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FREE, FAIR AND CREDIBLE? Turning The Spotlight On Election Observers

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There we go again.

The Election Observation industry has generated a sharp backlash from Kenyans in being reported and perceived to have assertively blessed a hotly contested election process that was ultimately thrown out by the Supreme Court of Kenya as not meeting the minimum standards of the Constitution and Election Law. Soul searching is seriously in order.

Whether such serious introspection will happen or not is an open question. So far there have been no explanations that involve any type of concession or apology. No clear displays of humility or a sense of humour about the perceived “egg on the face”. Some groups have offered limited defensiveness and there have been a few counterclaims that Kenyans who are disappointed and/or offended fail to understand the role or work of the international observers or the internationally funded domestic observation operation. Others have been quiet and still have the opportunity to respond in a way that may help regain some confidence from Kenyan voters.

There are a few points that seem pretty obvious. A huge problem is in the communication approach employed by the major international observation groups. They ended up with a gross overplaying of the value of -and blurred important distinctions between- the actual details of the separate Preliminary Statements issued by the respective organizations on August 10. The Statements were issue the second day after the voting and counting at the polling stations and after it became clear that a fiasco was in the works—yet again—with the breakdown or failure to implement the electronic Results Transmission System, and the failure or refusal of the IEBC to be transparent about the underlying facts.

A huge problem is in the communication approach employed by the major international observation groups. They ended up with a gross overplaying of the value of -and blurred important distinctions between- the actual details of the separate Preliminary Statements issued by the respective organizations on August 10.

In spite of the fact that NDI (the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute), the Carter Center (the Atlanta, Georgia-based NGO started by former President Jimmy Carter) and the EUEOM (European Union Election Observation Mission) operations had all had significant experience with this result transmission situation in Kenya in either 2007 or 2013, or both, all three went ahead and issued formal Preliminary Statements on an apparently pre-scheduled basis. Even in the especially alarming context of the shock of the murder of the IEBC Acting ICT Director, Chris Msando, days before the election and his replacement by his former boss who had been displaced by the Commission in June for refusing to cooperate in an audit.

In 2007, the EUEOM properly held up on issuing a Preliminary Statement after the voting given the problems with the tally (the ECK having shelved shortly before the election laptop computers purchased for them by USAID to transmit results, as we learned from the Kreigler Report). The EUEOM issued that Preliminary Statement on January 1, 2008; the second day after the ECK stopped its tally and announced a “final result”. IRI (the International Republican Institute, American counterpart with NDI) where I was Country Director and Chief of Party for the USAID-funded Election Observation was criticized, rightly in my view, for going ahead with its Preliminary Statement earlier, two days after voting with the tally still ongoing. (I would note, however, that our IRI 2007 Preliminary Statement was quite circumspect and was misunderstood by the Kenyan or international media covering it to conclude that the election was “credible” or “free and fair” or something of the sort, when the process was still ongoing.) Yet that is exactly what happened this year. I pushed assertively internally, as one of the four people who had a hand in the drafting of that Preliminary Statement (the others from Washington), to keep the Statement as reserved/conservative as possible, even though I did not yet know that the tally had been subverted.

If you take time to track down and read the Preliminary Statements (available here at The Elephant) you will notice that the EUEOM written Preliminary Statement is quite circumspect—as far as this statement goes on paper, it looks professional to me and I did not see any obvious errors at the time. The NDI Statement is much more “forward leaning” in parts, and uses the fateful word “credible” early on to describe the overall process in such a way that the Statement was obviously going to be used by others to trivialize the legal and process concerns that were already apparent and anything else irregular that might happen in the ongoing process after August 10. The NDI Statement also has one factual error that I consider to be significant and one other important characterization that I question. Nonetheless, read carefully as a whole the NDI statement does not really on paper provide the type of benediction for a successful election that was claimed by the editorial pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post and then the Trump White House spokesman on August 14.

The NDI Statement is much more “forward leaning” in parts, and uses the fateful word “credible” early on to describe the overall process in such a way that the Statement was obviously going to be used by others to trivialize the legal and process concerns that were already apparent and anything else irregular that might happen in the ongoing process after August 10.

The Carter Center Preliminary Statement is between that of the EUEOM and NDI. It is shorter and has less overall context material than NDI and less detail on the mechanics of the election itself than the EUEOM. To me it suggests a misunderstanding of the import of the electronic Results Transmission System and an overly optimistic notion of alternatives, but it is to my way of thinking clear that the process is very much outstanding and “To Be Determined” and avoids the use of overall characterizations that will inevitably be read as conclusory like NDI’s “credible”. This is what the Carter Center report actually says about the vote tally and transmission:

The mystery is how these formal written reports were then translated into the expansive words of advocacy of John Kerry as the co-lead delegate of the Carter Center delegation. Kerry as quoted in numerous sources went way beyond his brief as Carter Center Delegate. I could speculate why, but I should not have to and will not here. But I have to say that it was inevitable that Kerry, as the immediate past Secretary of State—who represented the United States and President Obama in visiting Kenya after Obama’s 2015 trip and who was Ambassador Godec’s boss in the State Department in handling American diplomacy in Kenya’s 2013 election—was the “big dog” for the media and that his words would trump not only those of others speaking for election observations, but undoubtedly the relative “fine print” of the actual written Preliminary Statements. If I was a volunteer member of an Election Observation Mission and took vacation from my job without my family to undertake the effort, I suspect I would be aggrieved at what Kerry said.

It may very well be that Kerry was simply doing what he thought made the most sense in attempting to play a diplomatic “peace making” role without being much aware of the context of the darker sides of Kenyan politics and the history of struggle behind the hopes of Kenyan to have their votes counted. Regardless, many Kenyans considered his approach deeply condescending and out of place—and if his role was to help then causing offense in this way is a problem in and of itself.

I can say from experience, and it should be obvious to all, that no one at an NGO like the Carter Center was likely to have much success “scripting” the immediate past Secretary of State, unless he asked to be scripted. So no one that works at the Carter Center is necessarily at fault for what happened unless it was their idea to recruit Kerry for this unfamiliar new role and did not get his full buy in. Regardless, it is done now, so it is time for the organizations and donors involved to seriously take stock of why it happened, how to make amends, and how to make sure it does not happen again.

The mystery is how these formal written reports were then translated into the expansive words of advocacy of John Kerry as the co-lead delegate of the Carter Center delegation. Kerry as quoted in numerous sources went way beyond his brief as Carter Center Delegate.

One obvious question is: What the rationale was for USAID to fund two separate “independent international election observation missions”? This has not been the norm in the past. In the last election in Nigeria there were two parallel U.S.-funded Election Observation Missions, but these were from NDI and IRI so you could at least make the distinction based on the relationships with the respective American political parties and their leaders. Further, the observations in Nigeria were funded by the State Department itself, not by USAID.

I wrote here in The Elephant back three months ago a summary of the story of my experience with managing an election observation program and the exit poll program for the ill-fated 2007 election: “THE DEBACLE OF 2007: How Kenyan Politics Was Frozen and an Election Stolen with US Connivance”.

As I noted then, in 2013 I consulted briefly with AfriCOG on “observing the election observers” based on my prior experience and came back to witness the voting and in particular to observe and interact with the Observation Missions.

