Democracy by Other Means

By Aidan Hartley, a columnist for The Spectator and the author of The Zanzibar Chest, a memoir (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 11/01/08):

As I write this, the crackle of gunfire is audible from the veranda of our farmhouse. Warriors of the Pokot and Samburu tribes are fighting a mile away. A bush fire engulfs the horizon. I hear the tally in blood so far is three Samburu warriors killed, while the Pokot have rustled 750 of their cattle.

Today I hope our farm and its workers will be spared the violence. But this was not the case two weeks ago on Boxing Day, the eve of Kenya’s elections, when Samburu rustlers armed with AK-47’s made off with 22 steers. The police were unable to respond, as they had to guard ballot boxes. So our neighbor Charles saved our cattle by charging his car at the raiders in a hail of bullets, which forced them to cut and run.

The world knows of Kenya’s vote-rigging scandal — of the rioting in Nairobi; the police assaults on the supporters of the opposition leader, Raila Odinga; the pogroms against traders and farmers of President Mwai Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe. But we’ve watched it unfold in real time in our corner of central Kenya.

When the Kikuyus fled the village up the road from us, local food supplies quickly dried up, hunger set in among the mob and rioting flared again. Then a Samburu witch doctor announced that it was time for his warriors, supporters of Mr. Odinga, to advance on the Pokot tribesmen, who had backed Mr. Kibaki. He said he had found a way to turn Pokot bullets into rain — a promise that evidently precipitated the clashes erupting around me.

Over the last two weeks, we’ve stuck to our daily routines, as if it somehow might make the nightmare of what was unfolding over the horizon recede. Still, I devised an evacuation plan for our workers who were from the “wrong” tribes. We dug up the lawn to plant extra vegetables, not knowing how much livestock we’ll have down the road.

Still, and despite all the talk of another Rwanda, I think Kenya will pull back from the brink. This is mainly thanks to the basic decency of ordinary Kenyans — whose priorities are to work hard, educate their children, fear God and enjoy a few Tusker beers.

Nobody wants to believe Kenya is a typical African basket case. Nor is anybody banking on the swift intervention of the world community: not from Washington, with its string of disastrous foreign policies, or the African Union, which has had unmitigated diplomatic failures in Darfur and Somalia. Kenyans know only they themselves can prevent fresh chaos. Despite all the claims and counterclaims among the candidates, ordinary citizens also know the entire class of Kenyan political leaders is to blame. The African saying that “when elephants fight, the grass suffers” applies tragically. Kenyan politicians are paid more money than many of their counterparts in the West — though they rarely bother to turn up at Parliament.

Kenyan democracy has failed because ordinary people were encouraged to believe that the process in and of itself could bring change. So Kenya’s leaders — and often international observers — interpret democracy simply in terms of the ceremony of multiparty elections. Polls bestow legitimacy on politicians to pillage for five years until the next depressing cycle begins.

In the campaign rallies I attended, I saw no debate about policies, despite the country’s immense health, education, crime and poverty problems. The Big Men arrived by helicopter to address the voters in slums and forest clearings. When they spoke English for the Western news media’s benefit, they talked of human rights and democracy. But when they switched to local languages, it was pure venom and ethnic chauvinism. Praise-singers kowtowed to the candidates, who dozed, talked on their mobile phones and then waddled back to their helicopters, which blew dust into the faces of the poor on takeoff.

Mr. Odinga campaigned on a policy of federal decentralization known as majimboism. On paper, devolution of power in an African nation led by corrupt politicians seems to make sense. But on a local level, majimboism is interpreted another way: without functioning national institutions, decentralization becomes synonymous with mob rule. A few months ago a drunken power broker in a village wagged his finger and declared that after the elections all “outsiders” — meaning Kikuyus and whites — would be kicked out and their farms taken.

In any case, we can be certain that the violence will simply worsen the poverty that is itself the root cause of all Kenyan crises. Already we are seeing layoffs and a potential collapse of the tourism and agricultural industries. On the political front, perhaps the best we can hope is that Big Men will reach a deal and the tribes will put away their machetes and rifles. Then the Western press will trickle home, content that democracy has been re-established, while the people of Laikipia return to their daily struggle to survive.