Magazine April 20, 2009, Issue

A Good Plan in Africa

Facing the realities of tribalism

Nairobi, Kenya

Democracy promotion is and probably always will be America’s default foreign policy, embarked upon when no other controlling interests prevail. This is so for two reasons: one philosophical, the fact that the only just government is one accountable to its people; and one practical, the fact that democracy is believed to work better than other systems. Since Tocqueville, the conventional wisdom has held that democracy, notwithstanding a few hiccups, yields fruits in the form of political stability and economic prosperity. 

In 2002, Kenya shone like a beacon of this precept. Western diplomats had badgered Kenya’s government into holding free elections by threatening to withhold aid and suspend IMF and World Bank loans. The ruling party figured it could win: quite the miscalculation. In a flash, three decades of one-party rule were put to an end. The recalcitrant old tyrant, Daniel arap Moi, was motored into Uhuru (“Freedom”) Park and — except for the rocks and mud thrown at his limousine — power was handed over peacefully.

Beginning with that poetic moment, Kenya entered a kind of golden age. People were suddenly free to say what they pleased without fear of imprisonment. Newspapers flourished, and reported things that could previously have been passed around only in rumor. The public interest in government was ravenous, and the elite cohort of politics was demystified. 

The quality of life of most Kenyans increased in tandem with their liberty. Kenya’s shilling stabilized and traded well against international currencies, reducing import prices. GDP increased at a 5 percent annual clip; productivity ranked among Africa’s highest. The country’s good fortunes inspired an outpouring of sentiment that democracy finally had a foothold in this part of Africa. A “developing country” was — hallelujah — actually developing.

And then, in December 2007, came the country’s second democratic election. Far from shoring up the gains of the previous five years, the disputed poll and its aftermath reversed them in mere months. Over 1,100 people were killed in a spate of ethnic violence, and more than a quarter million lost their lands, belongings, and livelihoods. Indeed, the number of lives ruined by the election probably exceeds the true margin of the vote. Even beyond the deaths and dispossessions, the violence did an unquantifiable amount of damage to Kenya’s reputation. The economy is still in a tailspin today, with inflation nearing 30 percent. A famine looms, both because of poor rains and because the lands of the dispossessed lay fallow all last year. Today, Kenyans are perhaps more anxious than ever about the future of their country.

The international community that had assiduously promoted democratic reform in Kenya was stunned. During the campaign season, the candidates engaged in what seemed a weighty discussion of everything from federalism to economic liberalization to education policy. It was in some ways the spitting image of a Western democracy. Dick Morris, the American strategist, was even retained by the opposition candidate to do media consulting. 

Unfortunately, the seeming health of Kenya’s politics was an illusion. Democracy here, as in much of Africa, runs only skin deep. The published results made plain that the vote was little more than a tribal census. Less than five percent of the Kikuyu, the largest tribe, voted for the Orange Democratic Movement, which holds a plurality in the current parliament. An even smaller percentage of the Luo, the second largest, voted for the ironically named Party of National Unity, a mostly Kikuyu group that won the presidency.

The influence of tribal belonging is hard for most modern Westerners to wrap their minds around, now that rivalries between tribes in modern Europe — the English and the French, for example — have been reduced from grand wars for honor to periodic soccer hooliganism. Yet even after the Renaissance and the printing press, tribe was a serious matter in Europe for hundreds of years — only recently becoming something of a joke (behold as once-proud nations give way to the EU). 

Africans did not have the luxury of easing into this modern world. It was not until the colonial era began in earnest, a century ago, that tribes were brought together in plantation labor, in city life, and in a state where all were suddenly recognized as Sudanese or Nigerians or Cameroonians. These states have had a varying degree of impact on the lives of their people. But almost everywhere in Africa, there is no national culture that can eclipse tribal culture. Tribe determines the mundane and the essential — whether a people eat mostly vegetables or meat, whether their men are circumcised, how property is inherited. 