Kenya’s leaders have historically proven quite skillful in stealing their own elections as necessary. They do not really need help from Westerners, although they have been in the habit of hiring and paying for Western consultants for their campaigns. So there is no actual need for us to “observe” these elections unless we are quite committed to add value by being thoroughly independent and credible to level the playing field a small bit in favor of the wananchi voter.

Following the Kenyan Supreme Court decision on the Presidential Petition, many Kenyans on social media have said explicitly, or implicitly, “we got this”. “Thanks for thinking of us, but you are more part of the problem than part of the solution.” Naturally, this makes me sad as an American and I think we ought to straighten this out.

Unfortunately, even in 2013, I made an unforced error, a mistake, in spite of my sobering experience from 2007. A few days after coming to Nairobi, as a favor to a friend (who probably thought he was doing a favor for me) I did a scheduled live television interview where I spent a long time in open-ended discussion about the elections. This turned out to take place shortly after then-Chairman of the IEBC, Issack Hassan, had announced he was shutting down the electronic Results Transmission System (“RTS”). Later I was quoted and criticized in a news story in The Star newspaper for saying on television the shutdown of the RTS was “not alarming”. In fuller context my “observation” was not quite as bad in the sense that I said that the situation then would turn on how the IEBC handled the original paper Forms 34 and that I would give the election an overall 5 of 10 rating at that point which would move up or down directly on that question.

Kenya’s leaders have historically proven quite skillful in stealing their own elections as necessary. They do not really need help from Westerners, although they have been in the habit of hiring and paying for Western consultants for their campaigns.

Nonetheless, I simply was not deeply enough informed to realize what was really happening at the IEBC and should not have been addressing it on live television in real time. I was not speaking for anyone other than myself but I did not turn out to be right. “Not alarming” came from a gut reaction of not wanting to be provocative, not wanting to “incite” or disrupt the pervasive “peace narrative”—all a part of that situation of being “stuck” from 2007 that my June piece here describes.

In truth, as I found out later, the acquisition of the RTS failed, or so the president of the International Foundation of Electoral Systems (IFES) testified to the U.S. Congress. Thus it was really not some technical situation that happened surprisingly after the vote in the course of a legitimately expected and reliable collection of results, but rather a situation that the key insiders should have known was going to be the case. Eventually, I learned the next year, in 2014, that at the time of the election the IEBC, in spite of the failure to have acquired and have in place the necessary system for the RTS, did not have a plan in place to handle the paper Forms 34 either! Clearly I had made myself a “useful idiot” by not being suitably skeptical of the assurances of the IEBC and its enablers. [I do not think my interview made any actual difference, but it was a cautionary lesson for me.]

After my experiences in two different roles in 2007 and then 2013, I was forced to conclude as the 2017 vote approached this year that as an American I simply was not going to be in a position to be of assistance in the existing environment. The U.S. assistance and observation program in 2007 did not stop the election from being stolen and violence from erupting in response. In 2013, many people in the U.S. government considered the assistance program successful, but from my perspective working with independent civil society, I was not satisfied. Although there was much less violence and “stability” was preserved in a sense, the election itself was clearly very badly administered, in some ways worse than in 2007. Clearly, to my way of thinking, Kenyan voters who deserved to have their votes counted were sold short. The Preliminary Statements of international observers were used in the Supreme Court by lawyers paid by the Government of Kenya to litigate against civil society on the election petition (as they use were this year, along with a clip of John Kerry speaking).

Eventually, I learned the next year, in 2014, that at the time of the election the IEBC, in spite of the failure to have acquired and have in place the necessary system for the RTS, did not have a plan in place to handle the paper Forms 34 either!

Recently I learned more about what happened in 2013. Back in 2015 I sent a Freedom of Information Act request to USAID to learn about the details of the US assistance program for that election, including whatever might turn up on the technology acquisitions. By early 2016, roughly 1800 documents had been sent from Nairobi to Washington to be reviewed for production under my request, but it was only this summer that I got release of a first group of just over 200 pages. This was just a heavily redacted copy of the “cooperative agreement” for U.S. assistance for the election between the consortium of IFES (the International Foundation of Election Systems), NDI and IRI. This provided for voter education and various training activities through NDI and IRI, but also provided for embedded technical assistance by IFES in the IEBC—continuing the role IFES has played since 2002. The agreement stressed the vital importance of the electronic Results Transmission System and provided for USAID through IFES to pay for building it out to meet the needs of the General Election having been used in the 2010 Constitutional Referendum. I am hoping to learn eventually through release of the additional documents what happened to the ill-fated acquisition. I am not comfortable, personally, saying too much about the 2017 election until I understand more about 2017—other than I will note that I do not think the Supreme Court had much choice in this year’s case unless they were just going to say “anything goes” for the future.

Following the Kenyan Supreme Court decision on the Presidential Petition, many Kenyans on social media have said explicitly, or implicitly, “we got this”. “Thanks for thinking of us, but you are more part of the problem than part of the solution.”

In the meantime, there is a lot of troubling history involving the IEBC in 2016 and 2017 and the use and acquisition of the KIEMS this year—entirely aside from anything related to the Msando murder–that seems to have been wholly ignored by the Election Observation Missions, even in their formal written Preliminary Statements. Likewise, the attacks by the President and others in government on IFES and USAID in December. Based on this it could be argued that the Election Observation Missions were simply not prepared or not willing to get into the nitty gritty of the completion for political power through elections in Kenya in such a way as to actually serve Kenyan voters as a whole. And if observers are just serving diplomatic interests of donors, they should just call themselves diplomatic observers and not claim to be independent or a part of a separate mission to assist Kenyans.

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Mr Flottman is a lawyer in the United States where he works in corporate practice on government contracts.

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The Making and Unmaking of a Revolution: From the Fall of al-Bashir to the Return of Janjaweed

Thirty years of suffering under the weight of al-Bashir’s regime have not been enough to drain the Sudanese people of their desire to be free. The protest drew people from all ages, social classes, religions, and colour. They overcame social and economic barriers, and joined forces under the same banner.

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The Making and Unmaking of a Revolution: From the Fall of al-Bashir to the Return of Janjaweed
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After more than 30 years of ruling Sudan, in April 2019 the dictator Omar al-Bashir was finally deposed by the military following an irrepressible explosion of civil unrest. In less than five months of protest following the intolerable austerity politics imposed by al-Bashir’s administration, the Sudanese population found unexpected energy and cohesion in fighting peacefully to obtain a democratic government. As crowds of demonstrators from all across the country converged on the capital to join the civil movement, art flourished, and a renewed sense of freedom gave voice once again to those who found the strength to break their chains. Women, such as the “Nubian Queen” Alaa Salah (dubbed “the woman in white”), have been at the forefront of the demonstrations, and people from all walks of life who have been denied their basic human rights rose to finally end their silence.

