Today’s deal brokered by Kofi Annan to resolve the disputed Kenyan election resolves for the moment the central obstacle to emerging democracies in Africa: ethnicity. In Kenya, a political crisis quickly became an ethnic one. Why? Because ethnic identification has held deep significance for African politics since the end of colonialism when tribal identities, if not created, were nurtured as part of the European strategy of divide and rule.
As we have observed in Kenya over the past two months, absent the rule of law, Kenyans showed almost no unity based on nationality or class, moving as if almost by default to expressions of ethnic solidarity and hatred. In the U.S. the idea of race has worked in much the same way and it is only now some 230 odd years later that there is the possibility that some of our worst racial divisions might begin to heal.
As the Kenyan example shows, African democrats have long viewed democracy as a zero-sum game of majority rules—as in the ethnic group with the most votes gets to subjugate other ethnic groups. Nowhere was Madison’s warning on the danger of factions more appropriate than for African politics. Yet, the western media was quick to make of Kenya another Rwanda, whose antecedents were both deeper and more pernicious than the situation in Kenya. Nevertheless, Kenya is further proof that modern Africa has always been light on coherent political ideologies that accent individual citizenship over common ethnic descent. Frantz Fanon wrote, “Decolonization is the veritable creation of new men…the ‘thing’ which has been colonized becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself.” Unfortunately, Africa will never be fully decolonized until ethnic unity takes a back seat to national unity and the rights of minorities, whether ethnic or political, are held as sacrosanct.