Flames In Kenya


The recent elections and post-election riots in Kenya bring forward great sorrow and also give one pause. Is this another situation where Africans tear each other apart, one may ask? How is it that people who have lived next to one another can go after each other in what appears to be the wink of an eye?


As odd as it may sound, I found myself, in reading about the Kenya crisis, thinking about an episode from Rod Serling’s legendary TV series The Twilight Zone. The episode is called “The Monsters are due on Maple Street” and it involves a power failure in a neighborhood that cuts the community off from the outside world and is completely inexplicable. A particular home, however, seems to continue to receive power. The family in that home has kept very much to themselves and has not been interacting with their neighbors. Suspicions fly that this family is either somehow connected to the power failure or knows something that they are not telling. The neighborhood ultimately erupts into violence. At the end of the episode, it turns out that aliens were behind the power failure, testing whether they can get humans to destroy themselves.

In periods of scarce and declining resources, people can fall prey to the worst side of humanity. Their deepest suspicions, fears and jealousies can arise, not to mention pent up feelings concerning injustice. Thus, in Kenya, after years of oppressive rule, a pro-democracy coalition, led by current President Mwai Kibaki, took power. This coalition included the active support of current opposition leader Raila Odinga. One major demand of a significant portion of this coalition was for a democratizing of resources, specifically, guaranteeing that all ethnic groups/tribes are treated fairly and equitably.

President Kibaki’s administration has turned out to be a major disappointment for members of non-Kikuyu tribes who have complained that the Kikuyus are the chief beneficiaries of his rule. It was in that context that Odinga organized and led an opposition movement challenging President Kibaki. Until the day of the elections, pollsters indicated that Odinga would more than likely win the election.

Yet, he did not win.

It was at that point that Kenya exploded. What is significant about the explosion, however, is not that there was anger at the alleged voter fraud that resulted in President Kibaki’s re-election (note: charges were made by international observers that the election process and results were questionable), but that the anger evolved into displays of ethnic violence rather than violence between pro-democracy vs. anti-democracy forces.

Vijay Prashad’s recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New Press People’s History), helps to provide a framework in which to understand the situation. The independence movements in the colonial world largely resulted in the creation of nation-states that made a very incomplete break with their former colonial masters. Even in cases where they would use the word “socialism” to describe the path they were taking, there was rarely a radical redistribution of wealth and power within these new nation-states. In many cases, dominant ethnic groups from the colonial period continued to dominate, or in the alternative, massive resentment against formerly dominant ethnic groups (that were seen as collaborating with or in general benefiting from colonial rule) resulted in massive, genocidal or near genocidal violence (e.g., Rwanda). This situation was exacerbated in Africa and the Middle East where nation-state boundaries were largely the result of lines drawn by the former colonial rulers rather than by the people themselves.

In the period beginning in roughly the late 1970s, the economic situation for much of the former colonial world, generally called the Global South, worsened. The massive Debt Crisis and the demands by international funders, e.g., the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, for what was called “structural adjustment” resulted in resources being shifted in the various nation-states of the global South to pay off debts and to gain much needed financial aid. Across the global South, this resulted in privatization, specifically the selling off of the infrastructure and resources of countries, piece by piece. Nation-states had fewer resources for healthcare, housing, education, and all-round economic development. They had to spend what funds they had following the dictates of the funders in Geneva, Brussels, London and Washington.

And while this happened, the lives of the average person on the street worsened.

The Kikuyu, roughly 22% of Kenya’s population were not collaborators with colonialism, but they have been a very significant force in Kenya’s political life. Insofar as non-Kikuyus saw the Kibaki administration as favoring the Kikuyu, it fanned the flames of simmering resentment that pre-existed Kibaki. Thus, while Kenya has been relatively stable since independence and ethnic groups have co-existed, in the face of declining living standards and resources, and in the absence of visionary political leadership, many average people fell back into ethnic consciousness and, as a result, responded ethnically to the political crisis.

This brings us back to “The Monsters are due on Maple Street.” Even in periods of calm there are suspicions and prejudices, particularly in societies divided along lines of class, ethnicity and gender. These emotions and beliefs do not necessarily reach the surface in periods of normality. Under stress, however, demons emerge that, if left unchallenged, can evolve in the direction of irrational, anti-social violence. The mob mentality arises and one soon is confronted with the demand: “you are either with us or against us.” Chasing unarmed civilians into a church to then burning the church is only taking this all to the extreme.

While the immediate political crisis between Kibaki and Odinga may be resolved in the not too distant future, the deeper crisis in Kenya has now been evidenced and this will take a very different effort. This is not about a Rodney King “Why Can’t We All Get Along?” scenario. Rather, it is about a combination of work at the grassroots level to organize and educate the population as to the nature of the challenges they face (and specifically who is the enemy and who is not), while at the same time, creating and advancing a vastly different national political leadership. Insofar as Kenya continues to dance to the music of the international funders, i.e., the former colonial and neo-colonial powers, it will be dancing a dance of death. The violence in Kenya speaks less about the Kenyan people and more about into what any people in the face of despair, brought on by the loss of control of their lives and their loss of hope, can devolve. The violence also speaks to why Kenya, along with the rest of the African continent, must with all deliberate speed, find a different path to development, since the path laid out by Washington, the IMF, et. al., is not a path into a garden but a path into a minefield.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is Executive Editor of The Black Commentator. He is also a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum. Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.

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