However, things went south in June when the army refused to hold its promise to guarantee a three-year transition period before a new civilian rule could be established. Although the protest organisers rebuked the military’s decision to scrap the agreement, the Transitional Military Council (TMC) acted with unexpected brutality, killing more than one hundred Sudanese activists during the Khartoum massacre. Today, the situation is extremely tense, with claims that the United Arab Emirates is arming the violent counter-revolution. Furthermore, back-and-forth negotiations after a general strike have brought the whole country to a halt. While it’s still hard to tell when (and if) normality will return to the country, let’s have a look at what has happened so far and what the future may hold for Sudan in the post-al-Bashir era.

11 April 2019 – The despot is overthrown

After succeeding former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi in 1989, Omar al-Bashir didn’t lose much time to show the world his true face as a violent and brutal leader. Al-Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He has been accused of being the man behind the mass murders, forcible transfers, tortures, and rapes committed in Darfur since 2003.

When in January 2018 the country started facing imminent economic collapse, al-Bashir decided to impose a series of extreme austerity measures that included cuts to wheat and electricity subsidies, and the devaluation of the country’s currency. Inflation spiked to 70 per cent, and the Sudanese people had to struggle even to access basic goods, such as fuel, bread, and cash from ATMs. When the first demonstrations over the unacceptable living standards began in the eastern regions (the price of bread tripled in less than one year), the situation quickly became uncontrollable.

In December 2018 the unrest spread to the capital Khartoum and took the form of a series of riots that were brutally repressed by the regime. Nearly a thousand protesters were arrested, and dozens more got killed or wounded by the security forces who used live ammunition against the population. Coordinated by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), demonstrators from all social classes of the country eventually joined forces under the umbrella of the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) – also known as the Alliance for Freedom and Change – to fight for the ouster of the regime and the transition to a democratic government. Despite many attempts to block media coverage of the protests and to impose strict Internet censorship on social media, al-Bashir’s administration failed to contain the civil movements.

When in January 2018 the country started facing imminent economic collapse, al-Bashir decided to impose a series of extreme austerity measures that included cuts to wheat and electricity subsidies, and the devaluation of the country’s currency. Inflation spiked to 70 per cent, and the Sudanese people had to struggle even to access basic goods, such as fuel, bread, and cash from ATMs.

The tension peaked in February 2019 when the president went so far as to declare a state of national emergency – an attempt to try and break the will of the protesters with more violence, beatings, and arrests perpetrated by army officers who were put in charge of provincial governments. But the Sudanese protesters did not relent, and on April 6 hundreds of thousands of them marched to the square in front of the military’s headquarters, seeking the help of the army. A conflict between the military who took the demonstrators’ side and the security forces ensued, and shots were fired. On April 11, 2019, the military finally announced that al-Bashir had been overthrown.

The many shapes and colours of the civil protest

Thirty years of suffering under the weight of al-Bashir’s regime have not been enough to drain the Sudanese people of their desire to be free. The protest drew people from all ages, social classes, religions, and colour. They overcame social and economic barriers, and joined forces under the same banner.

During the hardest times of the civil battleground, the revolt harboured some heroic moments, such as when a doctor was killed while he was bravely trying to resuscitate other protesters who were wounded by the security forces. The marches were led by courageous women who took a stand against the oppressive colonial laws that condemn to flogging all female activists who participate in anti-government manifestations. The image of Kandake Alaa Salah chanting to encourage the protestors went viral and came to symbolise women’s strength in leading this battle to live in a country where everyone’s human rights are protected.

The civil unrest channeled incredible and unexpected energy from the Sudanese population – an unbreakable will to peacefully fight against oppression that provided the entire continent with a fundamental lesson on civil disobedience. Neither the scorching heat, hunger, nor thirst stopped the Muslims protesters from enduring their sit-ins in front of the army headquarters in Khartoum during Ramadan. The same social media that the government tried to muzzle became the instrument used by the volunteers who assisted these determined dissidents by providing them food and water at night. And as the revolution never stopped or faltered under the blows of the regime’s forces, all this energy became palpable and took the form of colourful murals, amazing canvases, manifestos on women’s rights, and other incredibly beautiful works of art that left the word astonished. And very few things are more exquisitely humane and liberating than art itself.

The betrayal by the TMC and the Khartoum massacre

Following the deposition of al-Bashir, power was assumed by the Transitional Military Council (TMC), a council of seven generals led by Lt-Gen Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan. Once it seized power, the TMC held its position firmly, claiming it must stay in charge to ensure order and security. A long and difficult negotiation with the FCC ensued before an agreement could be reached on May 15. The agreement provided for a 3-year transition period to a civilian-led government constituted by a sovereign council, a cabinet, and a legislative body. The long transition period was needed to dismantle the deeply entrenched political network previously established by former President al-Bashir and ensure fair, democratic elections.

The civil unrest channeled incredible and unexpected energy from the Sudanese population – an unbreakable will to peacefully fight against oppression that provided the entire continent with a fundamental lesson on civil disobedience.

However, a few days later, something terrible happened. A new (or we should say, old) force made its appearance among the Sudanese soldiers. Groups of masked militiamen started beating activists and dragging them away to secret detention centers where they are held without charge and sometimes even raped and tortured. Hit squads move around the city in Toyota pickups with their plates removed to chase down protesters.

Who are these people? They’re the same elite squads of security forces employed by the now ousted al-Bashir regime to clear out protesters from the streets. Named the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), they’re highly-trained, exceptionally brutal agents able to exact swift punishment on anyone who endangers their control on the Sudanese people and the country. They are the feared Janjaweed, a group of specialised forces famous for the atrocities inflicted on the civilian population during the Darfur crisis 14 years ago.

The TMC went so far as to arrest and forcibly deport three rebel leaders – Yasir Arman, Ismail Jalab and Mubarak Ardol – to South Sudan after they met Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for talks about the negotiation. Their goal is clear – the do not intend to hand over power to the people. The military elites simply ousted al-Bashir as they saw a unique opportunity to seize power for themselves, and they came clean on this on June 3 when several armed bands opened fire on the protesters with the excuse of “dispersing the sit-in”.

However, a few days later, something terrible happened. A new (or we should say, old) force made its appearance among the Sudanese soldiers. Groups of masked militiamen started beating activists and dragging them away to secret detention centers where they are held without charge and sometimes even raped and tortured.

They didn’t stop there. Over 200 military vehicles and 10,000 soldiers ravaged and ransacked the city for several days while the Internet was shut down. Countless unjustified arrests were carried out, and unarmed people were dragged out of their houses, detained, beaten, and raped. The aftermath was a bloodbath – aptly named the Khartoum massacre, with more than 100 Sudanese activists killed, nearly 700 wounded, and at least 70 women and men raped by the RSF and Janjaweed forces. (Many corpses have been thrown in drainage channels so the body count is probably even higher.) Shortly after the violent crackdown, the military council thrashed any agreement made with the FCC and SPA and announced that fresh elections would be held within nine months.

The general strike and total civil disobedience

In the wake of the killings, civilian activists haven’t given up with their quest to establish a democratic government in Sudan. The “people’s movement” may lack the cohesion and discipline of the reorganised military party, but it definitely doesn’t lack the will and determination to make the change. While the international community’s response has been the usual generic condemnation, the rebels swiftly understood that big powers, such as the United States, China and Europe, could do nothing more than ask their regional allies to exert (negligible) pressure on the Sudanese army. Even the hands of the United Nations are somewhat tied after China and Russia blocked the sanctions that were initially foreseen. The FCC thus defiantly cut all contacts with the TMC and called for a general strike – “total civil disobedience” – to kick the military junta out.

