The deadly axis of political disorder

Friday January 24 2014

By MICHAEL MEYER
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Syria? Iraq? It could never happen here, we tell ourselves. Or could it?

This week, a pair of prominent globalists offered a disconcerting look at just how fragile societies can be. Writing in the Washington Post, my former Newsweek colleague Fareed Zakaria dissects the main drivers of conflict in Syria and Iraq.

The first is their common colonial legacy. The modern Middle East very much remains the creature of a most immodern European past. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles meant to build a new international order after the First World War — a “war to end all wars,” they called it.

Instead, it created a peace to end all peace. Dismantling the Ottoman empire, allied victors drew lines in the sand and declared them national borders, irrespective of culture, ethnicity or history.

The sheer randomness of their edicts boggles the mind. At one point, diplomats almost awarded the Greek islands to Turkey. In what would become Yugoslavia, they mistook differently coloured maps of topography for concentrations of Serbs, Croats and other nationalities. The Balkan wars of the 1990s were the tragic result.

The rise of Islamic extremism is the second driver, with Sunnis backed by Gulf states battling Shias supported by Iran and Lebanon, all interwoven with rival ideological factions of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Many analysts believe the internecine violence has reached a point of no return. Like the proverbial Humpty Dumpty, toppled from his wall, neither Syria nor Iraq is likely to ever be put together again, notwithstanding this week’s international conference in Geneva.

The third shaping force in the Middle East’s implosion, according to Zakaria, is American foreign policy. The hubris in knocking down Saddam Hussein, assuming that a thousand flowers of democracy would bloom, beggars belief in retrospect.

Having loosed this bloody genie from its geopolitical kettle, Washington now stands passively on the sidelines, chastened by experience and clinging blindly to an often counter-productive alliance with Israel.

Few of these influences have much play in Kenya, but there are echoes. One is colonial history, as elsewhere in Africa. Another is tribalism. Kenyans still more readily identify with tribe than country. Too often, elections are about getting “our” man or woman in office.

During last year’s election, a friend told me how he believed one candidate would make a better president — but voted for his opponent because he was from his own tribe. As an editor and reporter, believing strongly in unbiased journalistic independence, I watched uneasily as news rooms divided along ethnic lines. The violence of 2008 testifies vividly to the dangers of identity politics.

Needless to say, Kenyans needn’t fear becoming the next target of Iraq-style shock and awe. Yet it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge how global politics can have sharply negative local effects. Kenya’s involvement in Somalia produced the Westgate terror attack.

Controversy around the International Criminal Court has coloured foreign relations and diverted government attention from social policy. European diplomats are still paying the price of too-public, too-partisan support of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s rival in last year’s election — a reminder that international representatives and global institutions should beware of playing favourites.

Thankfully, Kenya does not have to worry about a Syria scenario. Its challenge is far more heartening: how to accelerate its ascent into the ranks of the world’s prosperous, democratic, middle income countries.

Francis Fukuyama, at Strathmore University this week, built his popular reputation on an arguable proposition, the so-called “end of history.” Less arguable is the core theme of his latest book, The Origins of Political Order — why some nations fail and others succeed.

His answer can be easily summed up: more transparency, more accountability, more democracy. Nations led by governments that put people first do better than those catering to small, cronyistic elites. Societies living under the rule of law, deeply imbedded in meritocratic institutions, thrive while others falter.

By these standards, Kenya’s future seems secure. Yet it is hard to miss some danger signs — the widening gap between rich and poor, youth unemployment, the failure of community services to keep pace with a growing population, the corruption that erodes public confidence.

Many countries face similar problems, including some of the world’s wealthiest. The difference between success and failure is the quality of governance. What’s required, as Fukuyama tells it, is unwavering vigilance and daily attention to the fundamentals of social equity and political inclusiveness.

Extreme as their case may be, the disintegration of Syria and Iraq stands as a reminder of how fragile societies can become when those elements are missing.

Michael Meyer, a long-time editor and correspondent for Newsweek, is dean of the graduate school of media and communications at Aga Khan University in Nairobi. ([email protected])