Politics & Policy

Tribal Tension in Kenya

. . . and the delusion of African democracy.

Call it the democracy delusion. We believed democracy was spreading. It was not. Now we worry democracy is retreating. It is not — since it barely advanced to begin with. We expect democracy to win the war on terror. It will not. We know from profoundest experience what democracy is, yet the very power of our experience blinds us. So achingly do we pine for a fantasy world of peaceful, loving polities that we see democracy in every passing stranger. Almost any Third World country can have us at hello. Just flash an ink-stained finger and Americans (Europeans too) open up their hearts, pocket-books, arsenals, whatever — only to be left alone, crying, and feeling used. But the truth is, we do it to ourselves.

Maybe Kenya will finally break our pattern of dangerously naive infatuation with pretend democracies — Kenya, Pakistan, and, of course, Russia . . . let’s be honest and include the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon, as well. Need I mention Iraq? OK . . . deep-breath, slowly, say it with me now: “My name is the United States of America, and I am addicted to phony democracies.”

Kenya may be the watershed. Democratic “setbacks” in Russia notwithstanding (how can you set back what was never there to begin with?), most Americans have seen democracy’s recent troubles as chiefly a Middle-Eastern phenomenon. Yet, as professional democracy promoters have known for some time — and as the broader public is only now beginning to grasp — the democratization project is in a worldwide stall.

Kenya’s reputation as a bulwark of stability and prosperity on an otherwise fragile continent gives a last-straw feel to the political collapse there. Kenya was the regional lifeline — the secure hub from which multinational corporations and NGO’s could funnel goods and aid to the impoverished, war-torn, sometimes barely governed states of East and Central Africa. And Kenya has been the base from which America’s anti-terror campaign in the region is coordinated. Now, a “democratic” election has put all this at risk.

Pre-Election Optimism

To witness the democracy delusion in all its splendor, let us return to the days before Kenya’s election. In its December 19 edition, the Economist, unrivaled for the quality of its foreign coverage, managed to publish an article on the upcoming Kenyan elections without even mentioning tribalism. “Jobs and corruption are the issues in a close-fought contest,” said the headline, as if there actually were issues at stake, rather than a tribal power struggle, and as if one side might be less corrupt than the other (the magazine itself cast doubt on the latter proposition).

The Economist noted in passing that challenger Raila Odinga had visited Wales and was intrigued by its national assembly as a model of regional devolution. The article also mentioned that incumbent president Mwai Kibaki might have trouble achieving the mandatory 25 percent vote in five of the country’s eight provinces. The overall effect was to make Kenya sound like a haven of constitutionalism and advanced democratic experimentation. Unfortunately, the Economist neglected to mention the bitter tribal rivalries that lay beneath all that high-minded constitutional talk. Kibaki is so dependent on support from Kenya’s dominant Kikuyu tribe that he can barely draw votes in non-Kikuyu provinces. Meanwhile, the Luo tribesman Odinga’s alliance of minority tribes looks to devolution to escape Kikuyu domination. These were huge danger signs that tribal consciousness had trumped national integration. Yet by foregrounding the democracy angle, the Economist missed the real story — the decidedly undemocratic tribalism driving (and undermining) all that electoral-constitutional maneuvering.

Democracy Defined

Only in a very narrow sense can we call African nations democracies. Strictly speaking, if a country selects its leaders through elections, it is democratic. Scholars separate this technical definition of democracy, as electoral rule, from the broader notion of “liberal democracy,” meaning a country that not only holds elections but also features multi-party competition, rule of law, freedom of the press, of speech, of religion, and a vital, buzzing “civil society” composed of competing advocacy groups. Arguments over democratization often turn on whether elections in an illiberal environment bring positive changes in their train, or whether it’s best to delay voting until civil society and political liberty are already in place.

It’s an important debate. Yet in common parlance, we take the word “democracy” to mean the whole “liberal” ball-of-wax. We can’t help but see long lines of Third-World voters patiently waiting at the ballot box as proof of a thirst for democracy — for everything beyond mere elections that the magical d-word means to Americans. This is our delusion. Long lines at polling places do not make Kenyans into liberty-loving American democrats, any more than reams of kente cloth transform American multiculturalists into Ashanti royalty.

