Kenya situation shows intervention not always needed

Freedom New Mexico

It’s a long way from guaranteeing that the tribal and ethnic tensions that have led to violence and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people in a country most outside observers had considered one of the most stable in Africa will actually bring an end to resentment and violence.

But the two rival leaders of Kenya have signed a power-sharing agreement that at least has some promise.

Rioting and killing broke out after December elections that returned President Mwai Kibaki to power but were widely (and correctly) viewed as somewhere between flawed and blatant election theft.

As the violence continued, it became apparent that its roots were not only political but tribal (which may amount to the same thing). Kibaki belongs to the Kikuyu tribe, which has been the dominant force in government and commerce since the days when Kenya was a British colony. Raila Odinga, the opposition leader, belongs to the Luo tribe.

Tension between the tribes had simmered for decades beneath an apparently placid surface. At least 1,000 people were killed, and hundreds of thousands of people who had lived side-by-side before moved to their respective traditional homelands. City neighborhoods that were mixed have been segregated.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had been trying to mediate an agreement for almost two months, and had almost given up several times. Finally he bypassed the negotiating teams for the two tribes and went directly to the two rivals. The agreement creates the position of a powerful prime minister, which Odinga will fill.

Still to come, however, will be delicate negotiations on constitutional reform, social inequalities, and land reform.

It is unlikely that Kenyans will soon learn to “celebrate and love each other” and “destroy the monster that is called ethnicity,” as Odinga urged them to do. Tribal feelings seem to run deep (as do identity politics in almost every other country on earth) and democratic political processes seem to exacerbate them rather than to eliminate or alleviate them. The memory of the recent violence will linger a long time, especially among former city dwellers who fled to “homelands” they had never lived in or even seen.

This crisis was handled without any intervention, apart from a few feeble admonitions from some U.S. diplomats, by the United States. A few people with an expansive notion of U.S. powers and responsibilities had suggested heavier U.S. involvement. But however powerful the United States is economically and militarily, it is not omnipotent, and it cannot guarantee stability to every country in this sad world of ours that experiences internal strife and instability.

That’s worth remembering as we assess not only the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq but the likelihood of accomplishing much in other countries in which the U.S. may have peripheral interests but not core existential interests.