Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What Michela Wrong Got Right and Wrong (A Wonk's View)

Author's Note. This post has been edited to correct it with the latest Census figures. February 27th, 2013. ~WMB

Image of Anti-Corruption activist, John Githongo, a Kikuyu.
Michela Wrong has a very interesting article in the New York Times today on the Kenyan election. It is called Running on Amnesia (February 22, 2013: New York Times).

The article represents and engaging and interesting overview of the Kenyan election, and overall I agree with the broad brushstrokes. Her main point, that I agree with, is that Kenyan politicians are asking voters to cast their votes in complete ignorance of the horrible deeds that those same politicians committed very recently. Her second main point that I support is that the members of the international business community have not demanded accountability from those same politicians on issues of democracy and human rights.

Now, some constructive criticism. I know Michela Wrong is the author of "Our Time to Eat" which I have read. I also know she is good friends with John Githongo, whom I very much admire. But I hope that Ms. Wrong will accept my thoughts on how she could improve her work.

I am afraid that sometimes Ms. Wrong's book, and her article suffer from what I like to call "drive by journalism." I know that it is very hard to get the details right in an 800 word op ed, but unfortunately, her book has some of the same flaws as this article.

Perhaps I am picking nits, but I often feel that Ms. Wrong's work reinforces stereotypes and plays into the negative hegemonic discourse regarding the continent, the region, and Kenya itself.

Lets start with the first paragraph. "I was negotiating one of Nairobi's terrifying traffic circles - a maneuver that requires jumping over a lattice of open sewers while playing chickenwith aline of trucks snorting their way toward Uganda and Congo -

Well, some might accuse me of misplaced nationalism, but this description just does not ring true to me. I am half Kenyan, but I was raised in the US and I hold a US passport. I am the first to criticize my mother's country, but I like to be fair. I spend a lot of time in Kenya. I spent two years teaching there in Kabarak University (2004-2006), and I have spent at least two months a year there since 2006. I also have family in Kenya and have been back and forth for decades.

What is my objection? Nairobi has really come a long way since I used to visit in the 1970s and 1980s. The only open sewers I have seen in Nairobi are in the slums of Mathare or Kibera. She does not really describe which part of town she is in. I personally do not like driving in Nairobi, and I will agree that driving there is terrifying, but the city contains both the richest, and the poorest neighborhoods that you can see in the continent. As a whole, however, she starts her story with a depiction of a city that sounds more like Mogadishu than Nairobi to me.  To me, this just reinforces stereotypes about the poverty of the continent.

Next objection "The Kikuyu are the largest and most economically successful trible; the Kalenjin, a looser ethnic grouping, come second in size. Kenya's last three presidents have all been either Kikuyu or Kalenjin. "

I have a few bones to pick with this language. Please note that there are about 42 ethnic communities in Kenya, give or take a few. It is correct that the Kikuyu are the largest group. The Kalenjin are NOT the second largest group, and they are not a true "community." They are an amalgamation invented by the British of several small groups who speak mutually intelligible languages, including the Nandi, the Tugen, and the Kipsigi, among others. One thing I learned the hard way when I taught at Kabarak was that those subgroups do not always get along that well.  There was a census conducted by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics in 2009. Kenya-Census-2009 (Thank you to my cousin, Wanyiri Githaiga, for alerting me to this data, and correcting my statistics) See also Kenya Population Data. 

Here is my scholarly version: By virtue of demographics, the two most politically powerful language groups in Kenya have historically been the Dholuo (Luo) and the Agikuyu (Kikuyu). According to the 2009 Census, Kenya's Population was 38,000,000 in 2009. The CIA in 2012 put that number at 43,000,000. 

Here is a run down to fthe biggest groups 


I LOVE IT That a significant number of citizens identify themselves as Kenyan first!!!

