Rotberg: What to Do About Kenya

Should foreign peacekeepers be deployed to Kenya? In spite of the involvement of high-profile facilitators, like former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan, killings are continuing in what was once one of Africa's most stable countries. Almost 1,000 people have died in political violence since the Dec. 27 presidential election left incumbent Mwai Kibaki claiming victory over challenger Raila Odinga. Many of the clashes have pitted members of Odinga's Luo tribe against Kibaki's Kikuyu, prompting the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer, to describe the fighting as ethnic cleansing. Robert Rotberg, an Africa expert at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, spoke to NEWSWEEK's Katie Paul about where conflict resolution efforts might be headed and what the international community should do next. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Now that Jendayi Frazer has characterized the violence in Kenya as ethnic cleansing, has there been any discussion of sending in troops from the African Union, United Nations, or anywhere else?
Robert Rotberg:
No, no one's talking about sending troops in.

At what point might people start talking about that?
If Kofi Annan's mediation efforts fail, then somebody might talk about trying to move African troops in to separate the contending sides, but Kofi Annan is being reinforced today by [U.N. Secretary General] Ban Ki-Moon, and that's a pretty powerful team. I think our government and most governments are hoping that Kofi Annan can bring them together. It's hard to tell from this distance, but it looks as if that's what he's beginning to do.

What do you think of Frazer's description of what is happening as ethnic cleansing—especially now that the State Department has distanced itself from that description?
I think Jendayi Frazer was correct to describe what is happening as ethnic cleansing, and it was a timely burst of frustration to call it so. The head of the African Union commission has already hinted that it might even be genocide, which is a little strong, so she's not the farthest out on this discussion. And the bright line between genocide and ethnic cleansing is fairly murky, in any event … I think it's appropriate that she call it ethnic cleansing, because it's probably reached that level, with groups trying to take out other groups, move them out of property, mostly. The important point here, though, is that this is not some upsurge of some primordial ethnic attack, but manifestations of longstanding political resource rivalries.

How does that affect how the international or African community should handle the situation from the outside?
The best way would be if the government of Kenya and the opposition created a unified approach, found a ceasefire mechanism that would call back the mobs and that would maybe develop a coalition government, maybe a shared power arrangement. Best of all would be a rerun of the election, [but] I think that's a little far out. Clearly, the election was stolen [by Kibaki], so how to get back from a stolen election when the group in power doesn't want to lose its power of many years and the opposition feels it's been double-crossed not once but twice.

How do you think the situation in Sudan is impacting any decisions that are being made regarding Kenya now?
Not much, because ethnic cleansing is different from genocide, which is government and government proxies attacking the people in Darfur. That was the original case; now it's government proxies battling with rebels who are a proxy for Libya or a proxy for Eritrea or a proxy for Chad … In Kenya it's really an upsurge of people who are seeing an opportunity to right wrongs, to collect on chips they never thought they'd be able to collect on. And in the Rift Valley, move the fat cats out of the places where impoverished people have been subjected to them for too long.

Does Africa have the resources to deal with these conflicts?
There aren't any African troops to be parachuted into Kenya. The second thing is, the Kenyan army is one of the best armies in the region, and they don't seem to have been thoroughly mobilized in this internal conflict. They're not used to dealing internally; they're not an army that's been used to repress their own people too often. If there were a unified government, [a] new coalition government might authorize the army to prevent the mayhem. And once security is restored, one's going to see very little of this tit-for-tat violence.

And what should the international community, neighboring governments, and others do if we don't see improvement like what you've described?
If within a week Kofi Annan hasn't successfully brought the opposition and the government together and created a modus vivendi, a way of moving forward that eliminates the violence, then it's probably important for the U.N. to try to round up some peace enforcers who can go in, whether Bangladeshis or Fijians or somebody, to hold a ring between the contending forces and put down the violence. So we've only got a week, I think a week at most, before one can intervene. If Kofi Annan leaves town in disgust, that's the moment for Ban Ki-Moon to go to the Security Council and get a rapid peacekeeping force. There's one trouble with that, and that's that the U.N. doesn't move quickly enough once it has a resolution, so it might mean that there might be a need for a European or British battalion to move in—under U.N. authorization of course.

Could you go into a little more detail about the distinction between characterizing this situation as tribalism versus a conflict over resources?
The important thing is this is not some nasty bunch of Africans being "tribal," this is violence for political ends. Kenya's a very sophisticated state. It ranked 15th in the last index of African governance that I put together, published in September. That's pretty high up, out of 48 states. So it's not a Congo; it's not a Sudan. It has been a reasonably well-governed state. The populace snapped when the government's ability to be fair was questioned because of the election manipulations, so people began to lash out and attempt to gain back resources they had lost over decades of rule by the ruling party. And naturally people try to hold on to their resources—resources meaning either land or transport routes or factories or access to the railway, anything like that that would improve their standard of living. That's what they've been doing all these last few weeks.