Led by what they took to be a heavenly mandate and a parallel devotion to free trade, a goodly number of 19th-century Victorians aspired to develop Africa’s hinterlands. And while this particular chapter in the longer tale of Western intervention on the continent helped to abolish slave networks and introduce the region to crops such as coffee, optimism for the cause proved short-lived. “The small numbers of missionary converts, the unwillingness of indigenous communities to absorb British ideas of commercial habits”, notes historian Andrew Porter, “caused even the compassionate to adjust their sights downwards.”1
The movement did not altogether cease, but ultimately split into an array of consequences and attitudes. While many Londoners espoused free-trade humanitarianism, colonists became more concerned with protecting that trade from local uprisings, extending their rule over much of Africa where evangelism had been. Trade, in the end, fell short of being free; Britain’s vision of liberal empire turned out to be more of a mirage. Imperial fantasies have now long since fizzled out, and post-colonial guilt most often defines the “White Man’s burden.”
The urge to proselytize Western ways, however, is with us still. Once epitomized by the exhortation of a divine command, that urge has evolved, most notably in America, into a secularized mission of poverty alleviation, human rights and democracy—replete with divisions of development specialists, brigades of non-governmental organization election monitors and platoons of special envoys. And just as an anti-slavery crusade set the stage for Leviathan Africanus—William Wilberforce somehow morphed into Cecil Rhodes—so American development crusades have inadvertently distorted African economies and political cultures in ways no one anticipated.
The affair is still very christian, with a small “c”, but it is no longer exactly white. During the past year, the pious concern of the Obama Administration came to Kenya, where it has applied steady pressure on the country’s rulers to reform their democracy. This followed, of course, a disputed presidential election some two years earlier that resulted in violence and political deadlock between two of Kenya’s vying tribes, the Kikuyu and Luo. In her early August visit to Nairobi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admonished the government’s lack of enthusiasm to prosecute perpetrators; a month later, the State Department threatened specific ministers with travel bans.
It is difficult to know how seriously to take such talk—whether Clinton’s in Kenya or Obama’s in Ghana a month earlier. The Obama Administration has all but banned “democracy” from its general rhetoric, but, as with the Bush Administration, it seems to pour forth anyway from principals and mid-level officials alike whenever the subject is Africa. Despite the U.S. government’s resolve to democratize locals living in their native communities amid patronage, corruption and violence, its efforts thus far betray a flat learning curve, overlooking both communal customs and past Western experience. If Obama Administration officials really understood what happened in Kenya two years ago and what has happened since, they would not speak as they have. But they don’t, and so they do.
From the stool-sitting elders to hunkering bushmen, Kenya’s tribal traditions carry on in far better health than its democratic institutions. Sprinkled with 19th-century English gentility, locals who appear to accept Western modernity have little desire to shed their deep-seated tribal ways. Kenya’s 2007–08 election crisis, revealing aching land rivalries and ethnic resentment, was not only a reminder of Kenya’s old conflicts but served as a prognosis for its future: East Africa’s timeless tensions will continue to propagate in today’s crypto-democratic context in the form of corruption and violence. And just as Samuel Huntington observed in his famous “paradox of democracy”, democratic forms imported into tribal societies are very likely to make those tensions worse.
International donors, many of whom have headquarters in Nairobi, exhibit Kenya as an exemplar for development in Africa. Nairobi’s high rises, billboards and day laborers working in homes and flower farms are proof that somehow it all works. And yet the distribution of goods and money through foreign assistance programs has increased inequality between political elites and the general population—an act that economist William Easterly and many others have blamed for “so much ill and so little good.” Come election time in Kenya, stakes are high. Tribes compete over international publicity and gifts. “Hunger pushes the hippo out of water”, insists one Luo proverb, and the thousand-year rivalry continues, with a modern twist.
I arrived in Nairobi in late 2007 to work on the privatization of the national telecom, Safaricom, having left Wall Street with an interest in emerging market finance and political economy. After only a few weeks in my office, a block off of Nairobi’s busy Koinange Street—home to fancy car dealerships, hotels and swarms of vagabonds—I inevitably turned my attention to local politics and the upcoming elections. If I wanted to hear the real story, suggested a taxi driver, do not mind newspapers, forums or websites; talk to the people who watch the gates at night or the man who delivers milk in the morning. Talk to the people who sleep in the slums and have family in the countryside.
