Jun
01
2008

'Tribal' Label Distorts African Conflicts

Ethnic framing may obscure political contexts

Raila Odinga--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/DEMOSH

Raila Odinga--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/DEMOSH

When post-election violence erupted in Kenya at the end of December, U.S. media quickly settled into a familiar story: African tribes were savagely tearing each other apart. Journalists described the events as “savage tribal killings” (L.A. Times, 1/2/08), “gruesome ethnic killings” (Washington Post, 1/6/08) and “tribal riots” (Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, 1/3/08). “This is a tribal situation,” explained CBS (Early Show, 1/2/08). “And what is terrifying is that the veneer of this country is so thin, that there’s so much tension and hatred that’s been here all along.”

The crisis began after Kenyans voted in the country’s December 27 presidential election. As the final votes were being tallied, trailing incumbent Mwai Kibaki, a member of the Kikuyu ethnic group, suddenly and suspiciously pulled ahead of challenger Raila Odinga, a Luo, who had led in the polls. Protests and violence broke out, particularly in poor urban neighborhoods and the more rural Rift Valley, and intensified after Kibaki had himself hastily sworn in as the victor despite widespread accusations of vote-rigging.

Much of the violence took place along ethnic lines; political leaders on both sides hurled charges of ethnic cleansing; and many U.S. journalists looked no further for their analysis. “The election crisis has taken the lid off tribal hatred,” reported NBC Nightly News (1/3/08), a conclusion repeated on CNN (1/10/08): “Charges of vote fraud ignited old tribal hatred.”

Media word choice emphasized the primitive and intractable nature of the conflict. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof presented 16-year-old Robert (2/21/08), a Luo forcibly circumcised by a group of machete-wielding Kikuyu, as “a symbol of the primeval tribal tensions that threaten Kenya’s future.” Faced with such “primeval” forces, Kristof prophesied the impossibility of reconciliation: “Never again will Robert be friendly with Kikuyu or have anything to do with them.”

Rwandan genocide references cropped up everywhere, but media missed the most illuminating parallel—their own simplistic, racist coverage of both. “Pure tribal enmity was behind the bloodshed,” concluded Time magazine on April 18, 1994, an analysis echoed across the media as the crisis unfolded (Extra!, 7-8/94). Rocky Mountain News international editor Holger Jensen put the matter bluntly: “Tribalism is the curse of Africa,” he wrote (4/14/94). “Every conflict in post-colonial Africa, from the state of emergency in Zululand to the current bloodletting in Rwanda, is tribal in origin. Ideology, politics and economics are merely modern-day complications.”

While his judgment may appear extreme, most mainstream U.S. media over the years haven’t strayed far from that analysis; when it comes to African conflict, tribal-focused coverage is the curse of journalism.

Challenging ‘tribal’ labels

Critics have been challenging such coverage for years. As Richard Prince of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education pointed out recently (1/9/08), almost 20 years ago the Africa News Service wrote an editorial (12/1/90) excoriating media’s inappropriate use of the term “tribe.” That piece in turn looked back to 1978, when scholars took U.S. media to task for miscasting a popular rebellion in Zaire as “tribal.”

The Africa Policy Information Center (APIC, now Africa Action) detailed in November 1997 exactly why the use of “tribe” was intellectually lazy:

Today most scholars who study African states and societies—both African and non-African—agree that the idea of tribe promotes misleading stereotypes. The term “tribe” has no consistent meaning. It carries misleading historical and cultural assumptions. It blocks accurate views of African realities. At best, any interpretation of African events that relies on the idea of tribe contributes no understanding of specific issues in specific countries. At worst, it perpetuates the idea that African identities and conflicts are in some way more “primitive” than those in other parts of the world.

APIC pointed to Rwanda for illustration: “There are few places in Africa where the common concept of ‘tribe’ is so completely inappropriate. . . . Hutu and Tutsi speak the same language and share the same culture,” and differences “are based above all in political rivalries and experiences of current generations.”

APIC recommended that “anyone concerned with truth and accuracy should avoid the term ‘tribe’ in characterizing African ethnic groups or cultures.”