Tribe has adapted and sometimes been beaten back — though this owes not to the transformative power of democracy, but to the stringent demands of Christianity and Islam that believers put their faith first. Notwithstanding this, tribe remains the central ingredient of most Africans’ identity. Today in Kenya — which is one of the most cosmopolitan societies in Africa — intertribal marriages count for no more than one-tenth of the total number. Even in the thriving and diverse city life of Nairobi, tribal distinctions remain. My driver, Sam, is a Kikuyu and has lived in this wonderfully diverse city for 34 years. Yet he prefers to interact with his ethnic fellows if he can help it. When we stop to ask directions, Sam always sidles the car up to a Kikuyu. He is happy to transact small matters (the purchase of a banana or a newspaper) with a member of another tribe. But would Sam drink with them? Buy a car from one? Employ one? Be pleased if his son married one? Never. 

Tribal politics is this syndrome blown up into countrywide proportions. In an African democracy, if a party or even a faction of a party associated with a particular tribe is left out of government, a whole people can suffer the consequences — through the bullying of state security forces, a lack of government appropriations, and other means. To those disaffected, there seems a general and pervasive attitude that this government does not include you. 

In most places in Africa, there can be little doubt that a national election will play out on the basis of tribe and region. Elections are cherished because they are direct indicators of a person’s wishes. But if so many votes are predetermined by ethnicity — if the parties and their politicians are just husks for tribe — it is worth asking whether a winner-take-all election is a predetermined, needlessly inflammatory exercise. African states desperately need to engage in some nation-building, and ethnically charged elections, far from contributing to a national ethic, only further distrust. 

The challenge is to bring democracy past tribe, to the level of the individual citizen. Other states, faced with populations that would naturally divide along tribal lines, have chosen not to fight it. Instead, they have modified the template of a nationwide democracy, but are still fit to be recognized as modern nations, accountable to their people. Switzerland is perhaps the lead example of a country, if an idiosyncratic one, that has walked this fine line. Comprising 26 historically independent cantons and encompassing ethnic Germans, French, and Italians, Switzerland is, like most African countries, an unlikely amalgam of peoples and cultures. But rather than forcing them together, as the highly centralized affairs of African governments necessitate, Switzerland’s constitution allows them to stay apart. The underlying assumption is that in such a heterogeneous state, rather than reducing democracy to a question of how many are French and how many are German, it is more justly representative to presume a division between them. The result is a confederal government that has, absent a consensus, very little power at the top. Instead, the 26 sovereign cantons control nearly all of their own affairs. 

Making a place for tribe in African constitutions is unpopular among these countries’ rulers, who once in power do not want to relinquish control of any part of it. It also has a lobby against it in the international community. The array of 54 African states on the map is already too confusing. Were each tribe to have a canton of its very own, the resulting map would make feudal Germany seem whole. Writing tribe into law would also seem to reinforce tribalism. At worst, it could turn a state or a region into a tribal fief, unwelcoming of outsiders.

Yet to ignore tribe and plod naïvely down the road of majority rule is even more dangerous. Tribe will be the subject of politicians’ innuendo and will lurk in voters’ minds, until one day it explodes. Then, tribe will not be just one troublesome issue the state faces — it will suddenly become the issue, violent in its expression and utterly paralyzing of the state. 

Western powers can help prevent such crises by tying foreign aid to constitutional revisions that would put African states’ distribution of powers back in balance with their people. Remaking the highly centralized, presidential–ministerial state into a more confederal entity that recognizes tribal boundaries, reserves some powers for tribal authorities, and sets aside a quota for tribal representation in a national parliament would force politicians of the same tribe to compete against one another. Tribe’s role as a wedge or crutch in politics would be reduced. 

This would, indeed, impair “democracy” as it exists and has been promoted in Africa, the fundamental task of which is to choose a powerful national leader directly. But if the purpose of democracy is to make a government that is both representative and stable, then there is no other choice. Africans still identify with their tribal cultures in almost every nominal state. Rather than trying to supplant this sentiment with nationalism, accommodating tribe is one way to ensure that African states are not subject to the artificiality that has so often brought them down in the past. 

– Mr. Kavulla is a journalism fellow with the Phillips Foundation and was last year a Gates Scholar in African history at Cambridge.

Travis Kavulla is director of Energy and Environmental Policy at the R Street Institute. He is a former president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners who held elected office as a Montana public service commissioner for eight years. Before that, he was an associate editor for National Review.

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