Creating a Path To Peace in Kenya

Children whose families fled post-election violence line up for food at a camp for internally displaced persons in central Kenya yesterday.
Children whose families fled post-election violence line up for food at a camp for internally displaced persons in central Kenya yesterday. (By Paula Bronstein -- Getty Images)
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By Wangari Maathai
Friday, February 8, 2008

It's make-or-break time for Kenya. After weeks of standoff, Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, who both claim to have won the Dec. 27 presidential election, are engaged in negotiations. Each side in the talks, presided over by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan, has agreed to a peace plan. There have been calls for a truth-and-reconciliation commission, which is essential to holding accountable those who are responsible for the recent violence. The African Union has put Kenya's crisis high on its agenda, as have the European Union and the U.S. Congress, which held hearings on the flawed election this week.

I am cautiously optimistic that a resolution can be found and peace restored to my country. But it is imperative that we unravel the underlying causes of the violence and not paper over them as Kenyan leaders have in the past.

For nearly six weeks, Kenya has appeared to be at war with itself. Unfortunately, the fighting has been ethnically charged. Kenyans know that these "tribal clashes" are a beast that can be awakened by politicians, particularly during general elections. Shortly before and after the 1992 elections, violence consumed communities in the Rift Valley. Hundreds, perhaps more, were killed, and thousands were displaced. Many still haven't returned to their homes.

Even as we struggle to resolve the current crisis, we need to know why these clashes recur. Only then can wounds begin to heal and people look to the future with hope. One main trigger is the inequitable distribution of natural resources in Kenya, especially land. The colonial government forcibly displaced large numbers of Kenyans to make way for settlers. At independence, land changed hands, but issues of ownership and distribution remained. In Kenya's highly competitive political landscape, land has become the battleground.

Citizens are easily persuaded by politicians who promise land in exchange for votes. If the only way to get that land is to forcibly evict fellow Kenyans, neighbors become the easiest victims. Knowing that such crimes will most likely never be punished encourages the attackers. They deliberately demoralize and traumatize their victims to ensure they don't return. Prejudices and stereotypes held by different ethnic communities go back a long way and are used to incite resentment and hatred.

The modern African state is essentially a loose collection of tribal homelands or "micro-nationalities." Kenya has 42: The largest has a population of several million; the smallest, only a few thousand. Political power is determined by these numbers. Tribal clashes in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa reveal the superficial nature of African nation-states. Most African nations were created by retreating European colonial powers that gathered or split the micro-nationalities. The resulting entity was given a name, a flag and a national anthem and handed over to a select group of Western-educated elites, most of them sympathetic to the colonial administration.

Most Africans didn't understand the new nation-state and remained largely loyal, and attached, to their micro-nationalities. The ruling elites, in turn, remained aloof and distant. Often they spoke a foreign language, adopted a foreign culture, and frustrated or dashed the hopes they'd raised before independence.

Even today, for ordinary Africans, a threat to their micro-nationality or those they consider their leaders resonates more than a threat to the nation. Tribal clashes are also fueled by poverty, corruption and a perception that national resources are not equitably distributed. Micro-nationalities yearn for one of their own to become president so the community will have its "time to eat."

To create a more cohesive nation-state, ruling elites must devote time, energy and resources to ensuring universal freedom, security and an equitable distribution of resources. And far from trying to destroy the micro-nationalities, Africans should embrace their distinct cultures, languages and values. By bringing the best of their micro-nationality to the nation, they would enrich all.

Consider: Micro-nationalities would begin to see the benefits of unity in diversity. There would be no need for anyone to organize tribal clashes against their neighbors. Leaders would be elected for their ability and commitment rather than by how many votes they garner from their ethnic tribe. They wouldn't be blindly supported because of their hard-line stance on behalf of their own community. In this way, Africans might be able to rise above petty politics and embrace not only their countries but even the African Union's dream of a United Africa.

All of this takes leadership -- not just from elites but from all of us. This is the only path toward a solution to Kenya's current crisis and a lasting peace.

Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Laureate, served in Kenya's Parliament from 2002 to 2007. She is the author of "Unbowed: A Memoir."

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