Today some editors and journalists have finally begun to heed such criticism. The foreign desk editors at the Associated Press and New York Times both told Prince that after careful review, they were restricting use of “tribe.” They should be commended for finally taking the issue seriously, as should other outlets that have taken similar action; it’s a positive step that’s long overdue.

‘Tediously familiar mantra’

The change hasn’t been sweeping, though. Chicago Tribune Africa correspondent Paul Salopek told his paper’s public editor (1/18/08) that while he “understands that Western-oriented readers may think of the word ‘tribe’ from a racial angle . . . 99 percent of Africans use the word ‘tribe’ or ‘tribal’ proudly,” and “if he used the term ‘ethnic group’ in its place, it would puzzle his sources.”

At the New York Times, the foreign desk’s decision hasn’t swayed executive editor Bill Keller, so “tribe” still appears in the rest of the paper. When historian Peter Alegi challenged him on the Times’ language, Keller responded scornfully (Pambazuka, 1/22/08):

I get it. Anyone who uses the word “tribe” is a racist. . . . It’s a tediously familiar mantra in the Western community of Africa scholars. In my experience, most Africans who live outside the comforts of academia (and who use the word “tribe” with shameless disregard for the political sensitivities of American academics) have more important concerns.

As Salopek acknowledged, the word “tribal” can connote different things to different people; an African using the word “tribal” would almost certainly not be implying that they see themselves as primitive or more driven by ancient instincts than the journalist interviewing them.

But it’s American readers, not African sources, who are the papers’ primary audience, and it’s clear that in the United States, “tribal” has such connotations—indeed, they’re often generously spelled out by journalists. In the article that prompted Alegi’s letter (12/31/07), Times East Africa bureau chief Jeffrey Gettleman wrote that Kenya’s “tribal bloodletting” stemmed from “an atavistic vein of tribal tension that always lay beneath the surface in Kenya.”

The problem runs deeper than “tribe,” and those connotations don’t necessarily disappear with a simple change to the style guidelines. Swapping “tribal” for “ethnic” without questioning the underlying framework is indeed less racist, but scarcely more accurate or illuminating. In fact, the label “ethnic conflict” is itself a loaded term, downplaying political or economic causes; just like “tribal conflict,” “ethnic conflict” implies irrationality. As Georgetown political scientist Charles King pointed out (Harvard International Review, Winter/07), many of the substate conflicts in Africa in the 1960s involved groups mobilized along ethnic lines, yet they were described not as ethnic conflicts but as postcolonial wars or national liberation struggles. And, of course, the prior African uprisings against white colonial rulers were conflicts with even more clear ethnic lines, but were never named as such. How conflicts are labeled is a question of perspective.

Politics of an ethnic frame

Mainstream media’s terminology does reflect the choices of their preferred sources: In the ’60s, neither the African insurgency leaders nor the white colonial powers described their conflict as “ethnic”; in Kenya today, both Odinga and Kibaki have done so, as have U.S. officials. But actors in the conflict have their own agendas to advance, and others—less frequently cited by journalists—see things differently. “What is going on in Kenya is a political crisis with ethnic manifestation,” argued Kenya National Commission on Human Rights chair Maina Kiai (Business Daily Africa, 2/19/08). Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) made the same point in a congressional hearing on the crisis (2/6/08): “What is happening in Kenya is not, I repeat not, an ethnic conflict. It is a political conflict with ethnic overtones.”

Political leaders have good reason to advance an ethnic conflict analysis, since it helps shift the focus away from their own role in events. While ethnic divisions don’t generally erupt spontaneously in conflict, they can be manipulated by those seeking to gain or maintain power. Colonial powers did this expertly in Africa, empowering certain groups over others and turning primarily social divisions into political ones in order to divide and rule. Many post-colonial leaders found those political divisions useful and continued to exploit them rather than working to heal them.

In Rwanda, for example, the Belgian government institutionalized the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi to help keep them from uniting against colonial rule, conferring education and civil service jobs on minority Tutsi and issuing identity cards that formally distinguished between the two groups. In the ’90s, when hardline Hutu leaders found their power threatened by both Tutsi and moderate Hutu, they turned to “ethnic war” to split the opposition and maintain power. Though U.S. media were quick to label it a spontaneous “tribal war,” evidence soon emerged that the violence was “deliberate, planned, organized, sophisticated and coordinated” (Organization of African Unity Report, 7/7/00).

