on the basis of evidence of bribery–but we never revealed this fact or the evidence–it only came to light through stolen cables published in the Daily Nation years later.

We rejected accountability for election theft–thus supporting impunity in this regard.  We supported, in concept, justice for the the post-election killings and mayhem. We had a hybrid position; let’s call it “limited, modified impunity”. Of course, the reality is that our supposed solution of “local tribunals” in Kenya for the post-election violence was always a complete pipe dream under the “power sharing” government we helped broker because that government was never going to implement any such thing.

Thus the role of the International Criminal Court as a last resort due to the initiative of the commission led by Justice Waki to provide the names to the ICC as a fallback.  We should pat ourselves on the back, I suppose, for helping to pay for the commission at least. Likewise, we have over the subsequent years now declined to go along with the aggressive activities of the Government of Kenya in requesting action from the UN Security Council to squelch the ICC’s prosecution, so we have at least refused to stand in the way of the ICC.  At the same time, we haven’t seemed to accomplish anything very noticeable on the protection of witnesses and the other core issues that enshrine impunity in Kenya.

Now, just like in 2007, we have helped pay for another flawed election, this time one which has ended up with a victory for the ticket of “Uhuruto” composed of the two leading politicians charged by the ICC for allegedly having key responsibility for the instrumental political killings of 2008. While it appears plausibly that Uhuruto on March 4 had a higher percentage of support than did Kibaki in 2007, it is also clear that there were substantial irregularities in the handling of the election, over a period of many months, by the “new and improved” IEBC–which was in fact caught even within the Kenya government itself, engaging in unlawful procurement corruption in regard to key technology–technology which was supposed to provide safeguards against the shambolic 2007 tallying process, but failed to be deployed or work.

So after an extraordinary sum of perhaps $240M was spent on an election with only somewhere around 14M registered voters (not sure exactly how many since the register was a series of 33,400 separate paper print outs which were reported by the IEBC to be unavailable for review in the Supreme Court)–we ended up with the same manual count fiasco as in 2007.  More system purchases were more opportunities to “eat”, not more reliability.

The IEBC was perceived as being corrupted on both sides instead of stacked completely only on one side like the ECK last time–but there was no one individual trusted like Kivuitu to let everyone down this time. In one respect that helped diffuse the prospect of violence because the voters this time were much more subdued and had lower expectations–and knew what could happen. And there were some other things different this time based on lower expectations from the “international community”–the observer groups spoke out early to bless the IEBC before it was anywhere close to completing its tally and gave it some cover for whatever it would chose to do. Last time, only IRI really did that–and it was rightly criticized for doing so as the count became problematic.  This time, private conversation before the election about what to say hearkened back to what observers had said in the first full blown observations of Kenya’s first multi-party elections in 1992 under Moi–the terminology “reflects the will of the Kenyan people” as a way to say the process run by the Government of Kenya could not stand scrutiny but the official candidate had a plurality anyway. The difference being that this time Kenyans had passed a new Constitution that was supposed to end the old first-past-the-post system in favor of a runoff-to-majority that meant that the opposition did not have to unite behind one candidate ahead of time to have any chance against a minority candidate supported by the State.

The U.S. knew, and Kibaki and his supporters, including Uhuru Kenyatta, knew that in 2007 we gave the Government of Kenya a pass on election rigging.  This time we didn’t step in and blow the whistle on procurement corruption or otherwise as the process moved towards its unsuccessful conclusion–and we gave the powers that be in Kenya no real reason so far as I know to believe that we had really changed the terms of the deal from 2007.

Now we have another incoherent vote count, but everyone is relieved that major violence did not erupt.  The new Electoral Commission argued to the Supreme Court that the Court could not set aside the IEBC’s pronounced premature results on the basis of the irregularities that had been revealed so far, or the known uncertainties, because to do so would create a constitutional crisis–the only way to have another election would be to use the same flawed register and the same flawed Electoral Commission itself.  In other words, the Court did not, according to the IEBC, really have the power to challenge its work and its decision which was now fait accompli.  The Court announced its ruling–at the last allowable moment (a few hours later than the two weeks permitted if it were as strict with itself as it was with those before it)–yet could not muster any explanation or reasoning whatsoever.  It declared itself to have the power, and to be exercising it, to ratify the IEBC’s result, but either couldn’t agree on why or was not comfortable saying until a future date–after the swearing in.

