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Last Updated: Friday, 4 January 2008, 09:47 GMT
Kenya stokes tribalism debate
Residents of the Mathare slum in Nairobi point to a crowd of demonstrators during clashes between two rival groups 01 January 2008.

By Mark Doyle
BBC world affairs correspondent

World headlines on Kenya appear to say it all.

"Tribal violence spirals in Kenya," screams the front page banner in the International Herald Tribune. "Kenya plunges into interethnic violence," says Le Monde.

But headlines can be misleading.

It is certainly true that the post-electoral violence in Kenya has taken on a tribal character.

Members of the incumbent (and controversially re-installed) President Mwai Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe have been pitted against other smaller tribes.

A mother carries one of her children as she flees violence in Nairobi
Thousands of people have fled their homes

But that is only part of the story.

A more complete headline might be: "Tribal differences in Kenya, normally accepted peacefully, are exploited by politicians hungry for power who can manipulate poverty-stricken population."

But headlines are not really headlines when they are written like that - and few would criticise the international newspapers for their pithy style.

The ethnic and political violence in Kenya has renewed debate about whether multi-party democracy can be successful in an African context where ethnic loyalties are strong.

If you ask almost any African this question the answer will be qualified: "Yes, democracy can work... if only our leaders allowed it."

Map of Kenya

It would be naive in the extreme to discount ethnicity in any African election.

The reality of life on the world's poorest continent is that most people live a marginal economic existence and rely enormously, for survival, on those nearest to them.

Rural villagers rely on each other, for example, to bring in the crop, or to share food in difficult times.

Urban dwellers often organise themselves to provide common services like schools because their governments are either too poor or too incompetent to deliver.

In these circumstances the people nearest to you - whom you can trust - are first, family, and second, tribe.

African politicians know this formula very well and many of them exploit it ruthlessly.

"Vote for me," they say, "because I'm from your tribe and you can trust me."

Unemployed young men

The most dramatic recent illustration of this kind of manipulation was the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Ndorobo clan members with their livestock
Much of Kenya's tribalism is fuelled by land disputes

Hutus were persuaded by an extremist Hutu power bloc that all Tutsis were their enemies.

There are many other less catastrophic examples.

Politics in Nigeria, for example, is a complex chessboard of ethnicity and religion.

The presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006 divided the country along ethnic and linguistic lines.

And even in a peaceful, democratic country like Ghana, it is clear that ethnic Ashantis, for example, tend to vote one way while ethnic Ewes tend to vote another.

But at the same time there is usually a further explanation - beyond ethnic group - for the way people vote or the way they react to situations like the current crisis in Kenya.

That explanation is almost always rooted in money - or a lack of it - and the cynical search for power by politicians.

It is no coincidence that the people who usually perpetrate "tribal violence" are unemployed young men.

In Ivory Coast in the late 1990s, for example, the campaign against northerners that was orchestrated by southern politicians - and which eventually led to a full-scale civil war - was spearheaded by youths in the main city, Abidjan, who were paid a daily rate for the job.

'Land grabs'

Equally, in the Kenyan case, it is no coincidence that some of the worst violence has been in the Rift Valley area.

The region has a history of land disputes.

Electoral officers start counting at a local polling station in Nairobi
Most African nations now have an elected government

Some of those disputes were originally caused by what was coyly called European "settlement" - which created refugees hungry for land.

More recently, Kenyan politicians have practised more honestly named "land grabs" in parts of the country.

African intellectuals who concede there is a problem of tribalism on the continent - or, rather, a problem of the deliberate manipulation of tribal sentiment by selfish politicians - stress that there is also a rational solution.

Part of the solution, they say, is economic development. If there is growth in the economy there will be more education and less ignorance about fellow citizens of other tribes - and, of course, fewer unemployed thugs for politicians to "buy" for a few cents a day.

Another part of the solution, they say, is genuine democracy with genuinely independent law courts.

People would have no need to rely on their tribe - apart from culturally, should they so wish - if they could rely on all their ballot papers being counted, and could expect honest judgements from courts.

Here, Africa can point to progress in recent decades.

Fifty years ago, almost the entire continent was ruled by foreign colonial powers.

Even just 20 years ago, most African countries were run by dictators or military juntas.

Now, thanks to pro-democracy activists, most African nations have an elected government.

Good start

Many of those governments are far from perfect.

But the advent of at least some democracy - assisted by relatively cheap technology such as FM radio stations and mobile phones which can spread information easily - has encouraged what seems to be an irreversible cultural sea-change in African attitudes to those in power.

Put bluntly, that change means that people can no longer be comprehensively fooled or dictated to.

It is still possible for politicians to cheat at elections - for example through the vehicle of ethnicity.

But the new freedoms, coupled with the new technology, make it almost impossible for politicians to do this without people knowing what is going on.

That is a good start, African intellectuals say, and it may one day mean the end of negative tribalism.

Meanwhile, of course, those headlines will remain at least half true.

KENYA'S ETHNIC GROUPS
Map of Kenyan provinces showing majority ethnic group
Population 34.5m, comprising more than 40 ethnic groups
Kikuyu are the largest tribe, mostly concentrated around Nairobi
Most of Eastern/ North-eastern regions sparsely populated with ethnic Somalis
Main ethnic groups are:
Kikuyu: 22%
Luhya: 14%
Luo: 13%
Kalenjin: 12%
Kamba: 11%
Kisii: 6%
Meru: 6%
Other African: 15%






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