Machetes, Ethnic Conflict and Reductionism

The Dominion Paper, March 2008

Arriving back in Montreal after a brief journey to my home country of Kenya during the December elections there, I went online to get the latest updates. In the days immediately following the election on December 27th the incumbent President Kibaki stole the vote and had himself sworn in before a motley group of dejected government officials. Opposition supporters rose up to protest the rigged result. Ironically, the only source of news in Kenya before I left was the BBC. The government had banned the local media from reporting any conflict, leaving the country in a domestic media blackout.

Reading media reports from Montreal, I found myself more confused and afraid than when I was still in Kenya. According to many of these reports, my country was suddenly in the midst of a “civil war,” or even a “genocide,” not unlike the stories the media told about Rwanda in 1994. It was as if the situation could be reduced to a few violent images, like those of machete-wielding youth dancing next to burning houses.

Among the mainstream media’s favourite words when referring to the current political crisis in Kenya are “ethnic,” “chaos” and “tribal.” In its report on January 27, the Los Angeles Times carried the title “‘Tribal war’ spreads in Kenya.” The same article provided almost no historical context or explanation for how this “tribal war” was linked to the December elections, save for two paragraphs that clumsily summed up the country’s history since its independence in 1963.

The word “tribal” itself is denied specific meaning. Kenya is composed of more than 40 ethnic groups, none of which media reports have attempted to describe with any accuracy. Instead, we get scant descriptions of men from the Kalenjin or Luo ethnic groups “at war” with their Kikuyu neighbours.

Again and again, the corporate media has reduced complex political events to simple binary conflicts. In Rwanda, it is the “Hutu” versus the “Tutsi.” In Sudan– the “Arabs” versus the “Africans” or the “Muslims” versus the “Christians.” In the vast territory of the Congo, a country the size of Western Europe, the “Hema” fight against the “Lendu.”

All these groups do exist on the African continent, but not as rigidly fixed identities dating from time immemorial. Identities are complex and often fluid in nature, sometimes hardening in the crucible of political movements or colonial struggles. Simplifying every violent episode down to an “ethnic conflict” has a familiar effect: making every conflict on the African continent seem irrational, chaotic, and without historical precedent.

The BBC’s reporting is no less culpable for oversimplifications. On one of the broadcaster’s news pages, provocative quotes entice readers: “We will start the war. We will divide Kenya.” These are the words selected by the BBC to reflect the views of one Kalenjin “leader,” Jackson Kibbur. Readers relying on the BBC to find out about the Kalenjin are likely to assume that he represents the views of all Kalenjin. Elsewhere in the article, snippets that seem to have been cut and pasted from an action film are quoted in isolation. “We will of course kill them,” an interviewee is reported to have said of the Kikuyu.

This variety of sensationalism and oversimplification is not atypical of corporate media reporting from Africa. Their representations perpetuate the racist assumptions that have historically influenced western perceptions of “Africans” as barbaric, primitive and inherently destructive. Such representations also have the advantage of justifying external intervention in the region which in most cases serves to disguise many different kinds of exploitation.

Western journalists reporting on the current situation in Kenya frequently approach their work with an air of adventure and sensationalism mixed with disappointment at the direction in which Kenya is moving. Doug Miller, the host of “Amandla!” — a radio program on Montreal’s CKUT dedicated to political events in Africa — says this approach does not help readers understand what is going on.

Miller praises the Globe and Mail‘s Africa correspondent Stephanie Nolen for her “wonderful stuff on AIDS in Southern Africa,” but criticized her approach to the political crisis in Kenya. It is, he says, a “cheap thrill kind of journalism.”

Christmas day in Nairobi, Kenya. Media representations of Kenya oversimplify a complex society, emphasize violence and obscure important historical context.Photo: Zahra Moloo
Christmas day in Nairobi, Kenya. Media representations of Kenya oversimplify a complex society, emphasize violence and obscure important historical context.Photo: Zahra Moloo

“The emphasis was on her going into the ‘valley of death’ and facing these bloodthirsty warriors. It’s an awful attraction for a journalist to go out there. But is it giving us any insight into the situation? I don’t think so.”

In her article, entitled “Into the Valley of Death,” Nolen writes, “the Kenya I travelled through this week was not a country I recognized … the Kenya that was prospering and ambitious and dignified and peaceful.” Nolen is echoing a frequent refrain in the media since the conflict: that Kenya was the last remaining “democracy” — the only hope on a continent ravaged by senseless violence. In the words of one writer and according to the sentiment of many, the situation is a “tragic setback for democracy in Africa.”

Missing Colonialism and Class

Celebrated Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o has observed that the current crisis does indeed concern two tribes: not tribes based on ethnic identity, but on the divide between “the haves and the have-nots.” It is not accidental that much of the violence has taken place in Kibera, the second largest slum in Africa and also in Mathare, another collection of slums.

