Dr. Wandia M. Njoya is a Senior Lecturer and Head of the Department of Language and Performing Arts at Daystar University in Kenya. Her teaching and research interests cover gender, culture and politics of Africa and African diasporas, particularly as they are reflected in literature and film.
In the last few days, in the run up of the repeat “election” that takes place today, the business community has gone full throttle in bombarding Kenyans with the idea that the elections have cost the economy too much.
The latest in this messaging came from the Kenya Private Sector Alliance
, which released a statement saying that 700bn shillings have been lost over the last four months. In other words, democracy is too expensive for Africans.
Similarly, it is clear that the US, its embassy and media, have taken the side of the current government, although with less subtlety than the business community.
The US Ambassador’s statements, for example, suggest that Kenyans should not set a high standard for Kenya’s electoral body, and instead be grateful that we’ve come this far in the democratic process.
Several critics of this reasoning have pointed to the amnesia on the impact of Kenya’s runaway corruption, government appetite for borrowing for unprofitable projects, and labor strife, on the economy. Others point to the military and corporate interests
that the US is defending under the cover of concern about democracy in Kenya.
Clearly, both the US and the business sector have taken the president’s side against the people of Kenya, and against the principle of justice. The mainly private mainstream media, and even its American counterparts like NPR and the New York Times, have persistently given the government views of the election and avoided contrary views as much as possible. However, the American media was forced to soften its anti-Raila stance after the Supreme Court ordered a repeat of the presidential elections.
What is surprising, though, is that at a similar moment in the 1990s, the US and the business sector supported the struggle for democracy against the Moi government.
The media was open to reporting the pro-democracy movement in a way that they are not doing now. Indeed, in their replies to Ambassador Bob Godec’s tweets, several Kenyans remember the days when one of the previous ambassadors, Smith Hempstone, supported the democratic struggles during the Moi presidency.
What accounts for this difference? Why do the West and the business sector not support Moi, but now support the current president, even when all evidence points to the fact that his regime has been worse for the economy?
The answer can be attributed to one factor: tribe. The current president is Kikuyu, and Moi was not.
Capitalism, ethnicity and instability
In 2004, Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, published a book World on fire, in which she argued that the West creates global instability by establishing a schism between a market-dominant minority ethnic group, which controls wealth and power, and a majority, to whom it ascribes democracy.
Kenya features prominently in the book, with the Kikuyu as the market-dominant minority. Everywhere Euro-America plants two feet, one which is capitalism and the other which is democracy, countries become fractured because the impoverished majority turns to ethnic hatred to fight against a minority that dominates capital.
The result is is mass killings and sometimes worse, genocide.
While Prof Chua was on point to connect democracy to ethnic hatred, there are major weaknesses in her book. One, her arguments rely on a flawed knowledge of African history.
Two, because the book’s goal is to redeem capitalism, rather than attack it, it fails to see that at the core of capitalism is white supremacy. In other words, whites are the market-dominant minority ethnic group. In the United States, for instance, European settlers systematically wiped out indigenous communities as European settlers moved west, and exploited African slave labor.
To support this dehumanization, they created narratives about the inferiority and savagery of black and brown peoples, and to this day, whites remain the market-dominant ethnic group of the United States and the world.
Because of this mono-ethnic heritage, capitalism’s use of ethnicity is not an accident but its essential characteristic. This reality means that the capitalist mind is too simplistic to understand complexities of human society, and that capitalism entrenches itself through a single blood line.
Capitalism is the most insane, narrow-minded, psychotic economic system on the planet. Its logic is mono-ethnic. It knows one color of money: white.
When the British settlers came to Kenya, the intention was to run the continent like an outpost of Britain, in which whites would be at the top of the hierarchy and the lives of Africans would literally not matter. However, this American dream in the African sun did not work.
The people rose up in struggle, and so the struggles of anti-colonialism taught capital that it can’t get away with having a white face to capital. So in every African country, it appointed a particular ethnic group as an honorary white community, and supports that ethnic group, no matter what. In Kenya, the appointed bloodline is Kikuyu.
