Kenya: whither “majimboism”?

The same depressing story that we’ve heard from Bosnia to Baghdad now reaches us from Kenya. From the New York Times, Feb. 15, “Signs in Kenya of a Land Redrawn by Ethnicity “:

Kenya used to be considered one of the most promising countries in Africa. Now it is in the throes of ethnically segregating itself. Ever since a deeply flawed election in December kicked off a wave of ethnic and political violence, hundreds of thousands of people have been violently driven from their homes and many are now resettling in ethnically homogenous zones.

Luos have gone back to Luo land, Kikuyus to Kikuyu land, Kambas to Kamba land and Kisiis to Kisii land. Even some of the packed slums in the capital, Nairobi, have split along ethnic lines.

The bloodletting across the country that has killed more than 1,000 people since the election seems to have subsided in the past week. But the trucks piled high with mattresses, furniture, blankets and children keep chugging across the countryside, an endless convoy of frightened people who in their desperation are redrawing the map of Kenya.

Just as the media cliché in Bosnia and the Balkans was “ancient ethnic hatreds,” in Kenya and Africa it’s “tribalism.” (The Times’ East Africa correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman, in an apparent nod to political correctitude, generally opts for “ethnic group” and “ethnic” rather than “tribe” and “tribal”—but he is the exception, and in any case the underlying precepts are fairly identical.) And while Bosnia added “ethnic cleansing” to the lexicon of media buzzwords and euphemisms, all of a sudden reportage on Kenya is abuzz with “majimboism.” More from the Times:

At the heart is a tangle of long-festering political, economic and land issues. Part of the trouble is the winner-take-all system in Kenya, which happens in much of Africa, where leaders often favor members of their own ethnic group and in the process alienate large swaths of the population. Many people in Kenya saw this coming even before independence in 1963.

“We were worried about the smaller tribes getting dominated by the bigger ones,” said Joseph Martin Shikuku, a 75-year-old opposition figure. “And you know what? That’s exactly what happened.”

Mr. Shikuku was one of the founders of an independence-era political movement that embraced a philosophy called majimboism that has been around in Kenya since the 1950s. Majimboism means federalism or regionalism in Kiswahili, and it was intended to protect local rights, especially those connected to land. But in the extreme, majimboism is code for certain areas of the country to be reserved for specific ethnic groups, fueling the kind of ethnic cleansing that has swept the country since the election.

Majimboism has always had a strong following in the Rift Valley, the epicenter of the recent violence, where many locals have long believed that their land was stolen by outsiders…

In some ways, the election in December was a referendum on majimboism. It pitted today’s majimboists, represented by Mr. Odinga, who campaigned for regionalism, against Mr. Kibaki, who stood for the status quo of a highly centralized government that has delivered considerable economic growth but has repeatedly displayed the problems of too much power concentrated in too few hands — corruption, aloofness, favoritism and its flip side, marginalization.

Because Mr. Kibaki is a Kikuyu, the largest and most powerful ethnic group in Kenya, and Mr. Odinga is a Luo, a group that feels it has never gotten its fair share, the political and ethnic tensions aggravated by this election have often blurred — with disastrous results.

The Los Angeles Times has also posed the Kenya conflict purely in terms of rival “tribes” (Robyn Dixon‘s Jan. 13 report, “Cut down for crossing an invisible line,” is full of references to “tribal violence” and “tribal boundaries”)—prompting Richard R. Marcus of CSU Longbeach to respond in their pages Jan. 24. Marcus’ prose is a little muddy, but he sheds light on the manipulations of “majimboism”—as well as the media’s habitual oversimplifications, which (apart from being chauvinist and condescending) are depoliticized. If the root problem is endemic “ethnic hatred” or “tribalism,” why should Kenya implode now, after generations of stability? The pity is that those of us with a sense of history were asking the same question about Bosnia 15 years ago. Talk about deja vu all over again… Writes Marcus (emphasis added):

