How We Don’t Look at Kenya

Western media coverage of the conflict in Kenya has been enormous, especially for a story coming out of Africa. The reportage has been a staple of the Economist and the New York Times since the beginning of the year, and even the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has run the AP’s dispatches from Nairobi. Yet for all its breadth, the coverage has been dangerously lacking in depth. The media’s principal crime has been to recycle plot lines from past African conflicts and apply them to Kenya. At first, it was the story of an abusive, autocratic government that “stole the election” versus an opposition leader who refused to be silenced. More recently, proclamations of “ethnic cleansing” have dominated headlines, along with speculation about all-out civil war. And the images of young, angry black men carrying guns in front of flaming roadblocks circulatinged in the media evoke memories of other hotspots like Sierra Leone and Somalia.

But the Western media is getting it wrong. This is not to say that the horrific stories are untrue, or that the violence in Kenya isn’t really all that bad. But these stories are incomplete. They ignore the past decade of Kenya’s history and the complicated politics behind the present conflict. Perhaps, to a certain extent, newspapers and magazines will always shorten and dramatize their stories, regardless of what part of the world they are covering. But this tendency should not absolve reporters of their responsibility to get facts straight.

As they search for ways to interpret and frame the issue, Western news outlets have become fixated on the ethnic dimensions of the conflict. At the height of the violence in late January and early February, media descriptions of “tribal killings” and “ethnic cleansing” ran rampant, as did allusions to the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Gerard Prunier, a political scientist who has written extensively on Rwanda and Darfur, says that for the media, “‘genocide’ is big because it carries the Nazi label, which sells well.” Likewise, the term “ethnic cleansing” recalls bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia, giving the reader a non-African reference point that adds to the drama of the narrative.

Acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing are generally understood as one-sided: one group is considered to be the victim, the other, the perpetrator. However, this has not been the case in Kenya, where different ethnic groups have assumed both roles. Maina Kiai, Chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights and a well-respected Kenyan activist, says there is evidence linking both the government officials accused of stealing the election and members of the opposing party, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), to the killings. At a SIPA panel in February, Kiai described the situation as “a political crisis with ethnic expression,” noting that politics in Kenya and many other African countries sometimes happen to be organized around ethnic lines. Other Kenyans writing about the conflict on op-ed pages or in independent newspapers agree: the violence is first and foremost political.

In any event, Western coverage of the crisis has been frequently marked by disbelief. Journalists have continually expressed shock that so stable and economically developed a country could experience such a societal breakdown. However, they shouldn’t have been so surprised. Demands for resources and political reform have been building for years, as has discontent with President Mwai Kibaki. Scholars and activists at the February SIPA panel argued that the crisis could have been predicted and questioned recent outpourings of disbelief. Columbia law professor Peter Rosenblum admonished the New York Times for giving only a limited story. “This was known in Africa,” he said, if not also in the U.S.

Moreover, these are not the first Kenyan elections that have been marked by violence. The US State Department reported 1,000 people killed and up to 250,000 displaced by clashes in the Rift Valley during the early 1990s, and further violence surrounded the 1997 and 2002 elections. Nor is this the first election in Kenya that is likely to have been rigged. Scholars and activists have reported widespread “irregularities” in previous Kenyan elections, although international observer groups never before condemned them so directly. Why then was the media so inclined to believe in Kenya’s viability? It may partially be a matter of relativity: compared to the rest of the region (war-torn Sudan, Rwanda, and what was once Somalia), Kenya was stable. The country’s liberalized economy was also growing. At the same time, however, the fiction of a stable, democratic Kenya was likely one borne from wishful thinking. The United States needed a partner in the region, particularly as it sought to extend its “War on Terror” to the Horn of Africa, where Al-Qaeda operatives are said to be setting up new bases. Kenya was deemed the only viable option, and the partnership was soon crafted in idealized terms that ignored the underlying complexities of Kenya’s political situation. A vision of Kenya’s stable and prospering democracy persisted in media, despite evidence to the contrary.

Perhaps the most frustrating idea expressed in the Western media, however, is that Kenya somehow represents all of Africa—an Africa where democracy will never stick and where no viable independent economy can ever sustain itself. A January 24 Economist article warned, “The stakes are high. A complete meltdown in Kenya may set back the entire continent.” The fear is that NGOs and business interests will stop investing time and money in the entire continent.

Certainly, an escalated conflict in Kenya would have severe implications for a region already plagued by ongoing conflicts in Somalia and Darfur and continued instability in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But the entire continent? This seems unlikely. There is no logical reason that Kenya would represent a tipping point for investment, given all the preexisting sources of political instability in Africa. There is also no reason why a political disaster in Kenya should set back democratization or economic development in countries like Ghana and Botswana, which are already considered success stories in these areas.

Most distressingly, the uncanny power of such proclamations by the press is that they can become self-fulfilling prophesies: if Western investors who read the Economist get the idea that civil war in Kenya is imminent, they may in fact hold off on investments in other parts of Africa. The global reach of these publications means that they also have the potential to impact the situation on the ground. Proclaiming the election “stolen” bolsters the opposition ODM, giving it a sense of international legitimacy that might preclude political concessions.

Similarly, declaring “ethnic cleansing” fuels the cycle of retribution and makes negotiation more difficult. Political scientist Alex de Waal argues that, in the case of Darfur, the label of “genocide” has made rebel groups less willing to compromise. “Having labeled a group or a government as ‘genocidal,’ it is difficult to make the case that a political compromise needs to be found with them,” he writes. Demands for punitive measures like sanctions, prosecution, and military intervention grow, while the possibility for true compromise becomes more remote. Though the situation in Kenya is clearly distinct, the “ethnic cleansing” language could have a similar effect.

Western newspapers are more than just sources of information; they are themselves political actors. Which makes their job more important than ever—and their simplified, dramatized narratives all the more dangerous.