That would explain why US interests are treating two presidents, Moi and Muigai, differently, even when the struggle of the Kenyan people against the two is literally the same. Kenyans are struggling for a constitutional order, and for elections that can be credibly audited and proved to represent the will of the people.
The fact that Raila is the main face of this struggle is merely coincidental, and, I would even argue, is the result of the systematic frustration of diverse other efforts by Kenyans to entrench the constitution in our institutions and daily life.
However, because the capitalist mind is mono-ethnic and cannot accommodate complexity and diversity, it narrows the Kenyan crisis to a tiff between Raila and Muigai or a Luo-Kikuyu rivalry, and resorts to supporting a flawed election today, which it would not do when Moi was president.
Even the American media are finding it difficult to understand and report the democratic nature of the Kenyan people’s resistance. They are unable to divorce Raila’s stature in the resistance from Raila the man. Instead, they persist on calling the current crisis a Luo-Kikuyu one, and on attributing the people’s support of Raila not to a clear political reasoning, but to a mindless stranglehold that Raila has on the Luo.
The fact that it is not only the Luo who support the NASA resistance movement remains an inconvenient truth the American journalists would rather not deal with.
I have pointed out this misreporting in tweets to different American and British journalists, but NPR’s Eyder Peralta, the only American journalist who got back to me, still responded to my concerns
about mystifying Raila as follows: “Raila supporters do see him in mythical terms.”
The persistent focus on Raila’s Luo ethnicity points to the twin element of this capitalist ethnicization: the dubbing of resistance to capitalist instability as a cultural oddity, rather than an explicitly political project. A classic example can be found in the episode on Kenya in the BBC series End of Empire.
The documentary makes no mention of the political context in which the movement emerged. From the beginning to the end, the documentary – which boasts of the involvement of renowned historian John Lonsdale – talks of Kenyan resistance in terms of cultural savagery. With pictures, it reminds us of the brutal murders of thousands of Africans and a few British settlers, and the torture of domestic animals.
The documentary goes on and on about the gory details of oathing, and its so-called magical hold on Africans that made them turn against the British, and made them never break their secrecy, even when arrested and tortured. Throughout the documentary, the narrator refers to the Mau Mau as “gangs,” and never once recognizes the political consciousness of the people involved in the resistance.
This denial of the political nature of the resistance is worse among the settlers. They persist in asking a deliriously naïve question, that John Nottingham, a former District Commissioner, would put this way: “the fact that your own cook, who’d been with you thirty, forty years, could be oathed in a way that he could come kill you? Unbelievable. You’d been a friend to him, you’d been helpful to his children, you’d done this, that and the other over the years, and yet happily, one night, he would come and slit your throat…they [the settlers] couldn’t understand the depth of bitterness.”
And for the next forty or so minutes, the documentary tries to explain how the natives “happily” turned against their employers: the “gangs” controlled the Kikuyu, and the “oath” had an inexplicable magical hold on the natives.
Never once does the documentary mention the colonial massacres, from the coast to Western Kenya, that began the conquest of Kenya and that are chronicled in another documentary entitled Black man’s land: images of colonialism and independence in Kenya.
The BBC documentary does not mention the colonial displacement of Africans for settlers in the white highlands, or the fact that people were not only rendered squatters, but forced to work for settlers who took their land in order to pay hut tax. How the settlers would believe that their cook would go through all that, and not be bitter, is simply amazing. But the documentary would have us believe that the Africans had no bitterness with injustice, and that there was no political resistance; there was just oathing.
And the legacy of using oathing to deny the political nature of oppression in Kenya, and the resistance against it, is what has entrenched ethnic manipulation in Kenya. From 1969 till today, the oligarchy has used oathing to blackmail the Kikuyu to support it whenever there is mounted political resistance.
While the Kikuyu are told that support for their king is a cultural project to assert identity, the rest of Kenya is told that this culturally driven support justifies the political and economic dominance of the Kamau-Muigai dynasty. The dynasty deserves to rule because the Kikuyu supposedly have the numbers, or because Kenya owes them independence. In addition, the dynasty explains economic dominance by the Kikuyu elite – many of whom became land owners – as a cultural phenomenon, not a political one.