Evans, a middle-aged, full-faced man with small ears and a round figure who worked as an assistant on the property where I lived in Nairobi’s hilly Kitisuru suburb, had that real story. Raised by his grandmother in Chevakali, a region in Western Province, he belonged to the Maragoli, a faction of the Luhya, Kenya’s second largest tribe. Evans knew what the so-called international community assigned to Kenya for so many years did not.
In the December 2007 presidential election, Raila Odinga, a member of the Luo tribe and the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) took on the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, a member of the powerful Kikuyu tribe and the Party of National Unity (PNU). While some Kenyans attempted to weigh the candidates’ backgrounds and attributes, most fell victim to the country’s divisive history of tribal allegiance. “If Odinga loses the elections, the Kibera slum will be set on fire”, Evans predicted two weeks before the elections, as we drove together past the European Commission Humanitarian Office on Ragati Road in Nairobi’s Upper Hill. While international observers passed on Pollyannaish pre-election reports, apprehension was swelling in urban neighborhoods. Luos and other marginalized tribes such as the Luhya had started marching through town center with ODM posters promising “No Raila, No Peace.”
Odinga’s supporters—the Luo, Luhya and Kalenjin tribes, who significantly outnumbered Kibaki’s loyal Kikuyu, Embu and Meru supporters—paid unemployed hands to parade through slums in pick-up trucks, shouting out with megaphones. They broadcasted messages of handouts to village dwellers who rose to duty for ODM. Some drills lasted all night. “Kenyans want a change”, Mr. Odinga insisted in speeches and newspapers, “and ODM offers the vehicle.” Considering their rival Kikuyus shallow money-grubbers, Luos spread lurid jokes. A popular one made fun of how Kikuyus own nice cars, but had to sleep in them too.
A month before the elections, newspapers reported that bands of youths had purchased bundles of machetes from Nakumatt, a large Nairobi supermarket chain. Blades and arrows were found in pick-up trucks in the Rift Valley, home to Kenya’s most rivalrous communities. Making his own pre-election maneuvers, President Kibaki announced a last-minute national holiday for Idd-Ul-Hajj, courting the favor of Muslim voters, who today represent 10 percent of the country’s population.
Local leaders from both parties promised food and power to youths and militias in exchange for targeted violence and intimidation on voting day. “Elections is a good time for Kenyans to make money”, Evans put it cynically. With an eerie, unsettling giggle at the anticipated tribal confrontation, Evans added that if Raila Odinga were to win Kenya would collapse in weeks. “Only Kikuyus care about Kenya. They fought hard for independence and own businesses.” He wiped away his smile: “Luos are not invested in Kenya. They want revenge against Kibaki and his Kikuyus.”
Three days after the election, when the final voting tally was released, it was apparent that Kibaki’s Kikuyu government had rigged the votes and stolen the election from Mr. Odinga. Violence broke out immediately. The Luos lashed back aggressively against Kibaki’s fraud and sought revenge against Kikuyu tribesmen throughout the country. The anger and violence spread quickly; some victims fled many times over to escape continuing violence, hunger and disease inside refugee camps. By mid-January, three weeks after the violence broke out, Ngong meadows—traditionally a site for polo matches and crafts fairs—brimmed with Kikuyu refugees from Nairobi’s Kibera slum. Those who attempted to stay in their neighborhoods were murdered. Homes were set afire, much as Evans predicted.
I had tea with Evans one January afternoon in a compound in Kitisuru, as we discussed how long the country might remain in what seemed an unceasing crisis. As gangs threw up roadblocks across the country, vegetable buckets ran bare, and food prices continued to increase, there was little chance for normal economic life to resume. With fresh reports of violence in Nairobi that evening, I sensed Evans was becoming increasingly anxious. “Kenya will fall apart if Kibaki’s police do not shoot these Luos”, he told me. “These youths rob and kill, and will come crawling over compound gates like hungry hyenas.” And yet he remained hopeful. “These Luo rioters will soon realize they only hurt themselves. They will have no job and no food after a while.” Meanwhile, groundskeepers nearby checked the yard for damaged fence wire and broken locks, anxious to make their rounds before nightfall.
