14 January 2008

Kenya: land of 1,000 explanations

As many of you are aware, there's been a bit of turmoil in Kenya since they had some elections that smelled fishy. While apparently most of the violence has calmed down, the situation is apparently still quite tense. But why did things go so bad, so fast, in the first place? I don't have an answer to that question, but I'll gladly point you towards several people who do:
  • Joel Barkan says it's basically a question of competing ethnic groups.
  • Colin Kahl follows down that path and adds agricultural land scarcity into the mix.
  • Stephanie Hanson goes a different route and suggests that the increasingly young Kenyan population is tired cronyism among the older political elite.
  • Also in the "it's politics more than ethnicity" camp are Steven Fish and Matthew Kroenig, who argue that the weak national parliament is to blame.
  • Finally, Aidan Hartley posits that a superficial process of democratization is to blame.
This looks like an especially tricky multiple choice test, doesn't it? Lacking any deep base of knowledge about Kenya, its people and its politics, I'm inclined to believe all of these people are right to some degree -- if for no other reason than that taken individually, their explanations are too simplistic to stand on their own.

However, one can piece these varying explanations into a framework that will probably start to sound familiar. The colonial power established a system of governance that favored a particular group(s) over others. With their hands on the levers of economic and political power, this favored group took advantage of more than its fair share of the country's resources. Realizing that this power was so lucrative, those in charge derailed any sort of democratic process for the sake of their own wealth. With checks on executive power effectively eliminated, the economy is plundered until change is demanded from below. Seeking to provide only enough "change" to keep the masses at bay, the elite "opens up" the political process. However, when real electoral competition sneaks in the back door, suddenly the openness ends and the population -- now bigger and younger than it was when this system first came into shape -- becomes quite disgruntled, and so here we are today.

Of course, this is an overly simplistic model too, and one completely lacking in situational context. But it does try to take into account a deeper historical perspective than often gets tossed around the punditocracy. In short, if you're looking for the root of any given conflict, and don't dig any more than thirty years deep, you're going to come up short. Here too, we see how academic biases to certain points of view color the analysis provided.

But this is also a common problem one finds in conflict resolution generally. There are often seventeen or so correct answers to one problem. In Kenya, the key to resolving this crisis will be to figure out which roots to address, and when.

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