Two post-Independence presidents have come from the Agikuyu: Jomo Kenyatta and Mwai Kibaki. The Luo and the Kalenjin have been important factors in Kenyan politics, with the Kalenjin contributing Kenya‘s second President, Daniel arap Moi. Two of the most powerful post-Independence leaders have come from the Luo: Oginga Odinga and Tom Mboya. Oginga‘s son, Raila Odinga, carries his father‘s mantle as the undisputed leader of the loyal opposition and acts as a veritable force of nature in Kenyan politics. Kibaki has tacitly recognized the crucial political role of the Luo and the Luyha by giving the Vice Presidency to the Luyha and naming various Luos to crucial ministries at various points in his presidency. In particular, the Luo have recently controlled the powerful Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Akamba group, who are small in population, are nonetheless a powerful political swing group—a role that echoes their historic position as traders between other language groups in Kenya. The Luyha and the Kamba will be the groups to watch in the 2013 elections. 
Another pet peeve of mine is that I have yet to see hard statistical evidence that Kikuyu are the most economically successful group. There are lots of very poor Kikuyu living in the same slums of Kibera and Mathare as the rest of their country folk. Due to the shockingly high level of inequality in Kenya, and the political power of Kenyatta and Kibaki, a high percentage of the Kikuyu elite have gotten to participate in the political elite, but many Kikuyu are peasants with two or three acres, and an even larger group, like most Kenyans, are landless.  What is true is that both the Dholuo and the Gikuyu were early adopters of Christianity, and thus, both groups got access to education earlier than other groups. This means that they have been able to take advantage of the fruits of independence more effectively than other communities, which often leads to business success.

Okay, so now I have noted that the Kalenjin are most likely NOT the second largest group. Also, it is not clear at all that either the Kikuyu or the Kalenjin are monolithic and vote as a bloc, as I think Ms. Wrong's article implies. Indeed, given that the country's population is somewhere around 43,000,000, the Kikuyu comprise close to ten million persons. The language group is diverse and broken into three geographical areas, Kiambu, Muranga, and Nyeri. They all speak the same language and share the same basic customs, but they are heterogeneous, and have different regional personalities, and indeed, politics. Thus, I reject the suggestion of hegemony in Ms. Wrong's work, and really prefer a more differentiated and nuanced picture of all of these groups.

My final complaint is that Kenya has only had three president's since independence, so I do not find it informative to say "Kenya's last three presidents." Further, The first President, Jomo Kenyatta was selected in part with the acquiescence of the British,and the Kikuyu were crucial in the fight for independence. The second president, Daniel arap Moi, was the Vice President acting under Kenyatta, and continued the tradition of an authoritarian dictatorship with the veneer of democratic elections begun by his predecessor. Only the third president, Mwai Kibaki, was elected in something that looked like a free and fair election in 2002.

Okay, next, "Anything to keep Prime Minister Raila Odinga, a Luo who almost certainly should have won the 2007 election from becoming President." Well, the last time I checked, Ruto and Odinga were working together in 2007.  Second, as Wrong herself notes, Odinga is no angel, and certainly had a hand in the 2007 violence, even if he was not indicted. Third, there is no way of knowing who would have won the 2007 vote if things had been conducted fairly. Certainly, as was the case in Gore/Bush, the election was operating on a razor thin margin, and it is entirely possible that given Nairobi's proximity to Kikuyu country, Kibaki had a chance of winning fair and square in 2007 without rigging. We will never know, so Monday morning quarterbacking is not helpful, but does add fuel to the fire. For an exhaustive and detailed view of the 2007 election, take a look at the Kriegler and Waki reports.

I think that we need to reject the narrative of tribal feuding, and instead direct our narrative towards a political class that intermarries, works together to steal land and money from the people of Kenya, and will change bedfellows as quickly as tires if they think it will help them gain a job in the nation's kleptocracy. That kleptocracy, by the way, has members from every tribe in the nation. Let us focus on running an election where wananchi have a chance of winning. The real divide in Kenya is not between ethnic communities, it is between the political elite, and everyone else.