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Reason Behind Conflict in Africa

I found the following article from an ezine sent out by the Bakke Graduate University. It captures some of the reasons behind the recent conflict in Kenya. As we seek to bring the Kingdom to Africa, it’s worth knowing the roots of injustice and violence.


We all hope and pray that last week’s announcement of a power-sharing agreement in Kenya will be a first step in a long journey toward peace. Yet for Americans who have enjoyed a country without a civil war for almost 150 years, the violence in Kenya may be difficult to understand. A few reminders and observations might be helpful.

Kenya Exclusion

First, Africa has ancient cultures and tribes, but its nations are new. Many of these nations were formed in the 1960’s or later. Remember that the US faced its own Civil War 85 years into its life as a new nation. All new nations, regardless of continental location or racial makeup, need time to sort out their identities and stabilize.

Second, the fast “melting pot” of 19th century European migration to the US quickly blended American Caucasian features. However, often African tribal identity is still easily distinguished by facial features, body types, dress and names. As a result, it is easier for many Africans to see their tribal identity as primary and national identity as secondary. Centuries of tribal revenge and counter-revenge are passed into the memories of new generations and cannot be easily hidden as facial features remind them of stories from the past.

Third, for centuries, it was in the economic interest of colonial powers to keep tribes in conflict and the people uneducated. Current national boundaries follow colonial lines drawn by European powers, not ancient tribal boundaries. In these newly formed, arbitrarily drawn national boundaries, whatever tribe is in power often takes ancient land from one tribe and gives it to their own people to solidify their own national power. Much of the current violence in Kenya is spurred by a backlash against the ruling Kikuyu tribe, which flooded their people into other tribes’ richest farmlands as far back as the 1960’s. This is not violence emerging only from an inability to hold fair elections. Its roots go far back into tribal histories, arbitrary colonial boundaries and gross misuse of power.

Still there is a fourth factor that in some cases contradicts points two and three above, a factor that very few Westerners can grasp from CNN reports. The actual question of what makes up a tribe is sometimes more about recent politics than ancient history. Jeff Johnson (Executive Director , Mile High Ministries, Denver, CO) works with Kenyan Orphans. He writes, “…ethnicity/tribe has drawn so much attention within Kenya in recent weeks. Increasingly, news reports focus on the ‘tribal roots’ of the conflict. Most people believe that this ‘something else’ is about deep, longstanding grudges between various ethnic groups, which have resulted in an unfair and (now) contested distribution of political and economic resources. Thus when people ask, ‘Is this a political conflict or a tribal one,’ the answer seems to be, ‘yes’.”

Chris Rice (Co-director of Duke University Center for Reconciliation Studies in North Carolina) starts with the critical question of whether the category of tribe is even real. “In Rwanda,” Chris writes, “Tutsis and Hutus are a creation of colonization. Before colonization, there was little difference between the two – more like the difference between farmers and herders. They intermarried, spoke the same language, etc. Then the English and Belgians decided the minority herders were ‘taller,’ ‘European in feature,’ and more ‘kingly’ and gave them a privileged place in terms of political and educational power. ‘Tribes’ in Rwanda are a political reality with a history that can be traced to mythical creation stories cooked up by colonists, ID cards created by Belgians, and privileging one group over another for reasons of power.”

From Chris’s perspective it is important to pay close attention to the complex history of Africa. Historical study, he believes, would demonstrate that “tribes have a political and economic history . . . . Politicians play on the old stories and the power differences to further their own power. But they [tribes] are not natural, not part of God’s creation story.”

Miroslav Volf, a Croatian theologian to whom we have turned for theological help as we try to make meaning of the conflict in Kenya, argues (in his book, Exclusion and Embrace, that the problems of “identity” and “otherness” underlie many (even most) of the great conflicts that lead to violence around the world. We use categories like tribe, ethnicity, race, nationality, culture, religion, etc., to give ourselves identity. This identity only makes sense when it is contrasted to “The Other”, who is not one of us . . . and who, as a potential threat to me and my group, must be excluded.

In Nairobi, Kenya, BGU has students, faculty, partners and alumni working throughout the Mathare and Kibera slums where the violence is the worst. To protect those working in these areas, BGU students from around the world who were scheduled for classes in these slums two weeks ago shortened their time in Kenya and lengthened their time in the slums of Addis Ababa – not an unusual situation for a school which serves leaders in the most poverty-stricken and violent places in our world. We are receiving daily blogs sharing the heart-wrenching stories of former neighbors killing each other, and decades of social progress disintegrating in hours. Please pray for the first step toward peace attempted last week to take hold in supernatural ways.

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