Tribalism and Stability in Kenya

Kenya is embroiled in a violent dispute as opposition leader Raila Odinga contests incumbent President Mwai Kibaki's re-election. Tribal allegiances play a role in the unrest. Jared Diamond, a UCLA geology and physiology professor, talks with Scott Simon about what leads to stability in ethnically diverse countries.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

At least 500 people have died in the violence since Kenya's December 27th presidential elections. And the United Nations now says 500,000 Kenyans may need humanitarian assistance. There are at least 40 different tribal groups in Kenya - for the most part, they've gotten along well since independence more than 40 years ago. But after charges that the election, which was very close in any case, was stolen by the incumbent, parts of the country exploded.

Jared Diamond is a professor of geology and physiology at UCLA. His latest book is "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed." He joins us from his home in Los Angeles.

Thanks for being with us, professor.

Professor JARED DIAMOND (Geography and Physiology, University of California, Los Angeles): It's a pleasure to be with you.

SIMON: Recognizing that no one answer can possibly apply to all societies, Rwanda, Iraq or even the former Yugoslavia, what are some of the reasons as to why societies that seemed to be pretty successful can be brought to split along ethnic lines?

Prof. DIAMOND: People often talk about tribal conflict in Kenya and in other places. Tribal conflict is one piece of us-versus-them conflict. The us-versus-them can be tribes versus tribes. It can be ethnic groups versus ethnic groups and it can be religious groups versus other religious groups.

SIMON: And what are some of the factors that can aggravate it?

Prof. DIAMOND: Well, here is one interesting factor to start off with. That is the percent of the total population made up by the largest group. By that I mean that in Kenya, the largest group, the Kikuyu, make up about 15 percent of the population. In the former Yugoslavia, which is notorious for its genocide, the largest group, the Serbs, made up 44 percent of the population. If you make up 15, 20, 30, 40 percent of the population, you have a reasonable chance of dominating the country, and so it's not totally irrational to set out to dominate and kill off your opponents.

But in a country where the biggest group is only a tiny fraction of the population, even that biggest group is never going to dominate the country. So, for example, in Papua New Guinea, where I do my field work, the biggest single group among the thousand different tribal groups in Papua New Guinea numbers only 3 percent of the population. And they know perfectly well there's no way they're going to take over the country. So while there is fighting and unease between adjacent tribes, there's not tribal conflict on a national scale.

SIMON: But how do you explain the fact that people did not perceive there to be this kind of problem or at least the kind of problem that could result in wide-scale violence in a place like Kenya before something about the election apparently irritated it?

Prof. DIAMOND: That's right. I see at least three factors involved, of which the size of the largest group is only one. One other factor has to do with the population density or poverty. If there are lots of people crammed into a small space with not much resources, then people get desperate and they're more likely to go kill each other.

Whereas if you're in a rich country, it doesn't make sense to kill each other. You're already satisfied. So, for example, Switzerland, with four major ethnic groups, one of which, the Schwyzerdutsch, dominate the population. Switzerland has not had major ethnic violence in recent history because everybody is rich and happy.

Now, Kenya is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa with a relatively high population growth rate, and that makes for trouble in Kenya compared to Tanzania. And then Kenya's neighbors, Rwanda and Burundi, have the highest population density in Africa, so they are especially desperate and that's why they also have the worst genocides in Africa.

SIMON: You mentioned a third reason, I think.

Prof. DIAMOND: Yes, the third reason is the form of government. Among dictatorships, if you have a dictatorship with really firm control, it's not going to permit ethnic violence. So, for example, the former Soviet Union, in Stalin's days, did not have ethnic violence. It's when you have a weak or threatened dictatorship that you are more likely to have ethnic violence. So, for example, Rwanda exploded under a dictator who was afraid of losing power.

SIMON: And some people will cite that as an argument to say what you need is a strongman.

Prof. DIAMOND: I would not draw that conclusion because examples of democracies that have quite comfortable ethnic relationships are Papua New Guinea, which is a functional democracy. Interestingly, in Papua New Guinea, there are democratic elections and the government almost always loses the election. Unlike the case in Kenya, it gracefully retires from power and immediately starts scheming to get back in power and win the next election.

SIMON: Jared Diamond, a professor of geography and physiology at UCLA and author of "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed."

Thanks so much.

Prof. DIAMOND: You are welcome.

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