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Martin LeFevre: Kenya And Tribalism's Origins

Kenya And Tribalism's Origins

Meditations - From Martin LeFevre in California

In the region of humankind's birth, old scores, older than living memory, are being settled, thereby opening new wounds, requiring more score-settling in the future.

The heartrending situation in Kenya following the election fiasco has destroyed the image of that country as a beacon of stability and democracy on the African continent.

Astoundingly, a man named Barack Obama, of Kenyan blood, could become the first person of color elected president of the United States. What is the relationship, if any, between these two, seemingly diametrically opposed movements?

A man tries to pass a baby out of a burning church in Eldoret, but he is hacked with a machete, and the baby goes up in flames. While Obama is plucking the 'mystic chords' of national unity in America so expertly, the strains of tribal division, as ancient as man itself, are jarring the mind and tearing at the heart in Kenya.

To many Western ears, Luos and Kalenjins attacking Kikuyus with machetes and clubs confirms their stereotypes of Africans as backward savages trapped in some sort of tribal time warp. That racist image is in turn exploited by the likes of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, who, backed by so-called African leaders, mocks the West's hypocrisy and duplicity with regard to Africa while continuing to oppress a formerly quite prosperous people.

Why haven't you applied your eloquence to the horrendous situation in Kenya, Senator Obama? As you said in the debate in New Hampshire, words matter, and nowhere would your words matter more than to the divided, impoverished Kenyans that see your candidacy as a beacon of hope in this indifferent world.

It's no longer a question of whether Obama can get white America to vote for him. It's a question of whether his presidency ushers in radical changes in the mind-set of peoples and the policies of governments, transformations sufficient to make a real difference in the lives of the poor, in America, Kenya, and around the world.

On the political level there are many causes for the collapse in Kenya's vaunted stability. The Kibaki/Moi clique clearly decided that they weren't going to give up power if there was any way they could rig the election. Kenya has not managed to dispel the dark shadow of the Moi years, and that's one of the main causes for this eruption of chaos.

Speaking of evil regimes, the Bush Administration has been making mischief in neighboring Somalia. At the beginning of last year it fomented, in Nairobi, an uprising in Somalia and an invasion by Ethiopia to drive out the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which Bush said had links to Al-Qaeda.

In the name of Bush's "global war on terror," and with the complicity of the Kibaki government, the same warlords that killed American soldiers in 1993 were reinstalled in Somalia.

When the Bush Administration said 'jump,' the Kibaki government replied, 'how high?' Then Kibaki, emboldened by his close relationship with the Empire, stole the election. So the Bush-Clinton-Bush era, forever defined by the Clinton Administration's policy of active, amoral indifference to the genocide in Rwanda, has now helped destabilize Kenya.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, where the interminable presidential campaign is finally fully underway, the dangers of ethnic identification go unchallenged by our own elites. "The psychological advantage of waking up knowing and seeing almost every day the leader of the free world as a member of your own tribe brings pride even to the most cynical critic," said Michael Eric Dyson, a professor at Georgetown University and an Obama supporter who has studied racial identity, and should know better.

Tribalism, and its modern form, nationalism, is tearing the world apart. As Maina Kiai, chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights said, "Emotions have been festering, resentments have been building and we sat around pretending ethnicity didn't exist."

Most Kenyans feel that their leaders failed them, and that is true. But so did their civil society, business, and academic elites who remained content with the status quo, because it served them quite well.

National leaders must be held accountable to the human prospect on Earth, not merely to their own national constituencies. Without a Global Polity of world citizens to do so, what is happening in Kenya is not just a throwback to our tribal past, but a foreshadowing of humankind's future.

Martin LeFevre


Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: The author welcomes comments.

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