Kenya on Fire

Kenya, long thought to be a relative bright spot amid Africa's troubles, now threatens to follow the path of its neighbors. The U.S. press has mostly portrayed this story as a mix of electoral shenanigans and tribal rivalry, which it no doubt is, but it is something more, and familiar. As Yale Law Prof Amy Chua has written in her book World on Fire (and in scholarly articles to the same effect), throughout much of the world, and especially in the developing world, extreme violence occasionally flares against an ethnically distinct minority group that disproportionately holds economic and political power. Her examples include ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, Jews in Russia, whites in Zimbabwe, Tutsis in Rwanda, and Indians in East Africa and Fiji. As many of the critical reviews of Chua's work have noted, she arguably overstates her case, but there is no gainsaying that she has identified a real and dangerous phenomenon.

What the Kenyan example points out is that the dynamic of violence against economically and/or politically dominant minorities can erupt suddenly and out of what seemed like stability. We knew that already, of course. Serbs, Croats and Muslims got along well and frequently inter-married before they started killing each other; Hutu and Tutsi often couldn't tell one another apart, and there is doubt as to whether they even count as distinct ethnic groups.

The current events in Kenya---but one hopes not the coming events in Pakistan---press on us a view that was dominant outside the U.S. through the early Nineteenth Century but that talk of the end of history has displaced: Elections can be dangerous events, and democracy can be a mere way station on the road from one tyranny to another.

A little over a month ago I posted on the capacity of democracy to avoid succession crises. Kenya reminds us that democracy (or at least disputed elections) can also spur them.

Posted by Mike Dorf