Friday, February 22

Kenya, Kristof, and the U.S.A.

Somewhere in Africa noted the other day that one sure sign that Kenya is facing a true crisis is that those "419" e-mail scams - the ones where a relative of a deceased rich African needs a bank account to store a large amount of money - are starting to focus on Kenya. We can now add another sign, as Kenya becomes the latest African country to be targeted by a Nicholas Kristof column in the NY Times.

I won't go into my qualms about Kristof's characterization of the ethnic violence in Kenya, except to say that he doesn't put it in much context and that the phrase "primeval tribal tensions" probably doesn't help things. Also, can we have a moratorium on the word 'machete' in headlines on Kenya (see also yesterday's Financial Times)?

Kristof's broader point about American policy in Africa is that "in the interest of short-term stability, we acquiesce in despotic behavior that eventually creates instability," similar to our behavior in Pakistan. That sounds about right, especially somewhere like Ethiopia. But I don't think it's quite right to say that President Mwai Kibaki is "one of our African Musharrafs."

Kenya's support for U.S. counterterrorism policies in the region certainly influences U.S. policy. But unlike Pakistan under Musharraf or Ethiopia under Meles Zenawi, Kenya under Kibaki was seen by many as a democratic success-story. Since multiparty politics were introduced in 1992, each election was more democratic than the last, and up through election day, 2007's looked like it would be the fairest yet.

And as Kristof points out, except for a premature statement congratulating Kibaki on his re-election, the U.S. has been reasonably good about criticizing the outcome of the elections and calling for power-sharing. From the perspective of stability, the U.S. has probably judged that throwing support behind Kibaki is not the best approach. But it also seems like a case of the U.S. and other international observers misreading the state of democracy in Kenya. Kibaki's role as a counterterrorism ally may have have contributed to this. As Michael Holman points out in the Financial Times, Western support for Kibaki's economic policies may have as well.

For more on U.S. policy in Kenya, it's worth looking at Joel Barkan's Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony. And the Washington Post's Stephanie McCrummen has a piece on problems with U.S. policy in Africa more broadly.

UPDATE: Between the time I wrote this post, and the time my erratic Internet connection started loading Google pages (including Blogger), Kristof returned with a second column on Kenya, this time about Barack Obama's Kenyan roots. I'm not sure this is the best use of the most coveted column space in America under any circumstance, particularly when the nation you're reporting from is undergoing arguably the biggest political crisis in its history. But its also a story that's been done, a lot (see the NYT, 2004, for example). And he didn't even get the interview with Obama's stepgrandmother that he came for. It may well be because he wasn't willing to pay for it. But it also might have something to do with the fact that, as Kenya's Standard newspaper reported earlier this month, the family is getting tired of the stream of foreign media visits.

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