Exploring How The Western Media Distorts the Crisis in Kenya

A few nights ago, I received a text message from a friend in Kenya. Afraid of being attacked by members of the Kikuyu community, one of Kenya’s largest ethnic groups, he was fleeing his home. "Am ok," it read. "There were revenge attacks from Kikuyus, as the place is predominantly Kikuyu. Looking for another house."

But this same friend, who was not Kikuyu, had rushed to the Rift Valley in western Kenya three weeks ago to help evacuate Kikuyus. They were targeted by Kalenjin, a Kenyan ethnic group, many of whom were supporters of the opposition party in the December elections. Anecdotes like these, telling of ordinary Kenyans helping each other across ethnic boundaries, have rarely found a place in Western media reportage.

I had returned to Montreal in early January, after a short trip to my home country of Kenya during the December elections, and I was disturbed by what I read in the media here. I found it made me more confused and afraid than when I was still in Kenya.

According to many of the media reports, my country was suddenly in the midst of a "civil war," or even a "genocide," quite like what had happened in Rwanda in 1994. It was as if the situation could be reduced to a few violent images – like those of machete-wielding youth dancing next to burning houses. Lacking historical perspective, sensitivity to the economic conditions fostering ethnic tensions, and prone to descriptions of violence so sensational they seemed flavored with racism, the Western media was robbing Kenyans of their dignity and doing a great disservice to Westerners genuinely interested in understanding the country.

"The Horror, the Horror"

The Kenyan election on December 27, 2007 saw the incumbent President Kibaki steal the vote, then hurriedly have himself sworn in before a motley group of dejected government officials. In the days after, opposition supporters rose up in protest against the disputed elections, and the post-election power struggle spiraled into violence. On the day that I left, the only source of news accessible in Kenya was the BBC – the government had banned local media from reporting, leaving the country with a domestic media blackout.

On a BBC news page, provocative quotes entice readers: "We will start the war. We will divide Kenya." These are the words BBC chose to reflect the views of Jackson Kibbur, a Kalenjin "leader." Readers relying on the BBC to find out about the Kalenjin are likely to assume that he sufficiently represents the views of Kalenjin. Elsewhere in the article, snippets that seem to have been cut and pasted from an action film are quoted in isolation. "We will of course kill them," an interviewee is reported to have said of the Kikuyu.

The BBC, along with most of the mainstream media, also has its choice terms to describe the political crisis: "ethnic," "chaos," or "tribal." In its report on January 27, The Los Angeles Times carried the headline "’Tribal war’ spreads in Kenya." The same article had little historical context explaining how this "tribal war" was linked to the December elections, save for one or two paragraphs clumsily summing up the country’s history since its 1963 independence.

The word "tribal" means almost nothing, given that Kenya is composed of more than 40 ethnic groups, most of whom the media has never attempted to describe with historical accuracy. Instead, the media give abbreviated descriptions of men from the Kalenjin or Luo ethnic groups, who are seen simply "at war" with their Kikuyu neighbours. This reduction of extraordinarily complex conflicts to stark simplifications is by no means unique to Kenya: in Rwanda, it was the "Hutus" versus the "Tutsis"; in Sudan, the "Arabs" versus the "Africans" or the "Muslims" versus the "Christians"; in the vast territory of the Congo, a country the size of Western Europe, the "Hema" fight against the "Lendu."

All these groups do exist on the African continent, but not as rigidly fixed identities dating from time immemorial. These identities are complex and often fluid in nature, sometimes hardening in the crucible of political movements or colonial struggles. But simplifying every violent episode to a simple "ethnic conflict" has a familiar effect: making every conflict on the African continent seem irrational, chaotic, and without historical precedent.

The problem with these kinds of inaccurate representations is obvious enough: they preclude any nuanced understanding of the conflict and perpetuate the racist assumptions that have historically influenced Western perceptions of "Africans" – barbaric, primitive, and inherently destructive.

To those following the recent Kenyan events, it might be a surprise that the "ethnic violence" has political motivations; and that in fact not all members of the Kikuyu, Kalenjin, and Luo communities are bent on destroying each other. But what other impression would people get when they read headlines like "Rival Kenyan tribes face off with machetes and clubs" next to photographs of black Africans holding weapons, silhouetted by the sun?

It is certainly not ordinary Kenyans who benefit from the climate of terror stoked by politicians, manipulating ethnic differences to serve their own political agendas. These politicians have mobilized gangs of young men, who are marginalized and cut off from any participation in the country’s economy, to target ethnic groups, prompting revenge attacks. Though the Western media has made much of superficial differences between the two presidential candidates – Kibaki and his rival, Raila Odinga – there is in fact little substantive difference. Both men are from Kenya’s political elite, and rhetoric about Odinga being the people’s president rings hollow.

Into the valley of death?

