Don't mention the war

Failing to acknowledge the elephant in the room means generations of cynical politicians have got aw

Imagine trying to cover Northern Ireland's troubles without using the words "Protestant" or "Catholic". Or reporting Iraq without referring to "Shias" and "Sunnis". The attempt would be absurd, the result unfathomable. And yet, as Kenya's post-electoral crisis enters its eighth week, that is exactly what much of the local media are still doggedly trying to do.

When we read an account in a British newspaper of shack-dwellers being evicted from a Nairobi slum, or see on the BBC gangs attacking inhabitants in the Rift Valley, we are usually told whether these are Kikuyus fleeing Luos, or Kalenjins attacking Kikuyus. But, in Kenya, this particular spade is almost never called a spade. No, it's "a certain metal implement".

The "problem of tribalism" may be obsessively debated, the gibe of "tribalist" thrown with reckless abandon at politicians and community leaders, but it is just not done to identify a person's tribe in the media. The results, given a crisis in which the expression of long-running grievances has taken the most explicit ethnic form, can be opaque.

When Maina Kiai, chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, addressed displaced people in Eldoret last month, he was booed and heckled. Kenyan media reported the incident without explaining why. The answer was that the displaced were mostly Kiku yus, and Maina Kiai, a vocal Kikuyu critic of a Kikuyu-led government, is regarded by many as a traitor to his tribe.

Sometimes, the outcome is simply bizarre. When the Nation newspaper ran a vox pop in January, one entry was meant to capture vividly the predicament of a 15-year-old girl of mixed parentage. "My mother is from [one of the tribes that had a presidential candidate]", Faith was quoted as saying, "but my father is a [member of the other tribe that had a presidential candidate]." How's that for gritty realism?

There's nothing new about this "Don't mention the tribe" policy. It's been in operation for decades, partly in reaction to the ethnic profiling of British colonial administrators, partly in recognition of the volatile potential of Kenya's ethnic mix. It was felt that if the Kenyan nation-state was to survive, the media would have to play an active role in shoring it up. Editors voluntarily undertook to keep ethnicity out of print.

Very well-meaning, you might say. On a continent that has had more than its share of ethnic cleansing and genocide, how refreshing to see the media trying to rein in human excesses. Well-meaning, but pointless. Audiences soon learn the duplicitous language of hypocritical coverage. In Kenya, you can often - though not always - deduce ethnicity from family name alone. So the canny reader simply skims the text in search of those, then goes back to the beginning to reinterpret the story.

In case the reader still doesn't get the point, politicians and analysts have developed euphemisms that are nearly as precise as the labels that they replace. "A certain community", or "the people from the slopes", means the Kikuyus; "the people of the lake" means the Luos. Only outsiders are left puzzling over the coded language.

There's a good reason why Kenyan frustrations have resulted in so much bloodshed. In this modern African state, a host of matters - from what kind of education you receive to your chances of a decent job - are determined by ethnic affiliation. Other tribes are not targeting the Kikuyus because they nurse some irrational loathing. It's because of a widespread perception that they have benefited disproportionately from having two kinsmen as presidents.

"In this country, ethnicity determines the distribution of resources," says a columnist friend of mine. "So when you begin to damp coverage down and deny there's a problem, you only perpetuate that injustice." By repudiating the notion of tribe, the Kenyan media have essentially refused to cover the biggest story on their patch.

A more fundamental objection to this mealy-mouthed coverage is that there is a basic distinction between the world we live in and the world we want to live in. Everyone would prefer a Kenya in which neighbour did not beat up and rape neighbour. But it's not the media's role to fabricate that reality. Their first task is to describe what they see, accurately, and leave the rest to others.

I suspect Kenyan editors today believe the latest violence has validated their policy of ethnic discretion, revealing how carefully the issue needs policing. Criticisms are already being levelled at the vernacular radio stations - exceptions to the rule - for whipping up ethnic hatred.

But perhaps these intelligent men and women should ask themselves whether, by refusing to acknowledge the elephant in the room, they have merely helped generations of cynical politicians get away with blatant ethnic favouritism, stoking the fires of the recent conflagration. You cannot defuse a problem you refuse to see.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Naughty nation