Kenya’s conflict isn’t ‘tribal’
I first started working in Kenya when conducting research for my master’s degree in 1991 at the University of Nairobi. It was a time of great hope and excitement. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, we saw a resurgence of democracy’s “third wave,” and it seemed that all of Africa was preparing for elections. That year, then-President Daniel T. Arap Moi legalized multi-partyism. Surprisingly, the most common word wasn’t “freedom” or even “participation” but rather “Majimboism.” Moi used this Kiswahili word for tribalism as a rallying cry to spread fear that tribal identities would come to dominate the political party system. It was a self-fulfilling prophesy. As democratic competition increased throughout the 1990s, two things happened: The opposition split and re-split until it was untenable, and Moi successfully manipulated institutions and the electoral code so that he could win the Statehouse with a relatively small minority of the vote — twice.

The Times has reported that conflict in Kenya today is tribal. But the roots of conflict aren’t tribal. They aren’t even ethnic. They are pseudo-ethnic. A “tribe” in Africa is a particular identity construction created by colonial powers in an effort to more easily dominate the population. An ethnicity is a group of people who share a common identity, rituals and, most commonly, language. There are ethnic differences in Kenya, however constructed, but they are commonly trumped by kinship, class, labor, religion and even geographic identities. Ethnic identity has been manipulated by self-serving political elites.

This becomes clear when we remember that reprisals against Luos in their home province of Nyanza for attacks against Kikuyus are more often by Kalenjins than Kikuyus. Raila Odinga, the Luo opposition candidate, represents the Kibera slums of Nairobi, not the Luo home of Nyanza province. Attacks by Luos are commonly not Luo at all but rather Mungiki (a quasi-religious group comprised of militant young Kikuyu men nominally combating modernity). Most of the killings have not been committed by any ethnic group at all but rather government troops seeking to ensure that the Odinga’s opposition doesn’t rise to a social movement that could lead to President Mwai Kibaki’s ouster. The Times reported on the “roaming gangs” hunting for foreskin without recognizing that far from “tribal violence,” it is also committed by Mungiki, not just Kikuyu youth, and is derived from the politicization of circumcision by the government in the run up to the election.

In recent days, some scholars have pointed to weak institutions as a cause of violence. Surely there is a point here — strong institutions would obviate the need for a civic maelstrom. Other scholars have pointed to predatory agents. Indeed, pseudo-ethnic identities are a negative consequence of democratization. Presidents and opposition leaders alike have transfixed certain parts of ethnic identity to suit their political ends. Others point to unresolved class and land issues. Those streaming into Nairobi city center from Kibera are not just Luo, but they are all poor. Kikuyu have been economically advantaged since the British and were the largest inheritor of land as white farmers fled at independence. Land redistribution is a pressing issue that has galvanized Kibera youth born to a lost future, including Luos, Kalenjin and Masai.

No doubt, given the diversity of conflict in place and groups, violence in Kenya reflects a combination of these issues. What is clear is this: There is a real cause for concern that hitherto stable Kenya could melt down — particularly as the conflict has recently spread to the oft-marginal and well-mobilized Swahili coast. The solution doesn’t rely on calming primordial cleavages. It lies in the international community applying enough pressure on Kibaki to rectify the ill-fated elections and re-institutionalize the process; Odinga agreeing to a new political course; and the ability of both leaders to create incentives to recap the can of worms they opened by encouraging a social movement.

The conflict in Kenya is neither tribal nor ethnic at root. The unwillingness of much of the media to probe further is at minimum a collective anomie and at maximum an embedded racism — reporting all African conflicts as if they were derived from a monolithic cause, constant across the diverse continent.

Marcus also appears to be saying (we wish he were a little clearer) that some violence against Kikuyus that has been attributed to Luos has actually been perpetrated by the Mungiki—a Kikuyu ethno-fundamentalist cult that (shades of Rwanda’s Interahamwe) targets not only perceived ethnic enemies but those of its own ethnicity deemed too modernized or tolerant of said enemies. Especially telling is Marcus’ claim that “most of the killings have not been committed by any ethnic group at all but rather government troops”—which, if true, reveals a very serious distortion indeed in media portrayals of the Kenyan conflict.

See our last post on Kenya.