Today the Kenyan parliament was sitting for the first time since the re-election of President Kibaki in late December. The violence that has resulted in a quarter of a million refugees and over 600 deaths carries on – it has done so since the disputed elections a few weeks sparked off a crisis that seemed so completely at odds with how we in Britain look at this stable African democracy.
As images of mass protests-turned-sour and footage of men being beaten to death in townships hit primetime news, it once again became clear that there exist only two kinds of Africa in the Western imagination. There are the model states with their stable postcolonial democracies (Zimbabwe once was one, remember?), our regional allies in the horn of Africa, our trading partners in the Cape. Africa is not so dark here, not so different. And then there are the basket cases: the criminalised states and their corrupt dictators, countries rife with ethnic violence and tribalism, civil wars, genocides. Societies collapse (or maybe they never really existed?), warlordism and chaos rule.
In the British media, Kenya turned from success story to failed state in just one day. These last few weeks have been dominated by coverage that has highlighted the supposed ‘tribal’ dimension of the crisis over concerns with the complex (ethnic and otherwise) realities of the country. The phrase ‘tribal violence’ itself has become a shorthand for describing any African conflict at all – and only in this context is it ever used. As Madelaine Bunting (one notable exception to the otherwise same stale racist media discourse) asks in the Guardian this week, why don’t we talk of Belgian tribes?
One answer to this question lies in repetitive reduction: by forever reductively repeating a number of attributes – tribalism, archaic violence, famine, disease, poverty – the many and various characteristics of African societies become homogenised into a neat and tidy set of deficiencies. (And incidentally, since African deficiencies are intrinsic, solutions must come from the outside. Development and humanitarian interventions both provide such solutions.)
From here, it is only a small step to comparing Kenya with Rwanda, as was the case in the media last week – a comparison so absurd it beggars belief. All of which leads us nicely to a portrayal of Africa (yes, that would be one whole continent) as primitive, barbaric, never quite civilised.
It is of Africa’s inherent inability for freedom and democracy that we have been told again when what we wanted to understand was the worrying and complex post-election crisis in Kenya. What remains primitive are the racist undertones of the British media’s coverage of the majority world.