Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Kenya is Not Rwanda

I have read a number of op-eds this morning comparing the mounting post-election violence in Kenya to the Rwandan genocide or referring to the violence as "tribal." I think this is a mistake for a number of reasons.

First, it's not conceptually accurate. Second, exaggerating the facts at a moment of crisis can inflame political violence, whereas what is needed is efforts to mute it.

Kenya is not Rwanda - not yet, anyway. Like other genocides, the Rwandan genocide was deliberately planned and orchestrated by the opposition elite that had captured the state apparatus. Second, the Rwandan Hutu Power movement sought to deliberately wipe out an entire ethnic group as such, rather than to terrorize them for specific political reasons. Third, this event occurred in the wake of a long civil war and aborted peace process, not in a country characterized by relative stability, prosperity and a recent election.

At least two patterns of violence are occurring in Kenya (this is at a glance - if there is one thing the study of violence tells us is that it's always more complicated than two sides). First there are deaths as a result of police shooting into crowds rallying for a re-count. These seem to be simply the tactics of a regime on its last legs attempting to frighten the political opposition. We see this often where political authority is threatened - Tienamen, Abidjan, etc. This is not genocide against a racial, religious or ethnic group but rather run of the mill political violence (no less atrocious for that however, but it rarely results in a million deaths).

The other pattern is mob violence against civilians of the ethnic group (Kikuyu) whose leaders hold disproportionate economic and political power. Again, this is as much a story of class conflict as of ethnic hatred. As Amy Chua has detailed in World on Fire, elections can be a recipe for violence when a minority ethnic group is also viewed as "market dominant" - the real issue is economic scarcity, but if resources have been distributed according along ethnic lines in the past, there will be incentives for aspiring politicians to play the ethnic card to get elected. Resource disputes, then, get transformed through the election process into ethnic disputes; if the election is contested citizens may be primed to take matters into their own hands. Socioeconomic frustration turns into targeted "killing by category" when all those of an ethnic group become associated with the old, unjust order. Once the ball is rolling however, the killings can take on a life of their own, and this is why Genocide Watch is calling the violence in kenya "a stage away from actual genocide."

None of this equals "tribalism." If there is one paralell to Rwanda, it is that mob violence is generally whipped up by a few demagogues and by terrorizing one's ethnic brethren into going along or facing equal punishment as traitors and collaborators. The genocide in rwanda was cooked up by a small band of extremists who ensnared the general Hutu population into participating not because they hated the tutsi, but because they feared for their own families' lives. Ordinary Kenyans of all political stripes and ethnic affiliations are seeking security and stability. Wild tales of a looming bi-lateral genocide can only undermine efforts of moderates in the country to appeal for calm.

This is not to say the situation is not extremely serious. Certainly we don't need the violence to reach Rwandan levels before concern is warranted, and perhaps it is the hope of attracting preventive action from the international community that underlies the Rwanda analogy. If the Kenyan government cannot or will not exercise its responsibility to protect civilians, the international community must step in quickly. Because the violence is not yet out of control there is an opportunity for regional and international organizations to do their part.

The question is whether the current diplomatic and media attention can be sustained over the next few days as the caucuses get under way in the US midwest.

Radicals in Kenya are probably hoping for the opposite.

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