News 2008


Tribalism Here, and There

New York Times


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 generations, stupid.”

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.”