Prisoner’s Dilemma, Ethnic-Conflict Style

On various listservs, African Studies scholars are buzzing with irritation about coverage of the political turmoil in Kenya following the election. (I’m continuing the Hate-the-NY-Times Week.)

I think they’re right to complain in this case, for several reasons. Jeffrey Gettleman’s January 31st article in the New York Times on the election was a good example. It’s ok until about six paragraphs in, when Gettleman sums up the post-election violence by saying it exposed “an atavistic vein of tribal tension”. Couple that with the earlier rhetoric about Kenya’s “stable democracy”, “powerhouse economy”, and billion-dollar tourist industry, and you pretty much miss the point of what’s going on, much as most of the US and European press missed the point in Rwanda until well after the genocide.

The narrative that Gettleman (and a number of other reporters) end up offering is Kenya as modern nation threatened by primitive “tribal” identities erupting out of its past. If I described Quebec separatists as evidence of an “atavistic vein of tribal tension” in Canada, Scottish autonomy as the triumph of “tribal primitivism”, or ethnic tensions within contemporary Belgium as primordial savagery, I think that rhetoric would feel very weird to most readers.

I am sometimes equally uncomfortable with the common response of Africanist scholars to these kinds of misrepresentations, which is to describe contemporary ethnic or “tribal” identities in Africa as wholly modern and invented. Many of them are felt identities because they distill and reconstruct historical experiences that include the postcolonial and colonial but are not limited to them. “Zulu” or “Kikuyu” or “Yoruba” are inventions, but they’re meaningful inventions that weave together a wide range of rooted, authentic experiences from the distant and recent past. Much like “American” or “Irish Catholic” or “Sicilian” or any subnational or national identity anywhere in the world.

The important thing, then, is that ethnicity is not the cause of the post-election violence in Kenya. It is structuring the response, perhaps, but the basic issue is also a familiar one in most parts of the world. A ruling party chose to boldly and obviously steal a close presidential election with overt fraud. The supporters of the candidate who should have won are thus in a very difficult position. It is one thing if this is an uncommon event, if you have at least some faith in most political and civic institutions, if you have some hope that the rule of law will prevail, if you feel that reform of the system was possible, or even if the fraud was relatively subtle and ambiguous. In Kenya, none of that is the case. The only uncommon thing is that the election was allowed to go forward far enough to make the fraud a more panicky and obvious response. The putative losers have no reason to have faith in any aspect of the formal political system to make things right.

I don’t endorse or cheer on the violence, but I do understand it. At some point, if the supporters of Raila Odinga don’t find a way to make this kind of fraud costly to the people who perpetrated it, give them some reason not to do the same thing next time around, nothing can or will ever change in Kenya. There are better ways to make fraud costly than rioting or murder, which are mostly self-destructive and present worse suffering and injustice than allowing a fraud to be a president. But I have the privilege of distance and disengagement, which are not luxuries available in the townships of Nairobi. There isn’t any way at present to exact those costs within the formal political system, nor any reason to expect that the international community will do anything besides tack on a feeble set of easily-circumvented conditionalities on next year’s flow of aid and grants. This is a calculation that people all over this planet have to make in the course of their political lives: when do you stop accepting the position of a permanent loser in a game of prisoner’s dilemma? There’s nothing “tribal” or “atavistic” about that calculation.

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2 Responses to Prisoner’s Dilemma, Ethnic-Conflict Style

  1. Minivet says:

    I thought of your post while reading the WSJ’s article about Kenya. Excerpt:

    Mr. Kibaki had swept dictator Daniel arap Moi from power in 2002, vastly improved the country’s infrastructure, and introduced free primary education. Under his leadership, the economy boomed. But more recently, the charismatic Mr. Odinga tapped a vein of dissatisfaction, especially along ethnic and economic lines.

    The poor have been frustrated by growing economic disparity amid the country’s boom. The Muslim community was outraged by what people saw as discriminatory treatment under the president’s antiterrorism policies. And many Kenyans who don’t share Mr. Kibaki’s ethnic roots claimed his Kikuyu tribal base has benefited disproportionately from economic growth so far.

    It seems to avoid the spoooooky “atavistic tribalism” outlook of the other reporters. It may have a vague undercurrent of “damn those poor people for spoiling everyone else’s fun and those demagogic politicians for joining in,” but if so, that wouldn’t make it any different from how they’d cover a non-African country.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, that passage is good reportage. It may treat “the poor” as a single group, but ok, some generalization is a necessity in journalism. It deals with tribalism and ethnicity in a perfectly appropriate way. In contrast, this morning, Gettleman is still operating with preset narratives that he could serve up perfectly well if he was still back in New York reporting on Kenya by reading wire services.

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