Doug Miller is the radio host of Amandla!, a show on
CKUT radio in Montreal that provides analysis on different African countries. He tries to offer an alternative to mainstream media journalists, who have tended to approach their work on Kenya with an air of adventure, mixed with disappointment about the "direction" in which Kenya is heading.

Miller mentions the work of one prominent reporter, The Globe and Mail’s Africa correspondent Stephanie Nolen, praising her coverage of AIDS in Southern Africa but criticizing her Kenyan coverage, which he describes as a "cheap-thrill kind of journalism."

"The emphasis was on her going into the valley of death and facing these bloodthirsty warriors," he says. "It’s an awful attraction for a journalist to go out there. But is it giving us any insight into the situation? I don’t think so."

As Nolen writes in her article, aptly entitled "Into the Valley of Death," "The Kenya I traveled through this week was not a country I recognized…the Kenya that was prospering and ambitious and dignified and peaceful."

This sentiment, even when well-intentioned, seems a product of the condescending attitude of many Westerners, who treat Kenya as it were a child who had shouldered high hopes – the "sole democracy" on a continent ravaged by senseless violence – but had now failed them. A "tragic setback for democracy in Africa," one journalist wrote, as if an entire country could be given a failing mark.

Colonial legacies

Very rarely, clear and critical interventions stand out amongst media sensationalism. Caroline Elkins, author of
Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, offered some much-needed historical perspective on the root causes of the strife in a Washington Post article. Elkins tells us to look to Kenya’s colonial period if we are to understand what is happening in Kenya today.

"We are often told that age-old tribal hatreds drive today’s conflicts in Africa," she writes. "In fact, both ethnic conflict and its attendant grievances are colonial phenomena." In Kenya, Elkins informs us, the British spent much of their time trying to keep the Kikuyu and Luo divided. Were they to unite, the British feared the colonial order in the country would collapse. As Elkins writes, a Kikuyu-Luo alliance in the 1950s drove the British to release Jomo Kenyatta, an anti-colonial leader and later the country’s first president, from a detention camp, which ultimately accelerated the end of formal British colonial power.

But the alliance was short-lived, and Britain’s "divide-and-rule" tactic was put to use time and again in the colonies. It was effective enough to create the more-or-less hardened ethnic boundaries that are now manipulated by elites, the same elites who had been carefully cultivated by the British to protect their interests in the region once they left. These elites took control of the legal systems the British left behind, which, Elkin writes, "facilitated tyranny, oppression and poverty rather than open, accountable government."

Nothing to fear and nothing to lose

Celebrated Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o made the important observation that the current crisis does in fact concern two tribes. The tribes are not split along ethnic identity, but between "haves" "have-nots." It is no accident that much of the violence has taken place in Kibera, the second-largest slum in Africa, and in Mathare, another collection of slums.

In the post-election period, running battles were fought between armed police and residents of Kibera, while much of the middle classes and elites remained at a safe distance. Nunu Kidane and Walter Turner, writing for Pambazuka, the weekly publication on African news, remarked that the people living in Kibera and Mathare are in desperate straits, with "nothing to fear and nothing to lose."

The violence has not all been committed by nameless, disorganized bands of young Africans. Immediately after the election results were announced, the security forces began operating on a shoot-to-kill policy, on government order. They are, in fact, responsible for a large number of deaths. The media have rarely reported on the heavy-handed tactics used by the Kenyan police and the notorious paramilitary General Service Unit in the Kibera and Mathare slums.

Disturbing scenes of police brutality have been aired on local television. In western Kisumu, a region with a large number of opposition supporters, a young man was sticking out his tongue and jumping around, taunting a police officer. In return, the officer ran towards him, and shot him from a few feet away before kicking him in the ribs.

Little of this makes it into Western mainstream media. The Kibera slum may catch international attention, but not for the above reasons. It is becoming increasingly popular as a venue for "slum tourism." A journalist for Reuters claimed that anyone who wanted a "quick Africa poverty story" could surely find it in Kibera.

Armies of the unemployed

Deconstructing media misrepresentation of the Kenyan crisis is still not enough to understand why violence has broken out. There are other factors: Kenya is a very poor country whose more serious troubles concern low wages, unemployment, structural poverty, lack of social security, poorly funded health and education systems and lack of access to land and resources.

"It is no wonder that the structural poverty imposed on Africa throughout history has created an underclass of young people who have no hope and no future," Doug Miller of CKUT radio says. Even with an education, economic opportunities are scarce.

"What this is about is people with no access to resources in a country where they can’t do anything," Miller says. "A rich person can come by with any amount of money and mobilize them into what I call ‘the army of the unemployed."

It is these armies of disenfranchised youth that have been mobilized to set Kenyan against Kenyan. Understanding the origins for their exclusion will bring us closer to transcending the stereotypes that dominate Western media reportage, and perhaps a little closer to envisioning a resolution.