In Kenya, though many journalists immediately compared the crisis to Rwanda, they failed to learn that key lesson. Unlike Rwanda, wrote McClatchy (1/2/08), “the violence so far appears to be a spontaneous revolt rather than an orchestrated slaughter.” The Kenya crisis is not the same as the Rwandan genocide for many reasons, in scale above all. But Rwanda ought to have taught reporters to exercise more caution in jumping to the simplistic conclusion that African “tribes” simply rise up and slaughter each other impulsively.

As in Rwanda, Kenyan leaders primed the public with inflammatory ethnic-based rhetoric and propaganda. Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina explained in a New York Times op-ed (1/6/08): “The burning houses and the bloody attacks here do not reflect primordial hatreds. They reflect the manipulation of identity for political gain. . . . Mr. Odinga and President Kibaki are not really ethnic leaders, but in the days since the disputed election they have stoked tribal paranoia and used it to cement electoral loyalty.”

And rights observers soon reported that much of the violence was organized. It “was portrayed as some primal irate rising up of [ethnic] communities against each other, but our investigations indicate it seems to be very organized militia activity,” independent Kenyan Human Rights Commission executive director Muthoni Wanyeki told the Associated Press (1/12/08). “[The violence] very much seems to be directed and well organized.” Wanyeki noted that politicians from both sides of the dispute appeared to be involved, and that many of the perpetrators had been trained and paid to kill and pillage—roughly $16 per death, she claimed.

Human Rights Watch buttressed KHRC’s claims (2/7/08), reporting that “most of the violence cannot be seen as spontaneous.” Police in some urban areas were given orders to shoot opposition protesters, killing at least 81 people and wounding many more (HRW, 1/24/08). The violence in the Rift Valley likewise “did not arise spontaneously. In fact it is very clear that much of the violence was actively incited and organized, at least at the local level,” by community elders and other political Kalenjin leaders looking to gain power over land by driving others away.

Reprisal attacks by Kikuyu militias “responsible for the bulk of the atrocities seen in recent days” were similarly “well-organized,” HRW reported (2/7/08). Whether Kibaki or Odinga were directly involved in any of the planning, both certainly did little to discourage the violence.

The Balkan comparison

The trouble with “ethnic conflict” cuts across race and region. In the Yugoslav wars of the ’90s, perpetrators and victims alike were white and European, so media rarely spoke of “tribes.” Yet time and again, as new conflicts broke out across the region, mainstream media interpreted them as ethnic and primeval at heart, ultimately incomprehensible to the civilized American spectator (Extra!, 7-8/99). In a report from Kosovo (4/17/99), Steven Erlanger of the New York Times described feeling “a strong sense that this was a war between the ancient and the modern—between timeless ethnic and tribal struggles, mythologies and cruelties and the high-tech weapons and modern values of human rights and shared sovereignty of the Western world.”

The eruption of the Rwandan genocide in the midst of the Bosnian War did prompt some journalists to contrast the crises and challenge media’s uneven application of the word “tribal”—but rarely to question the underlying analysis. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, for example, argued that Africa is not “oh-so-different” from Europe (4/19/94), writing that in Bosnia, for example, rape, execution and torture were meted out “on the basis of nothing more than ethnic hatred.”

Contrary to popular media legend, ancient ethnic hatreds had not been simmering furiously under the lid of communist rule in Yugoslavia. The people of the region had a long history of largely peaceful co-existence, and in 1990, just before the first of the violence broke out, 61 percent of citizens did “not agree at all” that each Yugoslav nation should have a national state of their own. As in Kenya and Rwanda, when violence broke out, the perpetrators were not the rabid ethnic masses acting on ancient and intractable hatreds, they were primarily organized groups—the military, opportunistic paramilitary groups and insurgent militias—directed by leaders with political objectives who manipulated ethnic identities in pursuit of those goals (International Security, Summer/00).