Understanding the difference between liberal and illiberal democracy is only a first step toward fully appreciating the global challenge to democracy promotion. That’s because the rule of law, civil society, and individual liberties themselves depend upon a still deeper layer of cultural underpinning. Societies built around nuclear families, and around religious and cultural traditions that stress the freedom, equality, and sacredness of individual human beings, have the basic ingredients out of which rule of law, civic associations, political freedoms, and the modern state develop. Societies in which individual freedom is subordinated to the honor and advantage of the kin-group (and where non-Western religious and cultural traditions reinforce these values) are far less likely to develop genuine liberal democracy, or even a vibrant modern economy and state.

Nowadays, in both the postmodern academy and the liberal, universalizing state, drawing this sort of contrast between traditional and modern societies is taboo. Yet time and again, experience shows that culturally traditional societies have difficulties democratizing. Yes, there are exceptions, but those exceptions are usually explainable by exceptional circumstances, like defeat in all-out war, centuries under a certain style of imperial rule, or the existence of rough cultural equivalents to modern bureaucratic structures.That doesn’t mean change is impossible (the common straw-man version of the cultural argument). But it does mean we’ve been deluding ourselves about how difficult it is to bring about genuine political transformation, and how dangerous it is to rely on democratization as a short-term instrument of policy. Stay involved in the world? Absolutely. Use “democracy” as the critical determinant of that involvement? Not a good idea.

Potemkin Democracy

Everywhere in Africa, signs indicate that electoral democracy is but a precarious façade draped over largely illiberal, “traditional” societies. What’s amazing is how successfully we’ve ignored and minimized the evidence of democratic failure. (See “Africa Rising.”) While there are elections in Africa, there are virtually no genuinely contested multi-party campaigns. Kenya was a key exception. Now it simply proves the rule. Election violence and rigged voting? Kenya’s had them all along. We’ve simply chosen to discount them.

Here’s a typically hopeful pre-election article from the Christian Science Monitor. The usual-suspect quotes from African-democracy and human-rights activists are read from the script we so badly want to hear. My favorite line is, “No vote in Kenya is completely free of violence, but. . . . ” Pay no attention to that ethnic cleansing behind the curtain.

Contrast this with Travis Kavulla’s vastly more illuminating pre-election report from Kenya’s Rift Valley Province, a frequent site of electoral violence. Kavulla shows that democracy, Rift Valley–style, features dominant Kalenjin tribesmen terrorizing non-Kalenjins to drive them out of the area, in numbers sufficient to guarantee that Kalenjins dominate the election turnout. (Now that’s what I call a thirst for democracy.) As a reward, the attacking Kalenjins get to loot their victims’ cattle and crops. And for enabling this “democratic” gambit, local Kalenjin chiefs (who double as government officials) pocket kickbacks from tribal candidates who win national office (and who, of course, are expected to loot the public coffers for the sake of the folks back home). As the New York Times reported on January 21, the classic Rift Valley pattern seems to have more or less repeated itself in the most recent election.

The reason that incidents like this are usually “isolated” to places like Rift Valley is that many other provinces have a clearly dominant tribe. A bit of ethnic cleansing in Rift Valley has the potential to swing an election, whereas in Kikuyu-dominated Central Province, there’s really no point. President Kibaki is guaranteed to take about 97 percent of the vote there. Does this mean that elections in which violence is confined to provinces like Rift Valley are “mostly” free. Certainly not. As David Blair put it in the Telegraph, it means that elections in Kenya aren’t really elections at all. They’re actually “nothing more than a disguised national census. All they do is disclose the balance between the tribes.”

We’ve known for years how closely Kenyan voting patterns mirror tribal loyalties. Yet the Economist still finds it possible to ignore tribalism — easily the overwhelming determining factor in Kenyan elections — and to write as though “issues” were at stake instead. But when a closely fought election finally emerges (meaning an election between well-matched tribal coalitions), the latent potential for ethnic cleansing on a national scale emerges along with it. The tradition of election violence in Rift Valley Province turns out not to be an “isolated” anomaly at all. Instead, long-standing electoral violence in Rift Valley should have been understood as a revelation of the true (i.e. persistently false) nature of Kenyan democracy as a whole. Rift Valley is merely the spear-like tip of a vast, submerged, tribal iceberg.

