The Common Good
July-August 1996

Until Things Fall Apart

by Julienne Gage | July-August 1996

Why does the West ignore Africa until crisis strikes?

The West paid little attention to repression in Nigeria until last year’s execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other human rights activists. About Liberia, former Secretary of State George Shultz said, “By the time African crises receive this level of outside attention, the moment of averting catastrophe or sealing the peace has all too often passed.”

Kenya, which will hold key elections in the next 18 months, could well be the next place where international laissez-faireism toward Africa comes to a boil. While Kenya has often been portrayed as Africa’s most democratic country, human rights groups paint a less-rosy picture.

For example, Amnesty International reported recently that prisoner of conscience Koigi Wa Wamire was sentenced to four years in prison and six cane strokes on trumped-up charges of “robbery with violence”—an accusation that usually carries the death penalty. Foreign Minister Robert Ouko and 28 others were brutally murdered in 1990. His brother Barak Mbajah, a political exile, decried the lack of outside support for human rights—especially from the U.S. government which, he said, “waits until things fall apart.”

Kenya’s 1992 election, touted by the government as the country’s first “free” vote, was widely dismissed as fraudulent by outside observers including then-U.S. Ambassador Smith Hempstone. President Daniel Arap Moi, in power since 1978, swore he would never agree to multiparty politics.

Moi has consistently stifled opposition, including threats against press freedom such as a proposal to create a press council with the authority to “license” journalists. Conveniently, Moi’s KANU government owns most media. Moi announced in February that he would have anyone who “insulted” him arrested. Since 1991 the Moi government has agitated ethnic tension and violence in the Rift Valley Province, leaving 1,500 dead and 300,000 displaced—a strategic move to maintain power over 42 tribes.

The popular opposition Safina Party is not formally registered, but it has been gathering support across tribal, racial, age, and class barriers. Conservationist and anthropologist Richard Leakey’s leadership in the emerging Safina opposition bloc has made him the target of death threats.

Moi blocked registration of Safina last year and attempted to undermine its mass appeal by accusing unifiers such as Leakey of being “white colonists.” In reality, says Njeri Kabeberi of the Kenya Human Rights Commission and Safina Party, Safina’s two prominent white members, Leakey and Robert Shaw, are carving out a new place for white involvement in opposition Kenyan politics.

THE UNITED STATES froze aid to Kenya in 1991, until it cleaned up its record of abuses and allowed for a multiparty system. Aid was restored in 1993 after the “fair” multiparty elections of 1992, over the protest of Ambassador Hempstone. While in the past Germany and Denmark have conditioned aid on political reform, in March aid was renewed by all donor countries. Human rights activists fear that the restoration of aid will undercut efforts to bring about government reform. Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.) has introduced a resolution in Congress that calls for support of Kenyan human rights.

Perhaps the West is tired of Africa’s depressing news. We are exhausted by stories like those from Rwanda or Somalia or Liberia— places, it seems, always needing to be bailed out by the West because they’re in another social, economic, and political predicament out of control. We have forgotten that it was the West that first divided and conquered Africa.

The Kenyan elections could be held any time between October and the end of next year. U.S. and other Western aid, used appropriately, could play an important role in encouraging free and fair elections, but only if enough support is expressed in advance by those concerned with genuine openings for democracy and human rights. If any hope for such reform exists, Kenya must be reached before it becomes the next Nigeria, Somalia, Rwanda, or Liberia. The international community’s response to Kenya at this juncture could set a more proactive precedent for all of Africa in the decades to come.

Upon leaving his post in Nairobi in 1993, Ambassador Hempstone said, “Now I am free at last. The people of Kenya, unfortunately, are not. Does anybody care?”

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