At the root of violence in Kenya: not tribalism, but corruption and the legacy of colonialism

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Kenya, longtime U.S. ally in the “war on terror” was considered a “stable democracy” by the U.S. State Department — until recently.

That image was shattered as violence spiraled out of control following rigged presidential elections in December 2007. Initially, the Bush Administration blessed the outcome and turned a blind eye to obvious manipulation by Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki. As votes were tallied, Kibaki was losing to opposition candidate Raila Odinga until the last minute, when Kibaki mysteriously gained thousands of votes and declared himself winner. When Kenyans hit the streets in protest, Kibaki banned demonstrations and sent police to shoot protesters. The initial wave of violence by the government led to attacks by supporters of Odinga, and now up to 1,500 people are dead and 500,000 displaced. Thousands of women suffered rape and sexual abuse during the violence and in refugee camps.

Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan finally brokered a settlement — with a push from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — not to save lives or champion democracy, but to ensure a stable regime friendly to U.S. and international business interests. Annan also ignored calls from women’s groups to be included in mediation talks.

Poverty fuels violence. Mainstream newspapers such as the New York Times have cast the story as one of warring between ethnic tribal groups. But social, political, and economic disenfranchisement of the majority of Kenyans is the real driver of the country’s woes.

President Kibaki is a member of one of Kenya’s three richest families. He was originally voted in on a platform of “change” after Daniel arap Moi, another U.S. ally, had ruled for years. But like Moi, Kibaki quickly established a regime in which corruption and poverty flourished. Today, Kenya is ranked 148 out of 177 nations in the access of its people to such essentials as housing, education, and healthcare. For the majority of the nation’s youth, who constitute the overwhelming bulk of the population, the future holds only unemployment and hunger.

Kibaki is from the majority Kikuyu tribe, whose members were handed the reins of economic and political power by England after Kenya won its independence in 1963. Even so, the majority of Kikuyu are impoverished, along with Kenyans from other tribes such as the Luo.

Going into the elections, Kenya’s majority, including many Kikuyu, hoped for a better life by casting their ballots for Odinga, who was running with the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). But despite the “populist” rhetoric and image ODM puts forth, Odinga is no savior for poor and workingclass Kenyans. He was Prime Minister under Moi before Kibaki came to power and travels in the same rulingclass circles.

Kibaki launched the initial violence and repression. But according to reports by Human Rights Watch, supporters of Odinga soon began to retaliate and target Kenyans who belonged to the Kikuyu tribe. Neither Kibaki nor Odinga forcefully condemned the violence. Instead, both sides allowed it to escalate as a means to carry on their struggle for power, and poor Kenyans, Kikuyus, Luos, and members of other tribes paid the price.

Investors paradise, people’s hell. The U.S. entered the fray portraying itself as referee and peacemaker. But the real goal was to preserve Kenya as a key military outpost in Africa, and a strategic ally of U.S. hegemony in the region. This is important given the instability of Kenya’s surrounding neighbors such as Sudan, to ensure U.S. access to their oil resources.

But U.S. dominance played a large role in bringing Kenya to the brink of destruction. Throughout the 1990s, Kenya and other African countries racked up huge debts to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Interest on loans was paid from tax revenues that should have gone to infrastructure and social services. Austerity programs and privatizations were imposed as conditions for carrying loans.

In recent years, Kenya’s economy boomed and a small middle class emerged, but most Kenyans have become poorer. Neocolonial policies emphasize the extraction of raw materials at the expense of industrial development. And the promotion of agricultural crops for export have exhausted the soil and made Kenya more reliant on food imports. Throughout Africa, neocolonialism breeds violence that plays out in ethnic groups fighting over dwindling resources. Africa is rich in natural wealth, but as long as superpowers such as the U.S. dictate Africa’s development, more genocidal wars are bound to break out.

In the first year of the new millennium, the powerful anti-globalization movement demanded cancellation of the debt for underdeveloped countries throughout Africa. That call was interrupted by the so-called “war on terror.” It is time to revitalize the struggle and demand: Cancel all the debt! End U.S. neocolonialism in Kenya and all of Africa!

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