Culture wars in Africa (specifically, Kenya)

Recently I asked a woman from Nigeria what she thought of the media’s coverage of her country. She said what frustrated her most was when reporters gave sweeping statements or connected African countries as though it were one uniform nation. I thought of our conversation when I read a recent New York Times piece on Kenya’s culture wars. Stay with me as we read these first few paragraphs.

NAIROBI, Kenya–The push to pass a new constitution in Kenya, a cornerstone of the effort to correct longstanding imbalances of power and prevent the kind of upheaval that followed deeply flawed elections here, has attracted some unexpected interference–from more than 7,000 miles away.

Before Kenyan lawmakers had even finished drafting the proposed constitution, American Christians organized petition drives in Kenya against it, objecting to a provision recognizing Islamic courts.

Okay, I’m intrigued. Is there more information about this provision recognizing Islamic courts and which American Christians organized drives against it? Apparently not. The reporter lets that dangle and then tries to connect what American politicians object to (abortion) with a bill under consideration in Uganda (homosexuality).

Now that the draft is done, three Republican members of Congress contend that it significantly expands abortion rights, and are accusing the United States Embassy in Kenya of openly supporting it in violation of federal rules.

It is the latest battle in the American culture wars playing out in Africa. Last year, American Christians helped stoke antigay sentiments in Uganda; later, Ugandan politicians proposed the execution of some gay people. That debate is still raging, though it looks as if the Ugandan government is backing down and will not pass the antigay bill after all.

Help me out here. I know Uganda and Kenya are neighboring countries, but is there really any connection here? Is this seriously the first time American culture wars have played out in Africa? Also, earlier we questioned the reporting behind “American Christians helped stoke antigay sentiments in Africa.” Didn’t American Christians also strongly denounce the bill? This connection between the proposals in the two different countries seems like such a stretch to me.

Back to Kenya, the reporter explains that the United States has been aggressively supporting a new constitution as part of a reform package. American politicians, however, object to a new referendum that would allow abortion in some cases.

In April, the Kenyan government passed a proposed new constitution, and it will be put to a yes-or-no referendum later this year. So far, polls show the public is firmly behind it.

The proposed new constitution, which curtails the sweeping powers of Kenya’s presidency and addresses questions about dual citizenship and other issues, may not be as pro-abortion as many of its critics contend. It still outlaws abortion, which is currently illegal under Kenya’s current penal code, though it spells out exceptions if “in the opinion of a trained health professional, there is need for emergency treatment, or the life or health of the mother is in danger, or if permitted by any other written law.”

Those caveats have set off an intense debate, with American groups on both sides of the abortion issue weighing in and sending representatives to Kenya. Abortion opponents complain that the new constitution allows “abortion on demand,” while abortion rights adherents, concerned about the thousands of Kenyan women who die each year in secretive, botched operations, think the constitution is too weak on the issue. They wanted stronger protections and are upset that the constitution says, “The life of a person begins at conception”–a clause that was included in a late version of the draft after bitter debate.

The reporter writes that Americans have been sending groups from both sides of the debate, but he doesn’t cite any specific groups. What is the religious climate like in Kenya? Do any of the religious groups play a larger role in this debate? U.S. Ambassador Michael E. Ranneberger welcomes the unified constitution. Now, I guess this is where the angle that Americans are getting in the way of African policy come into play.

Pronouncements like these apparently caught the eye of three Republican members of Congress: Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey; Darrell Issa of California; and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.

The three wrote a letter on May 6 to auditors at the State Department, the United States Agency for International Development and the Government Accountability Office, saying that “the Obama administration’s advocacy in support of Kenya’s proposed constitution may constitute a serious violation of the Siljander Amendment.” The little-known amendment, named after a former Michigan congressman, Mark D. Siljander, prohibits foreign aid from being used to lobby for or against abortion.

It seems like this is a battle between members of Congress and the Obama administration’s ambassador, a debate over how America should conduct its foreign policy. Instead, the reporter paints this as though those pesky Americans are getting in the way of politics in Africa again. Remind me again, what does a bill in Uganda have to do with an entirely separate issue in Kenya? There’s no need to treat Africa as one sweeping nation. This story is worthy of coverage on its own.

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  • Jerry

    Sarah, I had suggested this story be reviewed but you found more problems than I had thought existed originally. Sigh.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    The story caught my eye because of the random sentence about Christians opposing a provision to recognize Islamic courts, but then it dropped that point to mention Uganda, both of which had nothing to do with the actual story. It’s trying to sell its juiciness to the reader too hard, I think.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Is this seriously the first time American culture wars have played out in Africa?

    I thought the point of the piece was that it isn’t the first time. In any case, what counts as context and background and what counts as a side issue? A little more examination of the religious motivations of those lobbying African politics wouldn’t go amiss, though, I grant.


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