The bottom line here is that the United States has been helping to underwrite failure in Kenya for too long.  We got taken for a ride–again.  We ought to have more self respect.

The British government has groveled to “get right” with an incoming Uhuruto administration, but we simply do not need to do so.

We provide a disproportionate amount of aid to Kenya–officially roughly a Billion U.S. Dollars each year–unofficiallly I am sure there is more; not to mention extensive private aid that also helps alleviate the suffering of Kenyans left adrift by the corruption and bad priorities of their governments.  As far as I can see, we spend a lot of money in Kenya for sentimental rather than legitimate programmatic reasons.  And the restaurants and resorts are more upscale and Kenya is more oriented for tourism accompanying official travel and postings.  But a lot of the tourist infrastructure is owned by the Kenyatta and Moi families themselves.  We ought to grow up and take our responsibilities more seriously.

What has all this spending been adding up to aside from bad elections?  Kenya’s Human Development Index score for 2000 was .513 for a “Medium Human Development” ranking of 134th among the scored countries.  The 2012 score was .519, for a rank of 145th.  Among the 45 “Low Human Development” countries Kenya stands out, along with Zimbabwe for having by far the highest “Mean Years of Schooling”.  Yes, from 2000 to 2012 Kenya’s GDP per capita increased by roughly fifty percent–it just didn’t result in much relative overall human development progress for the country as a whole.

The Cold War has been over for almost 25 years.  What we have been doing has not been working very well and we can do better.

(Updated) Kenyan diaspora disenfranchised?; Kwamchetsi Makokha raises concern about Kenyan voter education; IFES seeks consultant

Update (Nov. 28):  IEBC Chair Isaac Hassan says that as an independent commission the IEBC will make its own decision about whether to cancel diaspora voting and is not bound by the Cabinet decision announced below.  He acknowledged that registration is not underway and that this part of the vote is in jeopardy.

“Kenyans in diaspora locked out of March election” Business Daily:

Kenyans in the diaspora will not vote in the March 4 General Election, the Cabinet decided last Thursday.

Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister Eugene Wamalwa said the government decided that it will be impossible for Kenyans living abroad to vote owing to challenges facing the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.

Mr Wamalwa said time and logistical constraints will not allow IEBC to register Kenyans in the diaspora. . . .

It’s been almost 2 1/2 years since the new constitution finally passed, providing for a right to vote for Kenyans living in the diaspora.  I am no big fan of the concept myself, but this is the law and I don’t see any unexpected challenges or difficulties in implementing it.

“Step up voter education, IEBC told” Daily Nation:

National Democracy Institute (NDI) consultant Kwamchetsi Makokha said on Tuesday the three months set for civic education was not enough to reach eligible voters.

“The period is not enough to reach the whole population. So many people know nothing about the devolved government and roles of the leaders,” he said. . . . during the launch of a sub-committee of the Political Parties Liaison Committee in Lamu.

I’ve heard elsewhere that there is significant lack of awareness by voters as to the nature of new positions up for election under devolved government under the new constitution.

In the meantime, IFES, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, is advertising for an Election Administration Advisor for Kenya:

In preparation for the 2013 elections, IFES is implementing a capacity-building program in support of Kenya’s electoral process in the areas of election technical support, voter registration, voter education, and election dispute resolution among others.

Under this short-term assignment, IFES seeks to support the integration of activities of other government and non-government organizations, who play critical roles in the electoral process, including but not limited to the Registrar of Political Parties, Political Parties and Candidates, Security Agencies, the Judiciary, Civil Society Organization, Religious Organization, and the Media.

Mudslides, Terrorism and Tourism

The death toll rose to three from the grenade attack on a nightclub north of Mombasa Sunday. In the meantime, in the Mt. Elgon region, on the Ugandan side of the border, there are 18 confirmed deaths from this season’s current mudslides, with 450 missing.

The Kenyan government protested the U.S. warning about a threat of attack in Mombasa as “economic sabotage” given the obvious potential impact on tourism, as well as a “betrayal of trust”, while insisting that it was ahead of the game and fully cooperating with U.S. agencies to stop any such planned attacks. Contrary to some initial reactions on twitter, the local bar attack was clearly not the kind of event that the American Embassy was warning about.

