A MONTH ago, Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki brazenly stole a national
election, abruptly reversing the nation's progress toward a mature
democracy. Violence since Election Day has taken nearly 1,000 lives and
left a quarter-million homeless.
Now a legislator allied with
Raila Odinga - the man who actually won the election - has been
assassinated. The police and military have been unable to contain the
savagery in the streets.
First, Odinga's outraged backers
ethnically cleansed members of Kibaki's tribe, the Kikuyus. Then
put-upon Kikuyus struck back, driving out Odinga's Luo and other
minority tribes. Spontaneous rage coalesced into organized purges.
Ex-UN chief Kofi Annan's attempts to reach a compromise continue to
But it's not only corrupt local pols who are to blame.
Kenya's sudden nightmare is also the fault of pompous Western theorists
and impossibly arrogant diplomats. (Our embassy in Nairobi's botched
response to the stolen election alienated both sides in turn.)
The horrific violence in Kenya has its roots in three things: the
corruption we overlook, the forms of democracy we demand - and, above
all, the tribes that left-wing academics insist are only wicked
Our tolerance for corruption (our
ambassador initially hailed Kibaki's "victory") may be the most
pernicious remaining form of racism - our all-too-ready acceptance that
developing countries just can't rise above it. And corruption is a
cancer that infects every organ of a society.
At least we
grasp, on some level, that corruption is wrong. It's the other two
factors - ill-fitting forms of democracy and the persistence of tribes
- that steer our good intentions into the express lane to Hell.
Kenya was long one of the continent's few stable states - yet people
there kept on voting along tribal lines. As they do in Iraq. And
Afghanistan. And Pakistan, Indonesia, Nigeria . . . just throw a dart
at the map. Impose Western forms of democracy, and majority or
plurality tribes win - then view their victories as license to loot. It
doesn't even occur to them to share.
The process has played
out hundreds of times, in dozens of countries, but we still insist that
democracy means "one citizen, one vote" for a central government with
Western-style ministries. The model we've enforced around the world
assumes that enlightened citizens won't be bound by tribal or religious
But they are. So, in a country where an alpha tribe has the clout
to dominate at the polls, a democracy that fails to formally apportion
power among a country's various ethnic and religious factions just
Our type of democracy works in homogeneous
countries, such as Sweden or the Netherlands, where campaigns are
strictly about issues - or in countries, like our own, that are so
diverse no "alpha tribe" can lord it over everybody else.
But democracy as we know it doesn't
work in countries where competition for resources persists along tribal
or religious lines. (Kenya also has a Christian-Muslim fracture, though
it's not at the forefront now.)
At the bottom of virtually
every electoral mess in the developing world are indestructible
identities that Western academics long insisted didn't exist. In the
20th century, no end of professors declared that differences in
ethnicity, tradition, language and perceived identity were all in our
heads: European imperialists had created tribes to screw up Eden.
But our attempts to ride roughshod over fundamental identities to which
human beings cling for dear life only resulted in the sort of failures
we've witnessed in the post-colonial years - and the problems we faced
in Iraq as we brushed aside sheiks in favor of corrupt bureaucrats.
To make democracy work in the developing world, you must
adapt it to the pre-existing social structures and traditional
loyalties, rather than assuming they'll wither away at the first
election. Even Stalin couldn't finish off the Chechens. Afghanistan's
Pathans won't vote for Tadjiks, or Sunni Arabs for Sunni Kurds.
The utterly wrong-headed and ultimately deadly insistence that
everybody is just like us has led us to prescribe poison: In tribal
societies, Western-style presidential or parliamentary systems produce,
at best, authoritarian regimes. (As I argued years ago, our question in
2003 shouldn't have been "How do we bring our democracy to Iraq?" but
"What would an Iraqi democracy look like?")
cause of Kenya's brutal street murders, slum rampages and neighborhood
purges is a stolen election that cheated those who hoped democracy
would finally work for their tribes. In the simplest terms, one tribe
stole from the others. Now there's tribal warfare.
When we in
the West analyze our own societies, we start with the individual and
extrapolate to the mass. In tribal societies, whether in Africa, the
Middle East or the Subcontinent, you must begin with the mass and work
We vote our individual consciences. In much of the world, that's unthinkable: You vote for your own kind.
Until we see the world as it is, rather than as we wish it to be,
elections will tear tribal societies apart - as in Kenya today. The
problem isn't democracy. It's "one size fits all" democracy.