The Next Genocide?

As post-election violence in Kenya continues, the options facing U.S. policymakers range from bad to worse. Will Washington be able to prevent a genocide?

With the machetes out in Africa, the world lends its focus to the continent-fearing that the genocide that was to never again occur after World War II could repeat itself one more time in Kenya. While some experts are holding out the probability that Kenya will not descend into Rwandaian-style ethnic killing, post-election events have heightened Kenya's ethnic grievances and made an eventual outbreak of genocide more likely-not necessarily next week or month, but at some point in Kenya's inevitably bleaker future.

The Kenyan people have no rescuer in sight. Despite some erstwhile hopes that the African Union could become the continent's body for resolving and averting its own crises, the institution has had high-profile defeats in Sudan and Somalia. Yesterday, the union's chairman, John Kufuor, along with the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, left Nairobi after their efforts to broker some reconciliation between the president and opposition failed. Next week, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan will begin his own mediation efforts.

And with the United States tethered down in Iraq, Washington would be more than disinclined to invest man and fire power in a country where it has no pressing interests. And beyond the logistical complications that an intervention in Kenya would currently present, the continuing sectarian violence in Iraq demonstrates how difficult it can be even for an occupying superpower to contain sectarian violence. And memories of Somalia would temper U.S. enthusiasm for any kind of military intervention in Kenya-not to mention Kenyan expectations of such U.S. action.

More than five hundred people have been killed so far in Kenya. And even if a broader disaster is averted there, an outbreak of ethnic violence in other African countries could only be a matter of time. J. Peter Pham, director of The Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University-who is currently in East Africa-said of the Kenyan crisis: "What surprises me is neither the ethnic violence since ethnic tensions have simmered-barely below the surface-in Kenya, like so many African states, almost since independence nor the fierceness of passions in the electorate since Africa's largely centralized states make political competition a winner-take-all, livelihood-and-death proposition; what surprises me, rather, is that many diplomatic observers, given to Western notions of political correctness and often surrounded by Westernized African elites, failed to capture the reality of the precariousness of the Kenyan state until the violence erupted."

Pham, who is writing more extensively on the potential for ethnic violence in Africa in an upcoming piece for The National Interest, said "Virtually every sub-Saharan African country with the exception of South Africa (a sui generis nation that is not entirely African) and Botswana (ethnically homogenous) could, under the wrong circumstances, go the way of Kenya since they are almost all non-organic states of questionable legitimacy in the eyes of their own citizens."

In the case of Kenya, not unlike pre-genocide Rwanda, the president's ethnic group, the Kikuyu tribe (Kenya's largest of about forty) has dominated the country's politics and economy since independence from Britain in 1963. Since the reportedly marred elections of December 27, Kikuyus have been targeted by the Luo tribe of Kenya's lead opposition politician, Raila Odinga. In the areas where the Luo tribe is dominant, Kikuyus have already fled in large numbers. Ethnic Kambas have also been targeted in Luo strongholds since a decision by Kalonzo Musyoka, a defeated presidential candidate, to drop his earlier neutrality in the post-election dispute and accept a position as vice president in President Mwai Kibaki's government. And in Kenya's central highlands, where the Kikuyus are dominant, minority tribes are fleeing, fearing retaliatory attacks. More than 250,000 Kenyans have been uprooted. On Tuesday, Kibaki fanned ethnic tensions by naming a cabinet that the opposition has called a slap in the face, due to the lack of a power-sharing arrangement.

Given the dimensions of the crises that could erupt in post-colonial Africa, the United States and other wealthy countries face a moral compulsion to craft some preventive strategy. The administration's Millennium Challenge Account is geared to prevent the kind of fraud and corruption that fueled the ethnic killing of the past two weeks in Kenya. But while the incentives toward good governance are a step in the right direction, they are insufficient to prevent a leader intent on continuing his rule from doing so illegitimately-even while staring down the brink of potential genocide.

Other effective options for preventing or dealing with ethnic violence in Africa remain elusive. The United States announced Thursday it is donating $5 million to help Kenyans made homeless by the violence, but that is hardly a substantive response. The United Nations' blue helmets have demonstrated an acceptable track record in upholding, but not compelling, peace deals. And so rich nations stand woefully resigned to witness, yet again, future ethnic slaughters in Kenya or elsewhere.

 

Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.