Monday, January 28, 2008

Democracy Part IX: Participation and Ethnic Rifts in Kenya

It is always amusing to be reminded of race hierarchies--especially when presented by an institution self consciously dedicated to a never ending proof that it is beyond such the internalization of such racialized systems of dominance and subordination, civilization and barbarity. And so it is with the BBC and its reporting on the violent turn in the democratic discourse in Kenya. Gangs on Rampage in Kenyan Towns, BBC News Online, Jan. 28, 2008. The thing that first strikes is the title, or rather the judgment in that title. So, it is gangs now, lawless bandits, that are at the forefront of the complex political, social and ethnic battles in Kenya today. But reading on, one is reminded that these gangs are parts of the military arms of a number of ethnic groups which have been battling for control of territory and for the protection of their own culture and space in the face of sharp threats from neighbors. "Members of President Mwai Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe have been fighting with Luos and Kalenjins who backed his rival Raila Odinga in the election a month ago." Id.

The last time we heard of such events, in Kosovo, the gang members became hardly warriors of European Islam seeking freedom from the evil and despotic Christian Orthodox Serbians, from whom only independence , or something close to it, was the only solution. But in Kenya we speak only of Africans. And so we devolve from the language of political expression to that of petty criminality. Thus, Adam Mynott writes, Adam Mynott, Inter-Ethnic Scores Settled in Nakuru, BBC News Online, Jan. 26, 2008. "Old inter-ethnic scores, some going back generations are being settled. Many relate to disputes over land which different communities claim was stolen from them." Id. This is likely true, and true all over Africa.

Yet the tensions themselves merely serve as another reminder that the tensions created by imperialist map drawing in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa in the late 19th and early 20th century, continue to cause tremendous problems--problems that cannot be paper overed by "democracy." Amalgamating peoples unrelated to each other and letting them know that they might vote together, and in so voting construct a demos, seems ludicrous, except to those with the power to make it so--and those who now profit from the increasingly empty exercise. Americans have begun to learn in Iraq that democracy is not a magic drug that can addle the brains of peoples with no love for each other into a band of brotherhood strong enough to forge a nation. Even in the United States, such a bond was cemented over the course of a war of conquest in which tens of thousands died and from which it took a century to recover. Kenya, like Yugoslavia--and Iraq-- was thrown together by a bunch of politicians seeking advantage. They were given to elites who sought to profit from the conglomerations. In Africa, we are still only at the end of the euphemistically recalled time of the "Big Men" of Africa.

In fake states, only the power and wealth provided by control of the state apparatus remains as a central reason for keeping these ersatz political units together. Those elites have been able to use a discourse of post colonialist anti imperialism and cultural protection, as well as post colonial race guilt to make the issue of the great imperialist exercise in map drawing off the table. And that is a shame. But we live in an age when it is more convenient to manage violence than to revisit their root causes. It is an age where the gesture of democracy is offered as a means of avoiding confronting the issue of demos. Thus, the BBC, like many western presses, can content itself by reporting (and the Western world can be comforted in its core illusions) of failures of democracy that can be corrected by "discussion" and management of differences among a unified people, if only those crazy bandit people can be brought to justice for their "crimes." When the old Soviet Union used to engage in these sorts of rhetorical flourishes the West would laugh at the cynical exercise. It seems we in the West have become their master now. And the true nations of Africa continue to languish, smothered under the European created system of politically expedient (and wealth creating for those in power) amalgamations that pass for states.

And thus to law. In this state of affairs, from Europe through Asia and to Latin America as well, the legitimacy of rule of law states hangs on an illusion. Its basis in popular sovereignty is in tension with the realities of the divisions of popular will within each state. The law of ethnic majorities--as has been increasingly apparent in places like Mugabe's Zimbabwe--retain the appearance of law but act as anything but. o management is joined the will to vest formalism, and the gesture of law, for its substance in Africa. There will be little progress and much management in Africa's future. But then this may well be the era of gesture in the rule of law.

Such a gesture, of course, refocuses interest on a federalism for the 21st century--one based on devolution of power based on ethnic, cultural, religious, or other significant communal differences as a way to paper over foundational differences among communities and as a consequence present something that looks like a demos to the rest fo the world. Ethnic federalism vaults form over substance. It suggests that any number of different groups can come together to form a nation state as long as they do not have to come together for that purpose in fact. This was the idea behind proposals for an Iraqi federation. And is now the last best hope for keeping the cobbled together states of Africa from coming apart. In Kenya's case this would require
a new constitution for Kenya that will guarantee non-Kikuyu citizens an equitable slice of the pie. This will require some form of federalism -- perhaps the devolution of power to 13 regions, which would replace the eight provinces currently controlled by the president's office through the provincial administration. Kenya's minority ethnic groups have called for federalism, or majimbo, for nearly fifty years. Long resisted by Kikuyu leaders, it is an idea whose time has come. It is also an idea that was tacitly endorsed by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Jendayi Frazier, who called on January 7 for measures of devolution to achieve a long-term solution. Joel D. Barkan, Kenya's Great Rift, Foreign Affairs, Jan. 9, 2008

I am all for gesture. As Barkan suggests, the only way to deal with difference is to acknowledge its reality--effectively eliminating political cohesion within the state--while presenting a sort of unified front to the outside world. That solution did, in part, work for India. It works a bit less well in fact in Nigeria. But, whatever its effect, it is important to remember the reality behind the veil.

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