The violence was not committed exclusively along ethnic lines, either; those who opposed the program of violence were targeted regardless of ethnicity—another feature common to the conflicts in Kenya, Rwanda and other so-called “ethnic conflicts” (International Organization, Autumn/00). The ethnic dimensions of such conflicts shouldn’t be denied or ignored, but the label “ethnic conflict” serves more to obscure their nature than to illuminate them.

Hidden grievances

Political and economic grievances tend to hide behind that “ethnic” label. In Kenya, leaders tapped into inequalities and injustices that date back to colonial times. Land, the grievance most often acknowledged by media, does play a key role. The colonial British administration displaced Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Masai and other groups from the area’s best land; when Kenyans finally drove the British out, Jomo Kenyatta, the first post-colonial leader, procured formerly Kikuyu land for his fellow Kikuyu elite. He then steered previously Kalenjin and Masai land in the fertile Rift Valley into the hands of poorer Kikuyu, setting the stage for ongoing animosity and conflict among the poor while keeping huge tracts of land safely in the hands of his wealthy allies (London Guardian, 2/7/08).

In the 1990s, then-leader Daniel Arap Moi, a Kalenjin, appealed to those land grievances to organize landless Kalenjin to violently put down repeated Kikuyu (and Luo) challenges to his power; Human Rights Watch estimated that a thousand were killed and many more displaced (World Report 1999). It was also in the Rift Valley that the worst of the violence and displacement occurred this year, with Kalenjin once again driving Kikuyu away. Rather than address land inequalities between rich and poor, leaders continue to mine those land grievances for political gain.

Inequality and disenfranchisement permeate the cities, too.

The same colonial British land policy generated urban slums of the dispossessed and unemployed that have only grown, another focal point of the recent violence. But journalists seemed puzzled; wasn’t Kenya, as Time put it (1/14/08), a “bright spot in the troubled region”? Media emphasized the “booming economy” (L.A. Times, 1/1/08) and “vibrant growth” (New York Times, 1/3/08) under Kibaki, whom the Washington Post (1/1/08) praised as “a good steward of the Kenyan economy.”

Kibaki’s version of progress may have pleased the U.S. government, which raised eyebrows by initially backing Kibaki’s claim to victory (VOA News, 12/30/07, East Africa Standard, 1/11/08), as well as the World Bank, which also appeared to support Kibaki in a leaked internal memo (Financial Times, 1/9/08). But most Kenyans have little to celebrate.

According to the Kibaki government’s own recent statistics, 46 percent of Kenyans still live below the poverty line (Kenya Nation, 4/27/07), and job creation is not keeping up with population growth. Kibaki admitted that “the population of young people far outstrips the available number of salaried jobs” (statehousekenya.go.ke, 2/1/07).

Violence hit almost exclusively poor areas, and most of the perpetrators were poor, young and unemployed, those with the greatest hopes pinned on the election and with the least to lose by participating in violence afterwards (Newsweek.com, 1/3/08).

Kenya’s political system, inherited from the British, encourages corruption, patronage and inequality. The much-praised democracy ranks among the most corrupt governments in the world today, and the Kikuyu elite groomed by the former colonial power have disproportionately collected the spoils. Kibaki came to power in 2002 promising sweeping reform, but little has changed; in 2005, his anti-corruption chief began receiving death threats and went into exile, where he published a report detailing Kibaki’s complicity in new corruption scandals (BBC, 2/9/06). That’s hardly seemed to bother Kibaki’s champions; the U.S. alone gives Kenya over $600 million a year in aid (New York Times, 1/24/08), while the World Bank has at least $1 billion worth of projects in the country (New York Times, 1/24/08; Financial Times, 1/9/08).

Media did at times mention some of these realities, but typically as a secondary consideration to the ethnic hatred rather than vice versa. Take the Time magazine article (1/10/08) headlined “The Demons That Still Haunt Africa.” Time described rather well the history of the land dispute, Kikuyu elite domination, the weak democratic institutions, corruption, extreme poverty and inequality. Despite all that, the magazine seemed to be looking for something more primal that underpinned it all: “The psychology of the bloodletting . . . may remain a mystery.”

There’s really very little mystery to it, but as long as journalists operate under the assumption that people in faraway lands fight for unfathomable reasons, they will only continue to misinform readers and play right into the hands of those leaders who deliberately stoke “ethnic wars.”