I object!

by zunguzungu

Maina Kiai and L. Muthoni Wanyeki wrote an op-ed for the New York Times yestarday, and it begins this way:

“UNTIL December, Kenya was the most stable nation in East Africa. It has long been a willing partner in the Bush administration’s war on terrorism. Yet the United States has mostly stood by as our country has descended into chaos.”

This first sentence is just silly. Kenya has never been “stable” by any standard I want to embrace: from the abortive coup attempt in 1982 to the ongoing low-scale insurgency-counterinsurgency campaign in the north, and from being ruled by a pair of pretty-much-dictators for most of its history, the astounding levels of petty and not-so petty graft that characterize its economy, to the violence of its independance struggle getting recycled into a vicious brew of class and tribal tensions that have always been simmering (and only in the last few months came to a powerful boil), the word “stable” is just flat out wrong. Besides that, although “East Africa” usually only refers to three countries (Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda), you only have to look to Kenya’s south to see a country that has had stable elections for a while, a history of presidents giving up power voluntarily, and nothing like the kinds of violent tribal politics that independent Kenya has always been characterized by. Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere used Swahili to unite the country, whereas Jomo Kenyatta used tribalism to solidify his power base, to give only one aspect of a complex story.

But of course “stability” is not really about peace, is it? A stable country is one which has free markets and (as the next sentence clarifies) supports the West. There’s a long history of calling countries “stable” which adhere to those two criteria; Cote D’Ivoire used to be a shining beacon of hope in West Africa, as did (to a lesser extent) Zimbabwe. Not so much anymore, since those countries have all but fallen apart. And the US’s closest partner in the region has, for a while, been Museveni’s Uganda, a country which has been fighting a civil war in its north for decades but which will continue to be touted as a model of stability and growth until it has its own meltdown in a few years (you heard it here first!). But its not about that, you see; “stability” is a magical quality that has nothing to do with democracy or citizen well-being.

The rest of that article is just as airy, I thought. It doesn’t mention the role of tribally based militias and gangs like Mungiki, who have taken the lead in mobilizing and exploiting political dissent; not only do references to “the current calm” seem strangely at odds with reality (much like referring to how the surge is working in Iraq), but there’s a faith in high-level power sharing between Odinga and Kibaki that seems frankly delusional to me. They may have been part of the catalysts for the original post-election meltdown, but the evolution of the conflict has taken things far beyond their ability to control. Any real move towards peaceful resolution has to address those factors. But I guess an op-ed in the New York Times isn’t really about that either. Peace isn’t their business; happy disinformation is what pays the bills.