Observance of the strike was nearly absolute, reaching almost 100 per cent in Khartoum. All across the country all kind of operations, from banks, to hospitals, airports, ports, and government agencies, have been shut down for days. Workers are protesting side by side with scientists, doctors, lawyers, shop owners, street vendors, and journalists. The entire country is once again united against a common threat.

But the reprisal was swift and cruel, with dozens of airport workers arrested and hundreds of people detained without charge. Despite its attempts at distorting the truth through propaganda, the RSF now looks more and more like an army of occupation than a force that is guaranteeing civil order and security.

The current situation and the reaction of the international community

The commander of the RSF, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (widely known as “Hemeti”), is a ruthless veteran of the war in Yemen – his RSF troops are still fighting there to help the Saudi-led coalition. For obvious reasons, he is backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who do not want see a major Arab country like Sudan transition to democracy. The Saudis and the Emiratis know that he is the ideal candidate to preserve the autocratic status quo in Sudan after the fall of al-Bashir, and have already warned against the “folly” of a popular uprising. They have explicitly expressed their support for Hemeti and other military leaders. Several videos uploaded on social media clearly show that the militiamen who carried out the killings during the June 3 attack were geared with Emirati-manufactured armaments.

The United States’ reaction was cautionary at best. The Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, David Hale, expressed concern over the crackdown during a talk with the Saudis, noting “the importance of a transition to a civilian-led government”. A diplomat will be sent to ease the talks between the FCC and the TMC, but so far, no real pressure has been exerted on Egypt or the Saudis to act against the TMC forces or to help the FCC.

The commander of the RSF, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (widely known as “Hemeti”), is a ruthless veteran of the war in Yemen – his RSF troops are still fighting there to help the Saudi-led coalition. For obvious reasons, he is backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who do not want see a major Arab country like Sudan transition to democracy.

After initially supporting a transition towards civilian rule, the African Union (AU) spoke against the intervention of international actors in the current Sudanese situation. But the AU’s chairperson is none other than Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Field Marshal who won elections with a landslide victory by obtaining 97 per cent of votes. It is not a coincidence that el-Sisi seized power after his army massacred 1,000 unarmed protesters at a sit-in in Cairo in 2013.

Now, after days of talks, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed finally managed to broker a new agreement between the civilian and military forces. On 12 June, the strikes were momentarily suspended after the TMC agreed to release political prisoners, and the two parties are now at the negotiating table once again. The situation is extremely unstable, and the TMC is starting to feel the pressure of internal divisions. What the future holds for the Sudanese people is really hard to tell, but their defiant battle against all odds is a prime example of the immense power that common people unknowingly hold against their oppressors.

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Man Enough? Why Men Shouldn’t Have To Be

Still, the question remains: What would men gain by relinquishing the power that masculinity has so far unfairly accorded them? Freedom for one. Because it is not just women and LGBTI folks who are oppressed by the idea of gender; heterosexual men are too.

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Man Enough? Why Men Shouldn’t Have To Be
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A fable I was taught as a young Kikuyu boy seeks to explain the rise of the patriarchal society. It speaks of a time, long ago, when women ruled over men. Unhappy with the state of affairs, the “oppressed” men conspired to get all the women pregnant at the same time, and so easily overthrew them. They have since been the undisputed rulers.

The misogyny and fear of women expressed in that tale are alive and well in contemporary Kenya’s male-dominated society. Today they manifest in the repeated refusal of the country’s parliament to enact laws mandated by the country’s constitution that prohibit any public body (including Parliament) of having a composition of more than two-thirds of their members from one gender. It is manifested in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s own refusal, which gives the lie to his rhetoric at last week’s Women Deliver Conference in Canada to implement the same rule in his appointments and nominations. It is a fear that may, ironically, be also driving discrimination and oppression of men – specifically, homosexual men.

Banning homosexuality

Last month, in a convoluted and contradictory judgment, the High Court upheld colonial-era laws that criminalised sex acts “against the order of nature”. Enacted at the very dawn of colonial occupation by the famously stuck-up Victorians, the laws are today spuriously defended as reflective of “African culture”. The High Court in Botswana recently struck down as unconstitutional an identical law, also introduced by the British, declaring it “discriminatory” and warning that “human dignity is harmed when minority groups are marginalised”.

Many times, such harmful laws are supported by the same Kenyan men who rabidly oppose women’s empowerment. As it turns out, this may not be a coincidence. According to researchers at the University of Geneva, prior to the feminist revolution of the late 1960s, men had largely constructed their masculinity in opposition to women as anti-femininity. However, as society moves towards greater gender equality and as men are encouraged to get in touch with their “feminine” side and to show emotion and vulnerability, some men, particularly those of a more traditional bent, look for something else to serve as a foil for their idea of masculinity. Typically, they emphasise their heterosexuality. As, Prof Juan M. Falomir, who led the research team says, “homophobia is the alternative way of asserting their masculinity.”

Last month, in a convoluted and contradictory judgment, the High Court upheld colonial-era laws that criminalised sex acts “against the order of nature”. Enacted at the very dawn of colonial occupation by the famously stuck-up Victorians, the laws are today spuriously defended as reflective of “African culture”.

The trajectory of Kenya’s legal prohibitions exemplifies this. As women in Victorian Britain teetered on the verge of a vast change in the laws that had constrained them since medieval times, their menfolk were imposing draconian decrees targeting specifically male homosexual behaviour in their colonies. Today, as women in Kenya increasingly assert themselves in public spaces and challenge the norm of masculine domination, the blowback is not just against them but also against gay men.

Gay women too suffer bigotry and violence. As is true in many other countries, they are subjected to horrific abuse, including assaults and rape, as research on their lived experiences in Kenya has shown. “Masculine presenting” gay women or “studs” experience more discrimination and abuse and are “deliberately locked out of conversations around protection of women by State actors,” the research found. Infamously, the Kenya Film Classification Board last year banned the multiple award-winning movie Rafiki “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya”. The constitutionality of the ban is currently being challenged in court.

Here too, constructions of masculinity are at play. “Patriarchy becomes panicked at these women denying men an opportunity for sex on demand, power on demand, or both. Their power and ability to live the life…outside the autocracy of male influence…becomes a threat to society as it is constructed,” says Dr Njoki Ngumi. Men see lesbians both as sexual rivals taking “their” women, and also as women denying them sex and power.

The link between misogyny and other bigotries is particularly visible online, a platform that has been described as “the gateway drug for extremists”. Today in the West, the rise of populist, far-right governments has also coincided with the accession of an increasing number of women to the pinnacle of power. Donald Trump was widely expected to lose to a woman in 2016. The outgoing Prime Minister of the UK is a woman as is the Chancellor of Germany. And Santiago Zabala has also linked the inclusion of “a racist, homophobic and anti-immigration party” in Spain’s ruling coalition to “the patriarchal obsession with the so-called natural order and the politics of hate that it incubates”.