The elite are rich because they “work hard,” not because they get tenders thanks to connections in government. Some are so brazen in this cultural denial of political cronyism, that at the height of the election campaigns, the vice-chair of the president’s Jubilee party even suggested on TV that NASA and its supporters were economically reckless because they had no stake
in the economy.
The problem with these ethnocentric-capitalist narratives is that if, God forbid, Kenya implodes after today, the West, especially the US, and its surrogate Jubilee supporters, will continue to naively project the conflict in tribal, not political, terms. The cook whom DC Nottingham talked about will no longer be a Njoroge or a Maina. Instead, the cook will now be called Mutua, Mwanaisha, Moraa, Kasichana, Oluoch, Chepkirui, Ereng, or Abdallah.
And the business community, using the American mono-ethnic capitalist logic, will continue to drive the political resistance underground and to elevate cultural diversity as the single greatest challenge that Kenya faces. When the corporates announce that we’ve accepted and moved on, and that we’re now Kenya Moja, we will all cheer. And the president’s supporters will be sure, like the settlers, that now we’re all friends. Kenyans will even continue to intermarry.
And every time a political problem is raised, the Kenyan corporates will do what they’re doing now. They’ll baptize the political problems as a distraction from “work,” and as “ethnic animosity.” Like the settlers who blamed politically constructed resentment on “oathing,” the corporates will tell us that this resentment is “tribalism.” They will continue to call Raila a man who is never satisfied, they will tell us that Luos are just like that, and eventually tell us that all Kenyans are tribalist, but that can be solved by some cultural festivals and intermarriage. They’ll bury the political problem of elections, suffrage and rigging under the failure to appreciate cultural diversity.
If there is no civil war after tomorrow, the US will continue in its mad pursuit of culturalizing Kenya’s political problems. It may even consider opening a consulate in Luo-dominated Kisumu, as it has done in Muslim-dominated Mombasa.
We might see more American sponsorship of cultural festivals and identity groups such as women and sexual minorities, supposedly out of concern for democracy, when really, it will be a stupid formula at work: Kenya’s problems are not political; they’re cultural. They’re Luo. And corporates will repeat the same jargon. They’ll sponsor more programs like My Unspoken, or elevate journalists like Victoria Rubadiri to be the next Oprah, in order to tell women that all we women in Kenya need is a good cry, rather than political thinking that links our oppression to political patriarchy.
And when we Kenyans are not crying, we’ll be smiling through our teeth.
But the lesson of the colonial settler’s cook is that the resentment never goes away. Like the Mau Mau, the bitterness will erupt some day, if not today. And on that day, the Jubilee supporters who swallowed the hubris of the Muigai dynasty will be naively baffled, giving us lines like “but I thought ole Kantai was my friend. But Wafula used to buy goods at my shop.
But Koech sold me this land; he even married my cousin.” And their rich corporate backers, who will have escaped to London and Washington, will be sipping tea with their Euro-American masters and saying: “There must be something in the Maa culture that makes the people in Laikipia not appreciate the schools and hospitals built for them by the landed Western conservationists.
That’s why they still wear shukas and are still pastoralists.” And at the UN, the Western diplomats will be telling the world that the conflict in Kenya can be attributed to “ancient tribal hatreds,” just as they have done before, for countries like Rwanda and Bosnia.
As C J Polychroniou has noted, denial of reality is an essential characteristic of capitalism. But what is more annoying is that the ultimate price for this psychosis will be paid not by the US and its Kenyan compradors, but by the ordinary people of Kenya. And most of them will not even be aware of why they are suffering.
Tragically, they will keep defining the problem as a cultural one, rather than as a political one. And they will keep thinking that their survival depends on who is in power, instead of on Kenya having a democratic, constitutional government. The point of fighting for a credible election for most Kenyans outside politics, was not for Raila to win.
It was to detach government from a particular ethnic group, and to have an objective, verifiable, non-ethnic, method of power succession and distribution of resources, which is the very definition of politics. But instead, Kenya’s Western sponsors decided to make Kenya join the US and European nations in entrenching ethno-capitalism and a Kenyan version of fascism. Na hiyo, as Moi used to say, ni maendeleo. Sadly.