Title: Negative Ethnicity: From Bias to Genocide
Author: Koigi wa Wamwere
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
For a long time Kenyans held their heads high confident that theirs was a peaceful country, that the “Curse of Africa” – internal fighting – has never struck us, in spite of the fact that we are a multi-ethnic communities.
Well, this came to an embarrassing end following the disputed December 27 elections, when untold violence was visited upon innocent Kenyans. Their crime, they belonged to an ‘enemy’ ethnic community.
Following the clashes that saw Kenya being put in the same category with perennial trouble spots like Gaza, attempts have been made at explaining what caused such violence. Some have said that the presidential election results brought about the mayhem, while others put it down to “historical injustices”.
Former Subukia MP Koigi wa Wamwere begs to differ. In his book Negative Ethnicity: From Bias to Genocide, written in 2003, he identifies negative ethnicity as the chief cause of what is happening in the country today.
It is astounding how the book, written a good four years before the 2007 General Election, speaks almost prophetically about present day happenings. What is more the book says that negative ethnicity is not a phenomenon unique to Kenya or Africa for that matter. Based on research the book says negative ethnicity is to blame for what happened in the former Yugoslavia.
From the outset, Koigi sets about distinguishing ethnicity from negative ethnicity. According to the book ethnicity denotes the aspects that make us unique and different from others, be it shared language, beliefs, religion, race or colour. One’s ethnicity is something to be proud of, as it defines our culture and who we are.
Negative ethnicity on the other hand manifests itself when a group of people see themselves as being superior to others by virtue of their ethnicity. It also applies to those who see themselves as being inferior to other ethnic groups.
While in Africa negative ethnicity is manifested as being black against black, further a field it is in the form of white against white. “Though obvious, there are many who deny the existence of white negative ethnicity,” writes the author. “And when it is conceded, people seem to think it is less pernicious than its black counterpart… White negative ethnicity is just as brutal as black negative ethnicity, as the Croat-Serb conflict in the former Yugoslavia illustrated.”
“In this ethnic carnage,” he continues. “Over 200,000 people have lost their lives and two million were displaced from their homes, half never to return – proof that the monster of negative ethnicity is no more civilized in Europe than in Africa.”
Recently Kosovo declared itself an independent state, earning the recognition of world powers like the US. While the separation of those countries might seem the way forward in bring an end to the violence, Koigi does not believe it is an answer in itself.
“The more difficult promise of democracy, security of life and property, freedom, justice, and equality for all must replace the simplistic carving up of multiethnic nations into weak single ethnic states that are hostile to one another,” he writes.
Seeing as negative ethnicity, among the whites is no different from that which occurs among the blacks, the author singles out Europe and America for blame, if their response is anything to go by. He argues that powers in Europe and America were more enthusiastic in dealing with negative ethnicity in Yugoslavia than they were in Rwanda or Sierra Leone.
In the book, the author expresses concern that negative ethnicity is yet to be handled with the seriousness it deserves by the international community. “Like racism, negative ethnicity has spawned many genocidal forces. But while genocide, the product of negative ethnicity, is rightly regarded as a crime against humanity, negative ethnicity is not. It is indeed funny logic that considers the child worse than the parent,” he argues.
Koigi’s book presents the interplay between negative ethnicity and racism. He argues that while racism is a form of negative ethnicity, it is indeed racism that prevents Western powers from putting in place mechanisms that would tame negative ethnicity. On the other hand African leaders will whine about racism, while at the same time conveniently overlooking negative ethnicity, which the author identifies as Africa’s biggest problem, after HIV/Aids.
According to the book, the seeds of negative ethnicity are planted with such innocence that they are a source of fun. In the Kenyan example it manifests itself in the form of the ‘harmless’ jokes leveled on the different ethnic communities. These gradually grow into ethnic prejudices, and these are as varied as we have many ethnic communities.
These prejudices eventually graduate into using derogatory terms. These are geared towards generating resentment and hostility, and eventually the need to get rid of the ‘enemy’ communities. At that stage proponents of negative ethnicity drum into their people such hatred for their ‘enemies’ that they justify the killings that occurs afterwards.
Giving the example of the Rwandan genocide, the book argues that Hutus equated Tutsis with pests like cockroaches or weeds that had to be destroyed at all costs. “Negative ethnicity does not only dehumanize those it will destroy. It also dehumanizes the murderers into cold, sadistic machines. In Rwanda, the dehumanization of killers was unmistakable,” writes Koigi.
In a multiethnic country like Kenya, negative ethnicity challenges multiethnic nationalism, uproots and replaces national patriotism with ethnic patriotism. Thus, like it is the case in Kenya, politics takes on an increasingly ethnic nature, such that those who refuse to identify with ethnic patriotism are branded traitors to the ethnic cause.
Negative ethnicity, among other ways manifests itself when a particular community says that they would like one of their own in State House so that they can take part in “eating”. On the other hand, those with one of theirs in power say that they would like to protect their “chance to eat.”
Negative ethnicity presents itself in such a way that those who practice it do not see it as being a problem, and therefore has a way of deflecting people’s minds from its evil nature.
Writes Koigi: “Negative ethnicity never parades itself as evil. It promises security, food, power and freedom to African communities, and such it wins adherents by millions.”
And negative ethnicity afflicts everyone, in spite of their profession or standing in society. “I have seen church leaders use their pulpits to preach it (negative ethnicity) to their unsuspecting congregations. I have seen it taught by university professors, advocated by young intellectuals. I have seen it fed to the masses by journalists working, not just in the so-called gutter press, but for respectable newspapers, radio and television. I have seen in practiced by politicians in government and used by those in opposition,” writes the author.
The tragedy of negative ethnicity is that while it promises ‘liberation’ to the whole community, it only benefits a chosen few, namely the ethnic elite and those closest to them. “The elites are guilty of masterminding negative ethnicity, ethnic clashes, wars and massacres. Ordinary people are guilty of executing these conflicts…” says the book.
The book gives the author’s own experience with negative ethnicity in the country, as well as the history of ethnically inspired clashes and massacres in the country, their causes and effects. The book also gives channels that are used to entrench negative ethnicity. It also suggests ways in which the fires of negative ethnicity can be quelled.
The author suggests that a body be formed to measure how widespread negative ethnicity is, something akin to the global corruption index. “If we had such a chart for Africa,” he writes. “Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Ethiopia, Congo, Sierra Leone, and Liberia would top the list with perhaps 95 per cent of the population involved in ethnic conflicts.”
Kenya, Nigeria and Ivory Coast would come a close second with 80 per cent. South Africa would follow with 30 per cent, while Tanzania and Botswana would be at the bottom with 20 per cent.
This book is recommended reading for all Kenyans, if only to understand, the kind of enemy they are flirting with. Negative Ethnicity also comes highly recommended to the mediation committee led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. It would help them understand the conflict that has brought them here in the first place.