Posted by: sean | January 5, 2008

Kenya and Rwanda

Every time I’ve seen Kenya coverage on CNN over the last few days, they’ve played a snippet of video that shows a man with a machete scraping it along the ground while chaos looms behind him. These images, and especially the machete, have become familiar to viewers from recent representations of the Rwandan genocide. Intentionally or not, these images broadcast by CNN have drawn a parallel between the political cum ethnic violence in Kenya and the genocide in Rwanda. I too was shocked when I saw the footage for the first time the other day.

But it’s important to remember that Kenya isn’t Rwanda, and Ruxin, via Kristof’s Times blog, reminds us of the differences:

The weakness of Kenya’s political institutions means that those from whom the election was stolen have zero confidence in the willingness of the courts to intervene to protect a democratic process in the face of self-interested tampering by those in power. Accordingly, the result has been predictable but misdirected violence, literally shutting down the country and leading to tribal massacres eerily reminiscent of Rwanda’s genocide in 1994. Luos and Kalenjins have attacked Kikuyus, sometimes demanding identification documents at roadblocks to establish ethnicity. The ramifications of this disastrous turn of events demonstrate that where neither democracy nor economic development are adequately advanced, nations and regions can fall into devastating conflict in a matter of hours.

… Kenya has long been regarded as stable and safe (though deeply corrupt). It’s been a tourist destination for decades, giving millions every year a gorgeous glimpse of African wildlife. The country has been open to investment for decades, and many Kenyan businesses are flourishing. Because of that veneer of stability, foreign news correspondents seem unable to analyze the deteriorating situation in context. Some are seeing, with alarm, a replay of the Rwandan genocide. Even the opposition candidate Odinga, exhibiting a keen instinct for calming the situation, declared that the violence amounts to “genocide on a grand scale.”

That kind of blithe comparison obscures more than it clarifies. If you rely on the foreign press, the parallels with Rwanda may appear striking: violence committed by one tribe against another (in this case, multiple groups against one); rioting characterized by intense brutality and seemingly indiscriminate murder; most horrifically, hundreds of sanctuary seekers burned to death in a locked church. But there, the similarities abruptly end. What is happening now is terrible and horrifying, but it is not the 1994 Rwandan genocide; something else is occurring, a failure to accompany economic development with a concomitant strengthening of the institutions of political democracy.

It may seem like I’m splitting hairs, but it is vitally important that we understand the distinctions. In recognizing the differences between Kenya today and Rwanda in 1994, we can understand why this is happening and can begin to fight this particular kind of madness.

And we need to fight it. Rwanda’s genocide was fostered over decades, beginning with the identity cards that Belgian authorities forced the public to carry – cards that identified each citizen as Hutu or Tutsi. The hatred that recognition brought about was only one manifestation of a state-sponsored attempt to wipe out an entire ethnic group. This was genocide by government policy, and the directive was carried out with zeal.

However, Kenya’s disaster seems to have hit like a tornado out of thin air. Although it too has roots in the past (including British colonial favoritism of the Kikuyu), it is not controlled or sponsored by the government, which is trying to stop the killing, not promote it. We’re seeing the images of Kenyan police in riot gear, lining Nairobi’s streets and patrolling rural townships to suppress rioters. The government doesn’t benefit at all from rioting largely aimed at it and its allies. Therein lies the reason for the fighting. Even though CNN and other networks called the violence “ethnic cleansing” this morning, what we’re seeing here is not genocide, it is the disenfranchised acting out in the only way they can now that democratic elections have been stolen from them.

For a good background of the end of British Colonialism, both the LRB and NYRB reviewed two books that recently came out about the Mau Mau insurgency, British emergency rule, and colonial concentration camps in Kenya as recently as the 1960s.

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