Others with whom I spoke were more sympathetic to Odinga and his Luos. “When a poker player cleans out his opponent, he should at least leave him a few chips on the table”, my co-worker said, describing the Kikuyu government’s unmerciful tactics. “Otherwise, the loser waits down the road with a loaded gun.” Indeed, the next day Mr. Odinga called on a million Luo supporters to protest in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, a cry for more street riots and civil unrest.
With civil war looming, the sidewalks of the business district lay barren, save for a few evening geckos scampering across the pavement. Kenyans seeking tips for watching parked cars began disappearing from duty, as fewer visitors showed up. After a rainy morning, when Evans heard from acquaintances that protests in town center were called off due to bad weather, he took me for a drive through the western section of Nairobi and into the business district. We found kiosks beaten in by gangs lying neglected in intersections, wooden planks and debris scattered across roads. With the nation at a standstill one local telecom CEO complained that if politicians did not resolve their differences fast there would be no businesses left to tax and no country left to govern.
In response to the upheaval, President Kibaki turned to authoritarian rule, suspending live broadcasts and cellphone text messaging. All protests were forbidden. Tankers patrolled Nairobi’s Uhuru Park and policemen closed down the alleys of rowdy slums and Luo neighborhoods. Even so, poor infrastructure and the social isolation of many Luo communities eventually weakened the rebellion more than the government’s crackdown. Indeed, rural towns remained detached from centers of power and unaware of the political frenzy in Nairobi.
Arriving three weeks into the crisis in late January 2008, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan tried to mediate between Odinga and Kibaki. Odinga told the East Africa Standard that if “Kenyans fought the might of the British Empire, [fighting Kibaki’s] PNU with its excessive use of police force is a storm in a tea cup.” His Luo supporters continued to uproot train tracks and burn Kikuyu businesses, pressuring Kibaki into negotiations to protect his own kin.
The reaction of the well-intentioned international development community in Kenya to the country’s descent into violence was perplexing to behold. They were caught off guard by the crisis, having persuaded themselves and their superiors back home that the country was the stable anchor of East Africa. Their surprise soon produced a reaffirmation of deep-seated beliefs. Those experts who trumpeted institutional reform, for example, blamed Kenya’s constitution, which had been last revised seven years before. They pointed to the imbalance of power between the President and the parliament, controlled by the PNU and ODM respectively. But the gangs of arsonists and tribal warriors, as Evans insisted, obeyed not institutions but rather the more basic realities of tribal politics, defined by the zero-sum nature of land ownership, power and pride. These were realities NGO members did not understand, or chose euphemistically to dismiss.
Following the weeks of crisis—which resulted in the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Kenyans—I mulled over the young democracy while driving out to Lake Naivasha, a wildlife region two hours northwest of Nairobi. The usual lorries lay sideways on the shoulder of Nakuru highway with axles in the air; some drivers sat on top of their car hoods, while a few inspected their tires to determine what had caused their accident. Shepherds dawdled by the crash scenes, holding hens by the feet upside down, with goats and sheep meandering freely at times into oncoming traffic. The incongruities of this mid-morning activity—traces of modernity amid ancient traditional life, the two resistant to one another—highlighted both the fragility of Kenya’s democratic institutions and the recent political crisis.
As I neared the lake, natives led cattle toward the waterfront to graze. Giraffes fed on high foliage and baboons scurried by with a cache of stolen vegetables. Other villagers stood patiently against posts and tin hovels, appearing like vines adhering to the wall and as thin as the ground wire pulled out beside them. Greenhouse flower farms—many still owned by Europeans—stood like glistening palaces in the sunlight between dingy villages.
I did not know it, but violence was tracking my little sojourn. Two days after I had left Lake Naivasha’s quiet resort town, Kikuyu gangs overran the region, burning villages and flower farms. Gangs with bows and arrows stopped cars at roadblocks in search of Luo and Kalenjin men, women and children, many of whom were murdered on the spot. The region slipped into a bath of ethnic violence. Kalenjins retaliated, seeking to reclaim land from Kikuyus they insisted belonged to their ancestors. “I remember working in Rwanda after the genocide”, an American nurse practitioner who trains Kenyans in emergency medicine told me on our night drive back to Nairobi, “and I look again in disbelief at the evils people can do to each other.”