It is important to keep in mind, though, that it is women who have borne the brunt of the violence committed by men who are unable to construct masculinity in terms other than domination of another. In recent years, for example, reports of women maimed or murdered by their partners or by men they have spurned have become a staple of Kenyan daily news. Such assaults are about reminding women of their place in patriarchy’s pecking order, especially when – as witnessed in the public violence meted out on female politicians in Kenya at the hands of their male counterparts – they dare to confront or deny a man.

Reconstructing masculinity

But how exactly do we go about reconstructing masculinity? Is that even possible? Or does the solution lie in abandoning the idea of gender altogether as fundamentally anti-human? After all, masculinity and femininity are social, religious, political and cultural constructs, only incidentally related to biological accoutrements. When the Standard newspaper calls Amina Mohammed “the only ‘man’ in Uhuru’s Cabinet” or Macharia Gaitho says the same about Martha Karua in the Daily Nation, they do not mean to suggest that the two are in possession of penises and scrotums. When one is told to “man up” or “don’t be a pussy”, the reference is not to biology. All these are pretty offensive – and plainly wrong – cultural constructions that suggest that traits like bravery and assertiveness are to be associated with males while fear and submissiveness are inherently female.

It is important to keep in mind, though, that it is women who have borne the brunt of the violence committed by men who are unable to construct masculinity in terms other than domination of another. In recent years, reports of women maimed or murdered by their partners or by men they have spurned have become a staple of Kenyan daily news. Such assaults are about reminding women of their place in patriarchy’s pecking order, especially when they dare to confront or deny a man.

If we understand that, then we can begin to see the idea of gender itself as just another weapon in the service of patriarchal domination. Rather than a dictate of biology, it is a way of ordering society’s power structure in much the same way other fictional constructs, such as race or tribe, have been historically used.

But while we may rightly take umbrage at media folk ascribing particular qualities to race or tribe (imagine the uproar if the Standard were to describe Mohammed as “the only Kikuyu” or Gaitho were to call Karua “the real mzungu” as a way of recognising their contributions), we seemingly have no problem with the false dichotomies of male as strong and female as weak.

Even the Kikuyu fable I cited at the beginning is an attempt to use biology as a justification for the tyranny of man over woman. Women, it suggests, are weak because they can become pregnant – an assertion that has been shown to be scientifically bogus. If anything, it is the other way around. A recent study in the US found that elites athletes and pregnant women have similar endurance levels. Pregnancy, researchers found, “pushes the body to the same extremes as endurance events like long-distance triathlon competition Ironman or the Tour de France.”

But the fable doesn’t stop there. It constructs female rule as inherently oppressive and men as victims who are justified in using women’s biology against them – kind of like waylaying a cyclist at the end of the Tour de France, which is hardly a fair fight. It is interesting to observe how these ideas then play out in real life as when men deny women access to birth control or abortion and the persistence of practices like FGM or early marriage, all of which are meant to serve as a form of control.

It is no accident that the gender roles and attributes that patriarchal societies have invented tend to favour the dominion of men and to construe biology as women’s inescapable prison. Men, they believe, have freedom that women don’t because women can be raped, need to be defended, cannot hunt or fight. So, the logic goes, biology has decreed that their place is in the home, to serve as the caretaker and caregiver for the man who is able do those things. Yet every day, women are demonstrating the falsehood of such ideas. Sure, the average man is physically bigger and stronger than the average woman, but that does not tell us if he’s braver, more intelligent, a better hunter or a better fighter. After all, humankind’s rise to the top of the food chain has little to do with the size of our muscles.

Femininity is associated with silly and frivolous pursuits while masculinity is about serious things. Women gossip, men talk; women are vain and illogical; men are practical. Yet this script is quickly flipped when it suits the latter, especially when it involves labours that are long, non-stop and are most likely to be devalued or demanded for free. Suddenly women are inherently better, more loving and more attentive parents, while men are inherently incompetent assholes who should not be left alone with either the house or the children. This despite numerous studies demonstrating that supposedly hardwired gender differences are really the result of social conditioning – “it is the experience of parenting, and not some inalterable genetic factor or hormone, that constitutes what we call the ‘maternal instinct.’”

Playing the victim card

Of course, this is not welcome news for men. Most of us like the world just as it is. We can do pretty much what we want – boys will be boys – and we justify it (and comfort ourselves) with the delusion that nature decrees that it is the women who must pick up the pieces (and our socks). We are the kings – why would we want to give that up? When nature is no longer a sufficient prop, we resort to inventions like culture, tradition and even the law and conveniently interpreted religion to cement our place at the top. When those are themselves undermined by reason, we turn the tables and, like the folks in the fable, don the garb of the victim.

“The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate,” declared Adam. “Nature has given women so much power that the law has very wisely given them little,” is how the eighteenth-century English poet and essayist, Samuel Johnson, sought to justify the oppression of women.

Today in Kenya, we are assailed by online calls for the uplifting of the “boy-child” who has apparently been hard done by as a result of the focus on empowering girls and women. Now it is not in dispute that many boys need help. What is telling is the assertion that the help has to come at either the expense of or as a reaction to that given to girls – even though it is undeniable that across the board, girls and women suffer much more violence and denial of opportunities, mostly at the hands of men. However, the boy-child (and male empowerment) activists many times betray their motives by behaving as if the boy-child problem stems, not from the same patriarchal system that oppresses girls, but rather from the attempt to abolish it and its effects.

This construction of masculinity as victimhood is also evident in the resistance to attempts to decriminalise homosexuality. A typical example is provided by Ghetto Radio, which is popular with Nairobi youth, and which recently reported on the “Alarm Over Rising Rate Of Lesbians In Eastlands”. As Dr Ngumi explains, “Women who are not coded as heterosexual, and thus available for male desire, are going about their business. But here, they are reported to be stirring up ‘fear of being rejected’ in men [in] a falsely alarmist and bigoted news piece which can instigate violence against them.”

A common refrain is that gays threaten the survival of the species, which is baffling considering that they are a tiny minority. And yet, it makes sense if you consider that it is also about group domination as well. As Lara Temple noted in her study of male rape, scholars “have posited … that the subjugation of gay men stems from the perception that they forfeit their male privilege by behaving like women”.

For men who construe sex as something men do to women as an expression of power and penetration as conquest, men who allow themselves to be so penetrated are seen at traitors who endanger the status of all males. It is this idea of a loss of status that is behind the popular notion that homosexuality is somehow “spread” or people are “recruited” into it and that the homosexuals are coming for us all – the patriarchy’s version of the zombie apocalypse.

Biology is not destiny

Gender is probably an irredeemably oppressive way to organise the world. Modelling the world as inherently divided into a male and female half with gendered responsibilities and roles has terrible implications. Take for example Nigerian feminist and academic, Obioma Nnaemeka’s assertion that “each gender constitutes the critical half that makes the human whole. Neither sex is totally complete in itself. Each has and needs a complement, despite the possession of unique features of its own”. This creates the clearly problematic image of a world of incomplete people seeking to find their “other half”, rather than one where relationships are voluntary and can take a variety of forms.