Not that Kenyan elections haven’t been rigged from the get-go. Ethnic cleansing is just an extra layer of insurance over the usual practice of vote-padding. As Richard Dowden notes (in the best short article I’ve seen on the Kenyan elections), every election since the “restoration” of multi-party democracy in 1991 has been rigged to some extent. Until now, notes Dowden, “the margin of victory has always been so great that Western diplomats, keen to maintain stability, could claim that the cheating would not have made a difference to the result.” According to Dowden: “ ‘Voting broadly reflected the will of the people,’ was the “duplicitous phrase that allowed the ruling elite to play their quinquennial charade.” Only decades of averting our eyes from the overwhelming influence of tribalism, “isolated” election violence, and pervasive rigging has allowed us to delude ourselves into believing that Kenya is actually an up-and-coming African democracy. And when the self-deceptive façade that we ourselves have constructed (with the help of select African elites) finally collapses, revealing what has been glaringly present all along for anyone with eyes to see, we are dazed, shocked, and disappointed.

Lame Excuse

Not to worry. Industrious democratizers are even now spinning rationalizations for the whole election fiasco. In “Kenya stokes tribalism debate,” the BBC presents us with the most popular excuse. “Tribal violence spirals in Kenya” is a misleading headline for this election story, says BBC correspondent Mark Doyle. To his mind, the real headline ought to read, “Tribal differences in Kenya, normally accepted peacefully, are exploited by politicians hungry for power who can manipulate poverty-stricken population.” If not for all those vain, greedy, and manipulative leaders, explains Doyle, democracy in Kenya would be safe.

Doyle knows this because he’s consulted with “African intellectuals.” Unfortunately, as a group, African intellectuals are a highly problematic source of information on tribalism. As in Pakistan, Western reporters in Africa rely heavily on cosmopolitan informants, who are often deeply embarrassed by their own society’s traditionalism, and eager to deny or minimize it. What’s more, drawing Western investment to the continent depends on overcoming Africa’s culturally “backward” image (which is likely why the Economist hesitates to discuss tribalism).

The notion that the alleged personal moral failings of Africa’s political elite can somehow be separated from the phenomenon of tribalism is profoundly misleading. Networks of clan and tribal patronage are actually the basis of political power in Africa. “Big men” are elected precisely in order to channel government projects to their tribe, and to pass back personal graft to networks of kin and local tribal chiefs. Kenya’s citizens aren’t so much outraged by corruption per se, as they are eager to give their own tribe the opportunity to be every bit as corrupt as the Kikuyu. What’s more, from the perspective of many Africans, what we call “corruption” isn’t immoral at all. On the contrary, even overt vote-buying by African “big men” is often seen as generous communal sharing — proof positive that these politicians are not corrupt, but are instead heroic Robin Hoods who rob from the rich (i.e., the state) to give to their own tribal poor. These values of tribal and kin-based solidarity still dominate throughout much of Africa, and are difficult, at best, to harmonize with the expectations of liberal democracy.

Down a Notch?

In the wake of the recent election debacle, Freedom House removed Kenya from its list of the world’s electoral democracies, and took Kenya’s “political rights” score down a notch, to boot. In many ways, Freedom House’s rankings are extremely useful, yet in an important sense they are also misleading. We put too much stock in elections, and in the apparent existence of political rights. Now there’s a move to create a corruption index, but you can’t keep track of a society’s kinship or tribal structure with a score-card. For the most part, democracy promoters minimize the significance such traditional social forms. Yet the structures of kinship and tribe that organize everyday life in Africa often count most in the continent’s politics.

For democracy-promotion enthusiasts and cosmopolitan Africans alike, tribal society is but the ghostly remnant of a passing world. Merely acknowledging tribalism’s ongoing existence is a personal, intellectual, political, and economic embarrassment. It’s true that in some limited and highly modernized circles, the old ways are fading. Change is not impossible — although it comes slowly, often with shocking “reversals,” and without anything close to a guarantee of winning out. Yet in large parts of Africa, it would be more accurate to view the legal and electoral edifice of the state as little more than a skeletal framework, hastily built, that struggles to contain — or even to disguise — the stubbornly powerful reality of “traditional” tribal ways of life. The negotiated political settlement now in the works in Kenya won’t change this. It will only drive the truth about these political systems back, for a time, into the shadows.

For my money, African democracy is far more illusion than reality. We in the West are still barely capable of owning up to the critical factors at play in the struggle to govern Africa, much less honestly assessing their relative strength. That would spoil the script, leave us without a policy, undercut business confidence, and generally endanger stability in Africa. Then again, “democracy” has already accomplished all this.

— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and an NRO contributing editor.

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