Raila Amolo Odinga was raised in Nyanza Province, 250 miles west of Nairobi, born in 1945 to Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, a prominent Luo leader and Kenya’s first Vice President (his father was later imprisoned for forming an opposition party against the first Kikuyu government). He entered Nairobi’s political scene as a staunch opponent of former Kenyan President, Daniel Arap Moi, and was later imprisoned for assisting in an attempt to overthrow his government. Elected to Kenya’s Parliament in 1992, Odinga earned a reputation for hot-headed tactics, constantly forming new platforms and parties while abandoning old alliances. He served as the Minister of Energy, then of Roads, Public Works and Housing.
A one-time ally of Mwai Kibaki, Odinga emerged as a rival to the President in 2002, when a newly elected Kibaki failed to share power with the Luo leader in exchange for Luo support during the campaign. In a late November 2005 referendum, Odinga rallied against Kibaki’s Kikuyu government as it sought to amend the constitution to strengthen Kibaki’s grip over parliament. And yet the political anxieties of those years remained largely hidden to the outside world, thanks to the welcomed demise of the Kenya African National Union (KANU), the country’s long-time ruling party, which had epitomized the greed and dominance of Kenya’s ruling elite since independence. As most people saw it, things could not get worse than they were during the 24-year presidency of Daniel Arap Moi, when corruption, brutality and indulgence defined the reputation of Kenya’s government.
In truth, too, things had seemed to improve. Multiparty politics emerged in the late 1990s when Kenya, under pressure from the international community, supported economic growth and improved its relations with donors. British and Indian businessmen developed Nairobi’s Westlands district, helping visitors and urban elite enjoy Kenya’s Karibu (welcome) culture, a trademark of its bourgeoning tourist industry. Rural villages formed Savings and Credit Cooperatives (SACCO) and made Kiswahili the dominant dialect among traders. Donors said it was aid effectiveness. Envisioning a financial market for homebuyers, one local banker told me, “Kenyans want to own land. It is in their tradition, as is paying back borrowed wealth.”
Alas, things were and are not so simple. What Kenyans say they want is one thing; what they do is often another. Many Kenyans, like Evans, come to Nairobi in search of work and, like half of the city’s population, live cheaply in informal settlements. Day workers ride in cattle trucks, walk the roadsides or take Matatu passenger vans to town or to wealthy suburbs to work as house staff, gardeners or construction workers. Indeed, Kenyans migrate readily in search of jobs and training, as well as NGO handouts and benefits leftover from Her Majesty’s provisions—the Central Highlands’ coffee farms or the Mombasa ports of the old British East Africa Company. Indian communities, brought over during the occupation to build the Kenya-Uganda railway, also provide jobs for locals. “Kenyans are very proud of their entrepreneurial spirit”, Evans once contended to me, finishing a cheeseburger and diet coke in Nairobi’s American-style Java House restaurant. “They like to look down on neighboring countries for their failed social experiments.”
Yet promise and desperation can look oddly similar to different observers. Having the energy to glean opportunistically off an economic structure that looks more or less like the one the British left in 1960 seems “entrepreneurial” to those who do not invest much in either human or other forms of capital. Kenyans use language to create a world of images that reflects their pride. Hugged against Nairobi’s Kenyatta Avenue are the “Ambassador’s Lounge” and “Elite Barber Shop”, two kiosks made of corrugated medal and sporting unfinished paint jobs. They offer an assortment of goods and services mostly unrelated to their names, similar to the tin-shed “law court” kiosk in Kibera’s lawless slum. Hopeful attributions are the norm for a country dependent on foreign ideas as much as financial assistance. Economic growth, such as it is, comes at the hands of donor programs, as well as expatriates and missionaries, who bring the only investment and skills to many communities. Locals’ fascination with Western customs is visible not just in civil but religious life, as Christian messages of salvation blend with tribal rituals. Fragmented tribal traditions entangled in imperial remnants still characterize the culture of Kenya’s government, businesses and academic institutions.