A common refrain is that gays threaten the survival of the species, which is baffling considering that they are a tiny minority. And yet, it makes sense if you consider that it is also about group domination as well. As Lara Temple noted in her study of male rape, scholars “have posited … that the subjugation of gay men stems from the perception that they forfeit their male privilege by behaving like women”.

There is absolutely no reason why, in this day and age, biological differences should be assumed to ascribe limitations beyond the physical – just because nature decrees that it is the women who give birth and breastfeed, there is no reason to assume that they then must be the sole, or even primary caregivers. In the vast majority of instances, men and women can competently perform the same roles and share responsibilities. There is therefore no need to encourage men to get in touch with their supposed “feminine” side since what is coded feminine – such as a desire for and work towards cleanliness, hygiene and beauty in one’s self and their surroundings, as well as a desire to socialise with, care for and listen to others – is actually just human.

The same could be said of arguments that ideas of masculinity need not solely encompass violence and domination. Given that gender and its attributes are social constructions, Nigerian professor of history, Egodi Uchendu, notes that “yardsticks for assessing manifestations of masculinity could differ from place to place and from continent to continent”. There is no one masculinity, rather a multitude of ways to define manliness (as opposed to maleness). Some, like the Zulu, include traits such as honesty, wisdom and respect. Uchendu points out that among the Hua of Papua New Guinea, masculine subjects are seen “highly placed but physically powerless and weak”. And masculinity “is lost by men as they age but gained by women through childbearing”. Yet it is unclear why certain human qualities should be reserved to a particular sex at a particular time (or why their acquisition should necessarily come at the expense of other desirable traits) when they are clearly available to everyone at every time. And worse, they inevitably set up a power dynamic and competition that opens doors to violence and domination.

Towards a gender-free world

Creating a world free of gender does not mean that people wouldn’t think of themselves as men or women just as ridding the world of racism and tribalism needn’t require that people forsake their other made-up identities based on the biological adaptations coded as race, or on the imagined lineages coded as tribe. It just requires that we acknowledge that these are not markers of inherent differences beyond the physical or genealogical – if even that. This, however, will not be easy, just as creating a world free of other bigotries is not. The legacies of millenia of discrimination and marginalisation will need to be addressed and people, especially women, should be afforded help to overcome it. It is that legacy, for example, that necessitates measures like the not-more-than-two-thirds gender rule.

Unfortunately, we do not have recourse to a Thanos-like snap of the fingers that would dissolve long-standing bigotries and hostilities. Legal changes, while necessary, are not sufficient. They will need to be accompanied by targeted efforts to help women, as well as civic and cultural education campaigns and societal willingness to learn new ways to live and relate with each other. Change would take time to effect and to take hold. There will be many false starts, as there have been in the fight against racism and tribalism. But in the end, it will be worth it.

Creating a world free of gender does not mean that people wouldn’t think of themselves as men or women just as ridding the world of racism and tribalism needn’t require that people forsake their other made-up identities based on the biological adaptations coded as race, or on the imagined lineages coded as tribe. It just requires that we acknowledge that these are not markers of inherent differences beyond the physical or genealogical – if even that.

Getting rid of gender-determined roles would require men, for example, to shoulder their fair share of unpaid household labour – cooking, cleaning and caring – most of which is foisted on women. This would free the latter to pursue education, dreams and careers. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that what we often think of as a gender pay gap is more accurately described as a childbearing pay gap or motherhood penalty. Basically, women take a lifetime earnings hit when forced to drop out of the workforce to take care of children. In Kenya, a 2018 report by USAID notes that “unpaid care and domestic work burdens limit women’s contributions in and benefit from productive activities, constrains their mobility, and limits their access to market resources”. The same does not happen to men. In fact, a New York Times piece on pregnancy discrimination noted that while “each child chops 4 percent off a woman’s hourly wages…men’s earnings increase by 6 percent when they become fathers”. Yet there is no physical or biological reason why childcare and domestic duties cannot be more equally shared.

Dr Ngumi notes that “if masculinity is defined by oppression, for men it cannot be practised without it”. Going forward, Kenya, like other societies around the world, will need to address the problems created by the toxic idea of gender and to create better, more meaningful, and more complete notions of humanity that are not legitimised by the oppression of someone else. Men, in particular heterosexual men, will need to understand that life is not a zero-sum competition with and over women. The truth is, as Kenyan lawyer and writer, Marilyn Kamuru says, “There is room for all of us, men and women, heterosexual and homosexual, to live more authentic, freer lives.”

Breaking the dominance chain

Still, the question remains: What would men gain by relinquishing the power that masculinity has so far unfairly accorded them? Freedom for one. Because it is not just women and LGBTI folks who are oppressed by the idea of gender; heterosexual men are too. Kenyan academic Godwin Murunga notes that “the idea of flawed or hegemonic masculinity has been used to indicate that though all men enjoy the “patriarchal dividend” by the sheer fact of being men, these dividends do not accrue to all of them in the same manner and in equal measure”. It is perhaps more useful to think of it as a spectrum of domination, with women and sexual minorities at the bottom but with dominance being expressed right through the chain. Masculinity causes men to harm other men who are weaker, poorer, or who are of a different race or religion.

During the recent brutal attacks on protesters in Sudan, many men, as well as women, were raped by the Janjaweed militias. In fact, the rape of men is well-documented as a weapon in conflicts ranging from the Syrian civil war to that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And, as with the rape of women, it is about power, not sex. As a harrowing report on the rape of men in the Guardian explained, notions of gender and masculinity force a conspiracy of silence between perpetrators and victims with the latter often stigmatised and deserted by family and friends once their story is discovered. One victim in the report was afraid to let his own brother know: “I don’t want to tell him…I fear he will say: ‘Now, my brother is not a man'”. This demonstrates the truth of Lara Temple’s observation that “the rape of men is a form of gender oppression in which gendered hierarchies are reproduced”.

As alluded to above, men are also forced to give up a part of their human self in order to become more manly. The prohibitions against showing emotion, the constant competition to be First Bodi – or Alpha Male, the pressure to accumulate sexual “conquests”, all these take their toll, constantly shrinking their pool of experience, isolating them from the world, turning them into tired, grumpy, angry, old men, who have no idea how to love, how to be tender, how to be kind, or how to maintain mutually beneficial human relationships.

And they are downright dangerous. Studies have shown that “the system that keeps men in a collectively dominant position over women and in competitive relations to other men comes at a cost for men in terms of their health and quality of life. Faced with an ideal where physical resilience is valorised, men find it harder to seek healthcare and engage in preventive activities.”

On the other hand, equality has clear benefits for men. As Thomas Sankara said, “We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or because of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution. Women hold up the other half of the sky.”

Women’s empowerment need not – and does not – come at the expense of men. On the contrary, it is indispensable to their welfare and to that of all of society. The World Bank estimates that gender inequality in 2014 cost the global economy $160 trillion – which is double the total estimate for global GDP. And that figure has been rising along with population growth. Twenty years before, it was $123 trillion.

Bigotry, in the end, is incredibly short-sighted even as concerns the bigot’s own interests. “The repeal 162 case is an excellent example of this,” says political analyst and author, Nanjala Nyabola, citing the High Court ruling upholding laws criminalising gay sex. “Was it worth unraveling constitutional protections against discrimination just to protect a heteronormative idea of marriage which wasn’t even on the table?” she asks pointedly.