Writing for African news publication Pambazuka, Nunu Kidane and Walter Turner remark that the people living in Kibera and Mathare have “nothing to fear and nothing to lose.” Running battles between armed police and residents of Kibera were fought in the post-election period, while the middle-classes and elites remained largely unaffected by such conflicts. The media has neglected to report sufficiently on the heavy-handed tactics of repression used by the Kenyan police and the notorious paramilitary General Service Unit in areas like Kibera and Mathare.

Nonetheless, Kibera has attracted international attention; it is becoming increasingly popular as a venue for “slum tourism.” Reuters correspondent Andrew Cawthorne recently wrote of Kibera: “Any journalist wanting a quick Africa poverty story can find it there in half an hour.”

How, then, to make sense of the situation in Kenya while avoiding the pitfalls of sensationalistic reporting and racist assumptions?

If the media claim this is an ethnic conflict, how did it begin? When did it begin? It is important to first differentiate between the different acts of “violence” that are taking place in Kenya. Security forces are responsible for a large number of the killings. Acting on government orders immediately after the election results were announced, they have largely been operating on a shoot-to-kill policy.

Disturbing scenes of police brutality have been aired on local television. In one case, a young man in western Kisumu — a region with a large number of opposition supports — is shown taunting the police by sticking his tongue out and jumping up and down. A police officer runs toward him, shoots him from a few feet away and kicks him in the ribs. Little or none of this makes it into corporate media reports.

As “ethnic violence,” it certainly did not emerge out of nowhere, and not all members of the Kikuyu, Kalenjin and Luo communities are bent on destroying each other. But what other impression would people get when they read headlines like “Rival Kenyan tribes face off with machetes and clubs” next to photographs of black Africans holding weapons, silhouetted by the sun?

Certainly it is not ordinary Kenyans who benefit from the climate of terror stoked by politicians who manipulate ethnic differences to serve their own political agendas. They have mobilized gangs of young men, who are marginalized and cut off from any participation in the country’s economy, to target ethnic groups, thus prompting revenge attacks.

I received an alarming text message from a friend who had to leave home for fear of being targeted by members of the Kikuyu community. “Am ok,” it read, “There were revenge attacks from Kikuyus as the place is predominantly Kikuyu. Looking for another house.” The same friend was rushing to the Rift Valley three weeks ago to help evacuate members of the Kikuyu community who were being targeted by Kalenjin supporters of the opposition in the elections.

These kinds of stories — of ordinary Kenyans who are trying to help each other and who are troubled and alarmed by what is happening as the result of a power struggle between two men — are not covered by the many foreign correspondents visiting Kenya.

A notable exception to the lack of critical and accurate coverage in the corporate media was an article by author Caroline Elkins, who wrote about Kenya’s national resistance movement in her book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. Writing in the Washington Post, Elkins explains: “If you’re looking for the origins of Kenya’s ethnic tensions, look to its colonial past… we are often told that age-old tribal hatreds drive today’s conflicts in Africa. In fact, both ethnic conflict and its attendant grievances are colonial phenomena.”

In Kenya, says Elkins, the British spent much of their time trying to keep the Kikuyu and Luo divided for fear that if they united, the colonial order in the country would collapse. A Kikuyu-Luo alliance in the 1950s forced the British to release Jomo Kenyatta, who would later become the country’s first president, from a colonial detention camp and hastened the removal of the British colonial structure. But the alliance was short-lived, and the imperial “divide-and-rule” policy was applied time and again in Britain’s colonies. The policy was strong enough to create the “ethnic units” that are now playing into the hands of elites.

These same elites, carefully cultivated by the British to protect their geopolitical interests in the region, took control of the legal systems left behind that, according to Elkins, “facilitated tyranny, oppression and poverty rather than open, accountable government.”

We also have to consider the many other factors that make possible the kind of violence currently taking place. Kenya is a very poor country whose more serious troubles concern low wages, unemployment, structural poverty, lack of social security, poorly funded health and education systems and lack of access to land and resources.

Doug Miller of “Amandla!” says, “It is no wonder that the structural poverty imposed on Africa throughout history has created an underclass of young people who have no hope and no future. Many people are getting an education but there is nowhere to go with it.”

“The economies have been undermined by world capitalism. Even if you do what they say and you grow tobacco or something, you get crap prices and you can’t live off what you do as a farmer. What this is about is people with no access to resources in a country where they can’t do anything and a rich person can come by with any amount of money and mobilize them into what I call ‘the army of the unemployed.'”

It is these armies of disenfranchised youth that have been mobilized to set Kenyan against Kenyan. Understanding the origins for their exclusion will bring us closer to transcending the stereotypes that dominate Western media reportage, and perhaps a little closer to envisioning a resolution.