At the same time, Mombasa residents have accused security agencies, especially the National Intelligence Security Services (NSIS), of sleeping on the job.

“As residents of Mombasa, we are disturbed by these attacks which are occurring without any arrests. The police should work around the clock and arrest people suspected to have committed the incident,” said Mr Abdul Abdulla.

Since Kenya sent troops to Somalia last October, a series of explosions have rocked Nairobi, Mombasa and North Eastern region in what is believed to be retaliatory attacks by the Al-Shabaab.

Meanwhile, some American and British tourists on Monday down-played the travel advisory, saying the country was safe.

Mr Kevin Schmidt from California, USA, has been in the country for three weeks and said: “A lot of it is precautionary, they (US government) want to make sure everybody is informed,” he said.

“Man arrested over attack at drinking den,” Mark Agutu in the Daily Nation.

The bigger terrorism issue relates to the seizure of bomb making materials tracked to the port from Iraq and the arrest of two suspects thought to be Iranian.

U.S. Embassy warns of imminent threat of terrorist attack in Mombasa

From the Saturday Nation:

The United States has ordered its government officials to leave the Kenyan city of Mombasa over an “imminent threat of a terrorist attack.”

The US also suspended all government travel to the coastal city until July 1.

“This is to alert all US citizens in Kenya, or planning to travel to Kenya in the near future, that the US Embassy in Nairobi has received information of an imminent threat of a terrorist attack in Mombasa, Kenya,” read a statement issued by the Embassy Saturday.

“All US government travel to Mombasa is suspended until July 1, 2012.  All US government personnel are required to leave Mombasa.”

However, the Embassy said US private citizens were not affected by the travel advisory but “should consider this information in their travel planning”.

On Wednesday, two containers tracked from Iraq by international police were traced to the yards of a container freight station (CFS) in Mombasa.

This seems to be getting bigger coverage in the international media than in Kenya’s media so far.

“Land Conflict and Distributive Politics in Kenya” (or “What to Expect When We’re Expecting an Election”?)

Dr. Catherine Boone at the University of Texas has a timely and important new paper just out from the African Studies Review that I highly recommend in this election season:

Abstract:

This paper argues that even with the incorporation of land policy provisions into Kenya’s new constitution, there is every reason to believe that in the near future, highly politicized land conflict will continue. This is because land politics in Kenya is a redistributive game that creates winners and losers. Given the intensely redistributive potential of the impending changes in Kenya’s land regime—and the implications of the downward shift in the locus of control over land allocation through decentralization of authority to county governments—there is no guarantee that legislators or citizens will be able to agree on concrete laws to realize the constitution’s calls for equity and justice in land matters. This article traces the main ways in which state power has been used to distribute and redistribute land (and land rights) in the Rift Valley, focusing on post-1960 smallholder settlement schemes, land-buying companies, and settlement in the forest reserves, and it highlights the long-standing pattern of political contestation over the allocation of this resource. It then traces the National Land Policy debate from 2002 to 2010, focusing on the distributive overtones and undertones of the policy and of the debate over the new constitution that incorporated some of its main tenets.

————————————-

The land provisions of Kenya’s 2010 constitution call for the establishment of a new National Land Board answerable to Parliament, and the enactment of sweeping parliamentary legislation to enact a National Land Policy that is based on principles of justice and equity. It is heartening to view this as a clear advance over the highly politicized and often demonstrably corrupt land regime that has prevailed since the early 1960s (if not before). It is encouraging to think of Kenya’s smallholders and other land-users as a vast national constituency with a shared interest . . . Yet even if all or most Kenyans would benefit in the long run from clean implementation of democratically chosen land laws, there is reason to believe that in the near future, at least, highly politicized land conflict will continue.

 

This is because land politics in Kenya is first and foremost a redistributive game that creates winners and losers. . .  .

.  .  .  .

Unlike land politics in many African countries, which often centers on the use and abuse of ostensibly customary authority (and is thus “repressed” or bottled-up at the local level), the major land disputes in much of Kenya
are focused on how the power of the central state has been used to allocate land (see Boone 2011b). Struggles over land are therefore played out as struggles to capture or retain state power. This makes the national public sphere a prime theater of land conflict.

.  .  .  .