The cost of discrimination is not just to the victims but is borne by society as a whole. All of Kenya would benefit from a more diverse Parliament in terms of better governance. And the refusal to implement a constitutional principle is not just troubling for women. For if the people in power can ignore that provision, who is to say they cannot ignore any other provision? Are men really willing to forgo their own protections just to keep women in their place? Rather than be king of a small pond, wouldn’t it be better to share the bounty of an ocean of humanity? Only a man blinded by the idea of masculinity would say no.

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Call It By Its Name: Tribalism’s Moment in American Politics

Tribalism has become a buzzword within American politics at present, but that doesn’t make it untrue. The affliction becomes especially acute when compared with the state of tribalism within East Africa, particularly in Kenya.

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Call It By Its Name: Tribalism’s Moment in American Politics
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The United States of America has a fundamental issue with using certain terminology. When it comes to certain hills, the cultural norm is to die upon them without admitting certain ugly truths. The issue of American tribalism is one such battle of attrition.

In the US, in all brutal honesty, there is no admittance to looking at issues through a tribal lens; it is considered an almost uncouth term, inaccurate, sensationalist and (through a more ugly lens) applicable to an interchangeable “other”. I’ve had conversations revolving around this, when Americans are quick to point out that the issue of “tribalism” is a fundamentally African problem, something that occurs overseas, within countries that are painted with an unspoken brush of “lesser” – less developed, less “civilised”, less democratic, less Western, depending on the kind of jingoistic plug they want to apply to racism or neo-colonialism.

Tribalism has become a buzzword within American politics at present, but that doesn’t make it untrue. The affliction becomes especially acute when compared with the state of tribalism within East Africa, particularly in Kenya. The issue is, above all, an insidious indictment against another group. It is an inherent and unfounded bias against perceived characteristics that cuts across facts and rationality. Tribalism is, in many aspects, the very epitome of the “us against them” mentality. So how does this play into American politics?

The very definition of tribalism, according to Merriam Webster, is “loyalty to a tribe or other social group especially when combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group”. Americans just tend to think that this is merely a question of ethnicity, of belonging to a literal tribe, thus positioning themselves falsely above the fray; in denial of any association with any such allusion parallel to an issue often associated with the “developing” world.

Americans just tend to think that this is merely a question of ethnicity, of belonging to a literal tribe, thus positioning themselves falsely above the fray; in denial of any association with any such allusion parallel to an issue often associated with the “developing” world.

As Kenyan citizens are all too aware, the very nature of tribalism is its pervasiveness. For those prescribing to fall in line with tribal ideas, it can become all-encompassing and derogatory of other groups in the extreme. In the mind of a “tribalist”, Kikuyus are shrewd business minds and are surely taking over the country to their own ends; Luos are loud and boisterous, too uncouth for political control; Merus have long fuses but terribly explosive tempers once the fuse is completed; Kalenjins will borrow things but are not to be trusted with them; Kambas are flashy in their style but have spent the rent for the style achieved. All of these stereotypes, when manifesting as the first and foremost notion of a group, can become deeply engrained, however head-slapping they may be.

Despite the progress made over these divisions in Kenyan society, it is still a common occurrence to come across an individual who holds true to their notions about others, and can’t be told otherwise. It is the last aspect, that of being unable or unwilling to deviate from a divisive perception that is most applicable to the political situation in the United States approximately 17 months ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The liberal and conservative wings are at each other’s throats to an extent that hasn’t been seen in the United States since the darkest days of the clashes between those against the Vietnam War and those supporting the military action.

Therefore, it is only right to look with a critical lens towards my own side, my own social identity, my own political “tribe”. It is time for me to admit my personal political views. I fall into the liberal camp and have always done so. Despite my leanings, it is impossible to look at the tone of the liberal wing of American society objectively and not view them as part of the problem, at least with regard to the furthering of the tone. I will pause here and allow for a multitude of familial connections and social acquaintances to send me sharply worded messages explaining that their side is worse; it is them that are furthering the division, that it is Republicans who are on the wrong side and that good liberal democrats could never think as cruelly as conservative voters do. They prove my point: one of the ugly realities of tribalistic thinking is to buck criticism from those within your own ranks and to view such criticism as a betrayal to the group.

From the liberal side of things, the perception is clear. There is open talk among the left that Republicans are a “threat”; that they are “seizing control” and are “selling out to a dictator to get what they want”. It is rebounded off left-leaning media echo chambers, in satire, from Democratic politicians themselves. Tribalism, in its essence, is finding societal safety in a group, and damn the others if you think they impede on your safety.

The messaging from the left-leaning side is that the right-wing tribe is a threat, that they are a minority in the US that are seeking to maintain their ill-gotten political control by any means necessary, including those means that are less than democratic. They are only in the game for themselves, while exploiting members of their own political base (who will, of course, follow them blindly) to gain more of a stranglehold on American society; the Republicans are trying to form the United States as moulded around the conservative ideal (which was based on oppression in the first place, of course) in spite of what would be a “positive outcome” for the long-suffering masses. (The Kenyan reader will probably find that prior statement uncomfortably familiar in tone to some of the talk swirling about before the 2007 elections. This is meant in no way to diminish the horrors of the post-election violence and elevate American problems as to somehow “more so”; merely to point out tonal similarities.)

The conservative tribe must also be examined in close detail, as there a direct line to cut towards tribalistic tendencies in both tone and action. From this end, some of the divisions have been made more acute, if not deepened in a more extreme fashion. When dealing with issues of the politically tribal, the top brass should be the major holder of any responsibility for the messaging and resulting actions of their followers.

There is no clearer example of an individual who should be held accountable than that of Donald Trump himself. It isn’t an exaggeration to state that he has frequently engaged in incitement along tribal lines. His words must speak for themselves. Mexicans (and other Latin American migrants) are rapist criminal invaders, hell-bent on taking the “homeland” for their own ill purposes. Democrats are disgusting, manipulative and treacherous, seeking to overthrow the very power that the conservatives currently lay claim to within the United States. Muslims are a threat, and are to be banned. Political dissidents are committing treason. Those who investigate serious allegations of ongoing criminal activities are actively engaged in a “witch hunt” and must be ignored by those loyal to the White House, regardless of evidence.

The conservative end of the media, such as FOX News, isn’t much different, repeating talking points, calling Democrats “rats” in front of millions of viewers. The barrage of information, misinformation, and accusation-hefting has become a constant staple. Those Republican politicians who have fallen into the camp of “dissent” have their loyalty publicly questioned by the White House. That’s the essence of political tribalism – to further the message of the group through a means of clarity-by-murkiness.

In recent weeks and months, Trump has spoken repeatedly and publicly (without proven basis) of a conspiracy against him aimed at usurping the White House and launching some sort of coup (as those loyal to the left could never accept the outcome of a controversial election in 2016 and are thus trying to undermine the administration). Violent action is repeatedly hinted at, to be carried out at the hands of “those with the guns” in America.

