Tribalism Here, and There
New York Times
By ROGER COHEN
March 10, 2008
NAIROBI, Kenya - The joke going around here, after a rigged vote,
is that it may be easier to elect a Luo president in the United
States than in Kenya.
“We beat them to it, I just wasn’t sworn in,” Raila Odinga, the
opposition leader and a member of the large Luo ethnic group, told
me. “Obama, if elected, would have been second, but I was robbed
at the ballot box.”
Barack Obama is an American delivered by birth from the fissures
of his father’s land. But it is through the charged tribal prism
that Kenyans view the U.S. presidential race after a spasm of
postelectoral ethnic killing and cleansing that left more than
1,000 dead and a half-million people uprooted.
Because Obama’s paternal family is Luo, the Luos love him without
reserve. By contrast, Kikuyus, the largest tribe, are cool to him.
Since independence in 1963, Kenya has never had a Luo president.
The incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, is a Kikuyu and widely accused, as the
country’s first president Jomo Kenyatta was, of favoring his tribe.
That’s the 45-year backdrop to the violence, now stanched, that
saw Luos who felt cheated in the Dec. 27 election chasing Kikuyus
from their homes and Kikuyus killing in reprisal.
History is prologue. Back in the 1960s, Obama’s father, shaped by
his American experience, warned that “tribalism was going to ruin
the country,” according to the senator’s memoir. Kenyatta, a
Kikuyu, punished the “old man” for his frankness.
Odinga’s father also suffered as a Luo. Oginga Odinga, the first
vice-president to Kenyatta, was arrested in 1969 after ethnic
violence in the Luo-dominated western city of Kisumu, near the
Obama homestead. Today, burnt buildings and shattered stores line
Kisumu once again.
But we’re beyond tribalism, right?
Wrong. The main forces in the world today are the modernizing,
barrier-breaking sweep of globalization and the tribal reaction to
it, which lies in the assertion of religious, national, linguistic,
racial or ethnic identity against the unifying technological tide.
Connection and fragmentation vie. The Internet opens worlds and
minds, but also offers opinions to reinforce every prejudice.
You’re never alone out there; some idiot will always back you. The
online world doesn’t dissolve tribes. It gives them global reach.
Jihadism, with its mirage of a restored infidel-free Caliphate, is
perhaps the most violent tribal reaction to modernity. But
fundamentalism is no Islamic preserve; it has its Christian,
Jewish, Hindu and other expressions.
America’s peaceful tribes are also out in force. As Obama and
Hillary Clinton engage in the long war for the Democratic
nomination, we have the black vote, and the Latino vote, and the
women-over-50 vote, and the Volvo-driving liberal-intellectual
vote, and the white blue-collar vote, and the urban vote, and the
rural vote, and the under-30s vote — sub-groups with shared social,
cultural, linguistic or other traits and interests.
That’s democracy at work. Sure. But the United States is divided,
within itself and from the world, in growing ways.
It is divided by war, by income chasms, by foreclosures, by
political polarization and by culture wars. Increasingly it is
looked upon from outside with dismay or alarm. Healing, within and
without, will be a central task of the next president.
For several years now, Obama has made the possibility of unity
beyond division the core of his politics. That’s just poetry, the
pooh-poohing Clinton people say, but governing is about the prose
of experience and grit.
I see plenty of Obama prose, in new proposals for national service,
for more equitable taxation, for health care, for international
dialogue; and in his unique experience, both personal and
professional, of reaching across continental, racial, religious
and class lines. His grit is self evident. Look where he came from.
I looked. Those charred buildings and smashed windows in Kisumu
are borne somewhere in Obama’s soul, just as the words of his
half-sister Auma are when she described their elusive father’s
travails: Kenyatta telling him “he would not work again until he
had no shoes on his feet.” On the south side of Chicago, Obama has
lived the American refractions of such violent division.
If I was to sum up this presidential race, I’d say: “It’s the
An American generation under 45 has glimpsed an interconnected
world beyond race and tribe. They know its attainment will be
elusive but, after a bleak season, they feel summoned by what
Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” And, speaking of
experience, they know Lincoln came to the presidency with all of
two years in Congress behind him, and a failed Senate campaign.
Looking out from Kenya, where he mediated an end to the tribal
violence, Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general,
told me: “I think an Obama presidency would be inspirational, an
incredible development in the world.”