Approximately fifteen hundred people were killed and three hundred thousand were displaced in the 1991–93 and 1997 election periods. Deaths and displacements of approximately the same magnitude occurred in postelection violence in 2008 (although some observers argue that up to five thousand people were killed at that time).2  Much of the world press reported these episodes as outbursts of ethnic violence. A deeper look confirms that for grassroots participants in many localities, the political issue at stake was not ethnic power per se, or as an end in itself. Rather, as Throup and Hornsby (1998:555) put it, “land ownership remained at the core of the argument.” Opportunistic politicians manipulated local issues and fomented violence for electoral gain, but the tensionsthey manipulated were, to a large extent, land-related and long-standing. These tensions, their origins and persistence, and how they cleaved rural society in the Rift Valley are the focus of the present analysis.  .  .  .

Kenya: Today’s Presidential Announcement of Tullow Oil Drilling Find in Turkana (several weeks ago) Coincides with News of Major Cabinet Shakeup

“Kenya Strikes Oil in Turkana”, Capital FM

NAIROBI, Kenya, Mar 26 – After years of prospecting, Kenya has finally made a breakthrough by striking oil in Turkana County in the north, with focus now shifting to exploring its commercial viability.

The discovery of the light, waxy oil was made in a half-way drilled Ngamia-1 exploration well, raising expectations that there could be huge reserves once the total depth of 2,700 metres is reached.

“The well has been drilled to an initial depth of 1,041 metres and it will continue to a total depth of about 2,700 metres to explore for deeper potential in this prospect,” Energy Minister Kiraitu Murungi said at a press briefing.

President Mwai Kibaki was the first to break the news earlier in the day. . . . .

The Nation’s “Big Story” is on the Cabinet.

The reshuffle seems hugely consequential in Kenya’s election year politics:  it certainly appears that Kibaki has made a large gesture toward realigning the Cabinet toward the “G7 Alliance” which has lingered as both the primary political vehicle to advocate for Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto against the ICC and most visible successor to much of the PNU apparatus from 2007-08.

The most prominent moves as explained by “A Political Kenya 2012”:

Eugene Wamalwa – Minister for Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs
– Biggest winner as the docket will promote him to the senior most politician in Western province and probably check Musalia Mudavadi’s rising star
– He is an Ocampo 4 sympathiser
– Was once linked to president Kibaki’s son (Jimmy Kibaki) 2012 campaign as his prefered presidential candidate.
– Also seen as a compromise candidate for the G7 alliance
Mutula Kilonzo – Minister of Education
– Demotion from Minister for Justice Minister for Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs despite having delivered a new constitution which many previous justice ministers failed to do
– Punished for being an ardent Ocampo 4 Critic and for not toeing the ODM Kenya line

Also, Moses Wetangala has been demoted from Foreign Affairs to Trade (just after finally getting out of Bamako following the Malian coup).  This would seem to tie in to advancing Eugene Wamalwa as Luhya political leader in Western Province to the detriment of Deputy PM and announced ODM candidate Musalia Mudavidi.  On the ODM side, Najib Balala is the only Minister completely sacked, losing Tourism.  The Coast figure has been at odds with Raila Odinga for much of Kibaki’s second term in and openly expressed “seller’s remorse” for supporting Raila irrespective of his status as a member of the “Pentagon” from the 2007 campaign.

And no change in status for Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta as he continues to fight the prospect of facing ICC trial and to rally ethnic support in Central Province.

The political establishment in Kenya will not be easily moved in the 2012 elections, now most likely ending up to be in 2013 through a complicated series of legal wickets for which no one has claimed responsibility and for which there is no obvious popular support.  I hope it is finally dawning of any doubters that the Government of Kenya as an institution is quite mobilized on balance to try to stop the ICC, as it has been–and not in favor of any substitute local justice mechanism.

The political stakes continue to rise and the prospect of oil money on the near term horizon if anything raises them more.  If nothing else, there will be a lot of pressure to do oil deals for campaign funding.

“KONY2012”: Bigger than “Out of Africa”, and probably better

More than a week ago I promised my daughter a post about KONY2012.  Seeing as how I changed her life by moving her to Kenya for the seventh grade four years ago I allowed that this was a reasonable request, and agreed to do my best (even though I was inclined to not to write on the subject otherwise).

