Atlantic Monthly

Kenya’s Ethnic Spin-Cycle

Today Jendayi Frazer, the top US diplomat for African affairs, rendered a grim assessment of the post-election bloodbath in Kenya, saying it amounted to “ethnic cleansing,” but not “genocide.”  This distinction is so fine as to be described as “Talmudic,” except that it contains no ancient Hebraic wisdom or indeed any other system of thought.

The mayhem wracking Kenya has clear ethnic inflections, with President Kibaki’s fellow Gikuyus under the machetes of opposition leader Raila Odinga’s Kalenjin.  But the State department’s meticulous language misses the point: Nairobi is in flames not because Kalenjin hate Gikuyu, but because Kibaki almost certainly stole the election, and the opposition doesn’t want him to get away with it.  After all indicators had Odinga winning the election (one conducted as freely and fairly as any in the nation’s history), Kibaki stepped in, announced he had mysteriously triumphed, and crowned himself for a second term.  Only then did the violence ensue.

By commenting only on the violence, and not on the electoral skulduggery that sparked it, Frazer feeds the most pernicious trend in coverage of Kenyan violence — the tendency to treat the Kenyans as tribalist nutjobs, ready to renew “longstanding ethnic hatreds” and whip out the long knives to settle atavistic old scores.  The State department might consider devoting less time to crafting pointless press releases about genocide (sorry, “ethnic cleansing”) and more to identifying real issues, such as the broad-daylight theft of an election, and the furious but rational response of those from whom it was stolen.  If democracy really matters to this administration, it might start by standing up against autocrats who undermine it.

Originally appeared at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s