And while lace jabot- and wig-wearing parliamentarians in Nairobi distribute land among communities in the country, rag-wearing elders and militias actually take responsibility for keeping it stable. In some regions the state’s power dissolves entirely. State police go after enemies, not criminals, collecting bribes and obeying tribal elders with little consequence or guilt. Evans recited to me some of the tribal wisdom he knew, like how thieves are always ahead and travelers should not walk the riverbanks alone. Tribal mores call for prominent men to keep multiple wives—many of whom are bought and sold—and to steal land and cattle to garner respect. Tribesmen propagate fierce blood-and-earth doctrines and support sects like the Mungiki, who seek the total restoration of tribal rule.
To many of Nairobi’s well-heeled residents, violence has become de rigueur around election time and adds to the many reasons why the suburbs, full of NGOs and multinationals, remain insulated from the vast population. Many find December to be a dangerous month even without elections. “Around Christmas time, when valuable gifts are bought and exchanged, crime always increases”, an expatriate explained to me as she considered hiring additional security for her home. Some foreigners balance the political volatility and local cultural frustrations with exotic lifestyles of pseudo-nobility and exclusive country clubs. Recalling the frontier spirit, colonial author Karen Blixen described Kenya as a paradoxical place of new-found freedoms and safari life, amid tragedy and horror, and half-drunk bottles of champagne. Despite a caste-like separation between locals and foreigners, most Kenyans are appreciative of visitors, well aware that more people had jobs during the British occupation.
Fortunately, the violence that broke out after the December 2007 election eventually died down. In late February 2008 Odinga and Kibaki appeared to reach an agreement in Nairobi to share power as President and Prime Minister with a handshake attended by foreign dignitaries and the NGO community. The two leaders were sworn into office with their Bibles held high in the air, where the smell of fire still remained. “This is about a coalition and not about two individuals”, Odinga asserted the next day to David Frost, “and is going to require leaders . . . to cultivate the spirit of nationhood.” He called on various ethnic groups to participate in a dialogue to reconcile Kenyan society.
As Evans knew, however, away from Nairobi’s State House Kenya’s ancient embers of rivalry and mistrust continued to smolder. Evans has since left his job in Nairobi to return to his family’s plot of land in Kenya’s Western Province, not far from the Ugandan border, where he and his wife oversee ten acres of corn and three cattle, as he proudly tells it. In a recent conversation he maintained a measured outlook: “Things have calmed down in Kenya because of the new coalition government.” But he cautioned that peace will only last until next election at the earliest, when Kikuyus will seek to take back the country’s resources and access to foreign aid. Violence will return, he warns.
Partly for that reason, public displays aside, Odinga has shown little real interest in dialogue or coalitions. He put it clearly to Secretary Clinton: “In Africa, in many countries, elections are not won, they are rigged.” And he welcomes the Obama Administration’s travel bans against Kenya’s ministers because they are conveniently aimed at his political enemies. It is true that this may be of little consequence in Nairobi where Kikuyus populate the high rungs of most institutions regardless. But Evans believes that the Kikuyus will now have to find someone from Kenya’s other 41 tribes to run on their ticket in order to make their crusade less apparent to voters and to the outside world: “a puppet”, Evans asserted, like the former Kalenjin President Daniel Arap Moi, who will share money and power with Kikuyu clansmen accordingly.
Evans’s matter-of-fact assessment about Kenyan democracy is easy to understand. Tribal traditions have their deep roots, and those traditions and their memories make for comfortable homes for Kenya’s tribes. Harder to understand is Western optimism, which, like that of the Victorians, is due to spoil from obliviousness to Kenya’s most fundamental realities. Kenyans remember what happened twenty and 200 years ago; Westerners cannot even remember correctly what happened two years ago, because they never understood it in its own terms in the first place. Kenyans have their illusions, to be sure, epitomized by “The Ambassador’s Lounge” and pride in their supposed entrepreneurial energies. But these are slight compared to the illusions of Westerners in foreign capitals, where modern evangelical fantasies of African trusteeship still emanate.