The conservative end of the media, such as FOX News, isn’t much different, repeating talking points, calling Democrats “rats” in front of millions of viewers. The barrage of information, misinformation, and accusation-hefting has become a constant staple. Those Republican politicians who have fallen into the camp of “dissent” have their loyalty publicly questioned by the White House. That’s the essence of political tribalism – to further the message of the group through a means of clarity-by-murkiness.

So what is the result of this political climate in America? Both sides have gone further towards their respective ideologies, leaving a gaping gulf between them, with little room for political maneuvering, social interaction, or public discourse within it. At a localised level, the true extent of tribalism comes to fruition: neighbours fuming at each other, families not on speaking terms, friendships ending and punches thrown at political rallies. This is fundamentally a problem of communities being pitted against one another; and is a question of being primed to do so, with the loudest voices being lifted to the forefront and drowning out what one report on tribalism in America called “the exhausted majority” – those tired of the constant fighting but resigned to the untoward realities therein. Those at the fringes hold more and more sway, and hold the rest of the community accountable to fall in line, encouraging that silence. Right now in the United States, that is the pervasive tone. The average person, upon hearing a political discussion, seems spent by the very idea of engaging in it, turned off, angry and unsure of what to do; there seems to be an air of not knowing exactly what to do about the perceived takeover of the political discourse.

A fundamental misunderstanding of tribalism is that is the entirety of a population that becomes ensnared and takes extreme action. This largely isn’t the case; it is usually a small proportion of the population yelling the loudest and taking to the streets in numbers that would intimidate other disorganised citizens. In America, those few yelling the loudest often have semi-automatic guns.

Will the United States look to Kenya to learn from the nation’s recent history? There is, unfortunately, little to no chance of that, as American society is nothing if not jingoistic and bullheadedly independent. If one was apt enough to look though, the entire blueprint of the darkness of tribalism invading politics would be laid bare in the Kenyan example; the same tones used, the waters of messaging getting muddied, the divisions deepening, and finally, in the wake of a disputed and inflammatory election, an entire nation taken to the very brink of irreversible damage.

If tribalism, at its very core, is identity politics, are the political climates within the two countries truly all that different? It reflects badly upon the US, in a further parallel to view itself as somehow “above” sinking to political violence at levels comparable of those “other” countries. After all, in much of the West, Kenya pre-December 2007 was talked about in a patronising tone of being a “good” African country incapable of slipping into a vacuum of politically stoked bloodshed. The explosion in Kenya was largely sparked by a rough year-long period of fear-mongering and polarising rhetoric and speech so questionable that six prominent Kenyan public figures of politics and the media were investigated by Kenya and the International Criminal Court for incitement to violence. This period of amplification came atop decades of divisive politics and tribalistic tension.

Within the US, although the overall feeling remains that the nation will somehow carry on unscathed, historical evidence points to a potential for a darker outcome. Already, there have been calls that the 2016 election outcome was somehow “rigged” on the part of the Democrats, stealing a result that wound up in an electoral college victory regardless.

There is a further wrinkle when addressing the political leaders engaging in tribalism: they often skate on with impunity, above the fray that they’re helping to create, outside the fire that they’re stoking and without real consequences for their statements and actions.

The protectionist mantra has also been intensified, with “armies” of Latin American immigrants allegedly due at any second to stream across the border and snatch away power. There have been explicit nods to white nationalist causes from the White House, making the statement that in fact, yes, white America has something to fear. Trump in essence has been stating that he alone can combat the causes of those fears, real or imagined. It isn’t a stretch of the imagination to look at some of the statements made by the current administration as acts of tribal incitement. He’s offered protection to his supporters who would act violently at political rallies against protesters, offering to even “pay their legal fees”. He’s repeatedly attacked his critics, even, in the case of Senator John McCain, after their passing due to their political opposition to him. He has repeatedly dehumanised those outside his support group, calling them cowards, liars, cheats. He has heralded the most vehement and extreme among his base, even to point of promoting them to be members of the White House staff. He’s even claimed publicly that if an attempt to formally remove him from office were made, a revolt would take place in the US. If tweets, including such inflammatory language, had come from an African leader’s phone at 3 am, it might well end up as exhibit A at International Criminal Court proceedings.

There is a further wrinkle when addressing the political leaders engaging in tribalism: they often skate on with impunity, above the fray that they’re helping to create, outside the fire that they’re stoking and without real consequences for their statements and actions. That is the case with Trump currently; even as he’s preyed upon the pre-existing divisions within the US for his own personal exploitation and “all coverage is good coverage” political PR strategy, nothing concrete has stuck to him. He still holds the office, he still wields power, he’s consolidated his political base around him to the extent of commanding the highest ever approval ratings among his base, all the while pushing the left further away and across the void. No charges have been made against him. There has been no formal announcement of impeachment. The powerful political figures in his party have largely fallen in line. During the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, there was an outpouring of violence at political rallies. It is yet to be seen if the continued toxicity of the last three years will bleed over into the ramping up of the political season, and if that dye has already been cast.

In 2007 it did in Kenya and in the aftermath of it all, no one was really held to account. Those who suffered the most were far away from the lush compounds in Lavington or Karen; far away from jetting out of the country for an extended holiday or a jaunt in Zanzibar, and that, more than anything, is the inherent tragedy of tribalism; that those who champion division, rile the sides to rattle sabers against one another and possibly incite actual violence never end up holding the water for anyone below them.

The real answers, however, aren’t in the lofty political bourgeois debate and scramble for influence, but down at the street level, where Americans are forming their own ranks among the citizenry.

The likes of Donald J Trump have the capital to stay away from it all and to give the same sleazy statements feigning outrage at the very notion that they should somehow be held to account for their words and actions on media platforms, on the campaign trail, and within the very halls of power. Floyd Mayweather has nothing on the ability of a tribe-stoking politician to duck a punch. No lessons have been learned in the US, not from our own recent election, not from Kenya’s past and not from any international voice or citizen of the “political bubble”. The problem is that in a nation so driven to the extreme of division, in this far out of the actual depths of election season (and the actual ballot day of Tuesday, November 3rd, 2020), the bottom is very hard to see. After all, the Democratic Party is still a year out from picking a champion and it is yet to be seen if any in the Republican Party would dare to challenge Trump (a move which would inevitably push him to consolidate his base by bringing them closer into the fold).

The real answers, however, aren’t in the lofty political bourgeois debate and scramble for influence, but down at the street level, where Americans are forming their own ranks among the citizenry. Just the other week, on the steps of the state capital of Wisconsin in Madison (itself an incredibly divided so-called “swing state”), a protest against the recent anti-abortion measures passed in Alabama took place, and I joined in the ranks of those protesting against the recent ban. I watched as in front of me members of the two sides yelled into each other’s faces over the shoulders of police ranks formed to keep proceedings calm. Nothing was resolved, but in that exchange I saw a microcosm of such confrontations that can only increase in frequency and vehemence in the months and years to come. But to what end is impossible to say. Neither side is willing to give an inch at this point, a precarious position to take when at the precipice.

If ever there was a time for America to listen, for once, to Kenya, it is now. For the people in the Rift Valley, nothing was resolved despite all the posturing and promises. Those who lit the fire in Kenya stood back and watched the flames rise. Right now in the United States, it seems, that some in power are willing to flick the matches.

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