DIVIDE AND RULE

What's Tearing Kenya Apart? History, for One Thing.

By Caroline Elkins
Sunday, January 6, 2008

As Big Ben struck midnight, Londoners welcomed in 2008 by cheering a blaze of fireworks above the Thames skyline. But the new year has been marked by far less happy conflagrations in several fledgling democracies that had once been part of Britain's empire. Days earlier, Pakistan had been rocked by the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. Iraq seems trapped in a cycle of terror and counterterror. Afghanistan looks much the same. Zimbabwe squirms under Robert Mugabe's thumb.

Now Kenya, too, appears to be on the brink. The East African country -- widely seen as a model of economic and democratic progress since 2002, when the 24-year dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi was swept aside -- has been moving toward an ethnically charged civil war since a disputed election on Dec. 27. President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of a second term after a vote that opposition candidate Raila Odinga denounces as rigged and that European Union observers agree was seriously flawed. As tens of thousands of Kenyans flee their homes and hundreds lie dead, part of the blame rests with Britain and its imperial legacy.

The immediate cause of the crisis was Kenya's delicate ethnic balance. The incumbent president, Kibaki, is a member of Kenya's largest and probably most powerful ethnic group, the Kikuyu, who total about 22 percent of the population; his rival, Odinga, is a member of the Luo, who comprise some 13 percent of the populace and live predominantly in western Kenya. In their bitter contest, in which Odinga promised to end ethnic favoritism and spread the country's wealth more equitably, ethnicity was the deciding factor, and a marred victory on either side had always been likely to spark violence. Both men are rich, elitist African politicians who have far more in common with each other than they do with their supporters; in their struggle over power, both are using their followers as proxies in a smoldering war. Still, Odinga has a real point about vote tampering; the chief of the E.U. election monitoring mission said that his officials had been turned away from the central vote-counting room in Nairobi, and even Kibaki's hand-picked head of Kenya's electoral commission, Samuel Kivuitu, told reporters that he did "not know whether Kibaki won the election."

Enter Britain, Kenya's former colonial ruler, which now prides itself on being a purveyor of global democracy. Foreign Secretary David Miliband and his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, issued a joint statement calling for compromise. Prime Minister Gordon Brown rushed to the phone lines, offering Kibaki and Odinga a quick lesson in democratic principles. In a Kiplingesque touch redolent of the colonial "white man's burden," Brown reportedly told both men, "What I want to see is . . . ." Miliband directed the Kenyan leaders to "behave responsibly."

I doubt that the irony of Brown and Miliband's message was lost on Kibaki or Odinga. Today's Britain, between its botched war on terror and lack of checks on executive power (to name but a few flaws), falls far short of the democratic ideals so paternalistically espoused by Brown and other British leaders. Still, the prime minister's jaw-dropping chutzpah -- on display not only in Kenya but also in former imperial possessions such as Pakistan and Iraq -- is rooted less in Brown's own tin ear than in the nature and structures of yesteryear's British colonial rule. So are today's crises in the former empire. If you're looking for the origins of Kenya's ethnic tensions, look to its colonial past.

Far from leaving behind democratic institutions and cultures, Britain bequeathed to its former colonies corrupted and corruptible governments. Colonial officials hand-picked political successors as they left in the wake of World War II, lavishing political and economic favors on their proteges. This process created elites whose power extended into the post-colonial era.

Added to this was a distinctly colonial view of the rule of law, which saw the British leave behind legal systems that facilitated tyranny, oppression and poverty rather than open, accountable government. And compounding these legacies was Britain's famous imperial policy of "divide and rule," playing one side off another, which often turned fluid groups of individuals into immutable ethnic units, much like Kenya's Luo and Kikuyu today. In many former colonies, the British picked favorites from among these newly solidified ethnic groups and left others out in the cold. We are often told that age-old tribal hatreds drive today's conflicts in Africa. In fact, both ethnic conflict and its attendant grievances are colonial phenomena.

It's no wonder that newly independent countries such as Kenya maintained and even deepened the old imperial heritage of authoritarianism and ethnic division. The British had spent decades trying to keep the Luo and Kikuyu divided, quite rightly fearing that if the two groups ever united, their combined power could bring down the colonial order. Indeed, a short-lived Luo-Kikuyu alliance in the late 1950s hastened Britain's retreat from Kenya and forced the release of Jomo Kenyatta, the nation's first president, from a colonial detention camp. But before their departure, the British schooled the future Kenyans on the lessons of a very British model of democratic elections. Britain was determined to protect its economic and geopolitical interests during the decolonization process, and it did most everything short of stuffing ballot boxes to do so. That set dangerous precedents. Among other maneuvers, the British drew electoral boundaries to cut the representation of groups they thought might cause trouble and empowered the provincial administration to manipulate supposedly democratic outcomes.

Old habits die hard. Three years after Kenya became independent in 1963, the Luo-Kikuyu alliance fell apart. Kenyatta and his Kikuyu elite took over the state; the Luo, led by Oginga Odinga (Raila Odinga's father) formed an opposition party that was eventually quashed. Kenyatta established a one-party state in 1969 and tossed the opposition, including Odinga, into detention, much as the British had done to him and his cronies during colonial rule in the 1950s. The Kikuyu then enjoyed many of the country's spoils throughout Kenyatta's reign.

The Kikuyu's fortunes took a turn for the worse when Daniel arap Moi, a member of the Kalenjin ethnic minority, assumed dictatorial power in 1978. He managed to hang on for more than two decades. Western Kenya enjoyed the economic benefits of state largess until Moi was voted out of office in 2002, at which point the pendulum again swung back to the Kikuyu, led by the incoming President Kibaki.

Fears of ethnic ascendancies, power-hungry political elites, undemocratic processes and institutions -- all are hallmarks of today's Kenya, just as they were during British colonial rule. This does not excuse the undemocratic behavior of the current Kenyan president, nor that of his opponent Odinga, both of whom are bent on seizing power and neither of whom is necessarily a true voice of the masses. Nor does it excuse the horrific violence that has unfolded throughout the country or the appalling atrocities committed by individual Kenyans. Rather, it suggests that the undemocratic historical trajectory that Kenya has been moving along was launched at the inception of British colonial rule more than a century ago. It's not hard to discern similar patterns -- deliberately stoked ethnic tensions, power-hungry elites, feeble democratic traditions and institutions -- in other former British colonies such as Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Iraq that share similar imperial pasts. In retrospect, the wonder is not that Kenya is descending into ethnic violence. The wonder is that it didn't happen sooner.

elkins@fas.harvard.edu

Caroline Elkins is an associate professor of African studies at Harvard University and the author of "Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya."


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