Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Kenya, the Colonial Legacy, and Bush’s Wars of “Liberation”

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Well, the carnage in Kenya is so bad that it is even making the western news. Hundreds are dead in post election violence, not exactly remarkable by the standards in much of Africa, so in some sense it is curious it is making headlines. Partly the horror of it I suppose, burning down a church full of people would make big news everywhere, and also partly because Kenya is one of the “successes” of the colonial era. From independence in 1963 until recently it was one of the more prosperous economies in Africa, though the wealth wasn’t very well distributed and there was widespread crime and poverty. I know a lady who emigrated from Kenya in 2002, after some of the fairest elections in African history. She scoffed at the idea that Kenya was any sort of success, after being locked in their trunk for hours during their third car-jacking, she and her husband fled to America. I don’t blame them.

The recent elections though were not nearly so fair, and have been questioned by international observers. More importantly they have been contested by the losing party, and simmering ethnic tensions have broken out in widespread rioting. And now the opposition are planning a million man rally for next week, even though it has officially been banned. Yeah, that should be fun. How did one of Africa’s biggest success stories turn so sour? It’s easy to see, click on the thumbnail:


These are the languages spoken in Kenya, and roughly represent the ethnic makeup of the country. That is to say, the population of Kenya is divided among roughly forty different tribes and ethnicities. More importantly, the various citizens of Kenya mostly identify themselves by their tribe, not as Kenyans.

The point here is that despite the fact that the colonial powers drew lines on a map and formed a government, that does not somehow magically make Kenya a modern nation state. I think a lot of westerners have a hard time understanding that. This is a situation that exists throughout Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. The borders were draw up by European powers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century for the convenience of the colonial powers and have little or no bearing on the ethnic realities on the ground.

I know it’s a point I keep coming back to, but the western media (which is to say, the media for the most part) always portrays these nations as if they were the same as European nations. IE unified nation states with a strong national identity. They aren’t, and westerners forget it took centuries of bloody warfare to unify the European ethnic groups into more or less ethnically unified states. In fact the Balkans are still undergoing discord and violence because the process was never complete there, the boundaries drawn up after the Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up were pretty good, but still didn’t completely create “natural” nation states.

As another example, Americans forget or never knew that before the American Civil War, Americans for the most part identified themselves as citizens of their state first and Americans second. Robert E Lee was offered command of the Union Army at the outset of the Civil War, and instead chose to remain loyal to his native state of Virginia. It took nearly a century and the deaths of nearly one million Americans to forge the various states into one united nation state. And to a large extent the process was never even completed with many native tribes. For example the Lakota Sioux very recently announced that they are withdrawing from the various treaties the US signed with them over the past hundred years or so, and unless the US begins to seriously negotiate with them, they will declare independence from the United States. The point here is that even in modern nation states, there are many who identify themselves by their ethnic group first and citizens of their nation second if at all. And in completely artificial states, like say Iraq, very few of their citizens identify themselves as Iraqi first.

The extended observation here is that “operation Kenyan Freedom” began in the late nineteenth century when Britain took control of the area. And for nearly one hundred years the British occupiers, who were at least as enlightened as the American occupiers in Iraq, fought numerous tribal rebellions and tried to forge Kenya into a nation state. Here they are nearly forty years after being granted sovereignty, and the process is by no means complete. And the situation is mirrored in Pakistan and dozens of other artificially created “nations” throughout the region, they are plagued with political and ethnic violence because that’s what happens when you draw a line on a map and say “Abracadabra, you’re all Pakistanis/Kenyans/Iraqis/whatever now.”

And Americans think that they are going to be able to forge modern unified democratic nation states out of the artificially created nations of Afghanistan and Iraq? It didn’t work when the waring and rebelling tribes were fighting with machetes, now they’ve learnt modern military methods (no small thanks to our efforts to arm the Mujahideen in Afghanistan) and we think we can make Iraq and Afghanistan into clones of “occupied” Germany and Japan? One of the definitions of madness is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.

I rest my case.

(The above image came from Wikipedia and is public domain under US copyright law. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I know the solution to this violence plagued part of the world, it’s unlikely there will be a solution in our lifetimes. I do know that the same “solution” that the colonial powers tried to impose for centuries isn’t going to work any better now than it ever has.)




Written by unitedcats

January 3, 2008 at 8:37 am

Posted in History, World

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