In the meantime, I agreed to lead a Sunday School discussion about the video for this morning, so I had to work through how to address the complexity of issues in a very brief overview for a general audience of my contemporaries who are not “East Africa junkies” who would read this blog, but who came to the issue initially primarily as parents of children impacted by an unusual and interesting cultural phenomenon in the form of this video that “went viral” in an unprecedented way.

From a Sunday School perspective, we talked briefly after watching the video about our responsibilities to be aware of things going on with “our neighbors” in the world and finding effective ways to respond. We were struck by the notion that our children were being reached and moved, and in some cases perhaps manipulated in different ways with Facebook and YouTube, etc. as opposed to what we grew up with. We touched on the issues about lobbying for a specific military response to a unique situation involving several countries. And we certainly recognized and appreciated the talent applied to making a video that had us all thinking and talking about Uganda and the DRC, Sudan and South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

Recognizing the video as aimed primarily at an American audience with ancillary worldwide distribution in our spontaneously globalized communication sphere may help to see this in a different way that I think might be constructive. It’s a viewpoint that I eventually stumbled into after reading a lot of Ugandan, aid-focused, “Africanist,” marketing, tech and media commentary–much of which is important and useful, but left me unsatisfied as well.

If we look at this as a Southern California American film about East Africa, and compare it to Out of AfricaThe Constant Gardener and The Last King of Scotland, maybe we can appreciate the genius of the use of the medium in a way that has captivated so many millions of people, a way that is a little more current, and aspires to accomplish something more.

Of the cultural events in the United States in my lifetime that have some real connection to East Africa, “Obama2008” is surely the biggest, but “KONY2012” has eclipsed the big one from back in my day, the 1985 Sydney Pollack film Out of Africa starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. Romanticized nostalgia for a whitewashed version of European colonialism in Kenya with two of Hollywood’s biggest and most appealing stars had some real influence, and still does to this day. The image is good for American tourism to Kenya–so from a “chamber of commerce” viewpoint this has been in a way positive–there is money to be made from this nostalgia.   But it was probably a setback toward getting Americans to grant full agency to black Kenyans and indirectly contributed to the depersonalization that facilitated our support for the “one party state” of Moi, continuing right up through the problem of Kenya’s “Invisible Voters” in the 2007 election.

For Americans of a certain age,Out of Africa is right there along with Born Free and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom in our images of East Africa.  Robert Redford alongside Ernest Hemingway.  By the mid-80s we had started to really settle on heroic images for the leadership of the civil rights movement in the United States–if Hollywood had produced a blockbuster about the Kenyan democracy movement instead of a European story set in colonial fields, some of us might have been inspired rather than just charmed and entertained.

In The Constant Gardener, a more fictionalized but topical LeCarre story, we have flawed but sensitive and aware white Europeans trying to fight the evil designs of their fellow outsiders in Kenya and the region. We even see Kibera and dance the dance and feel the vibe. But of course it is all doomed to failure.  None of that naive “new world” hope here, thank you.

In The Last King of Scotland, we move to Uganda, so in a sense we are getting warmer, and invent a white character to interact with the snippets of past history of African debauchery because that’s easier than imagining a Ugandan who could really tell us about all this, and in whom we will be as interested.

KONY2012 comes in at slightly under 30 minutes, so its quite a bit shorter than these full length feature films. But it’s more ambitious and packs a punch. It has been seen by millions and motivated thousands of those to actually read and learn something about Uganda and bordering countries today. It addresses a strange situation in which Congress passed legislation and the administration has sent U.S. troops to chase a foreign “warlord”. Most Americans were apparently completely unaware that this had even happened, and millions more now know. Sure, the video is going to strike Ugandans as patronizing (I live in Mississippi, so I know about being patronized, and how tiresome it can be, as well as the pain of an image that accentuates the worst and the past rather than the present and ignores the trajectory), but in the context of “Hollywood” film, KONY2012 can also been seen as representing some significant generational progress. We are only 18 years after apartheid and 27 years after Out of Africa. The filmmakers themselves may not be master strategists of conflict resolution and criminal justice, international relations and aid effectiveness–but there is surely here some authentic spark of passion that does recognize a common humanity with the victims of violence that when shared seems to be something more hopeful.  Something that this upcoming generation can chose to be inspired by and make use of.

And do check out the LRA Crisis Tracker alongside this academic article, “Culture, Cultivation and Colonialism in Out of Africa and Beyond.”