I was ear-wigging a conversation between the Newhour presenter and duty editor yesterday: our presenter Mike Williams was questioning why, since the US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Jendayi Frazer has used the phrase 'ethnic cleansing' to describe what's happening in some Kenyan provinces, we should be coy about using the phrase ourselves.
A wider discussion amongst our programme team revealed mixed views about 'ethnic cleansing', as well as the word 'tribal'. Some felt that 'tribal violence' has a pejorative sense of Heart of Darkness about it - that it implies that this violence is cultural and inevitable.
Others on the team, including some who have spent many years working and reporting in Africa, think this is liberal guilt - ”Kenya is a tribal society. That terminology is perfectly accepted there, and we shouldn't worry about using broadcasting it from London”. The question of direct comparisons with the Rwandan genocide has also been raised. It seems to me most commentators are going out of their way to explain why it's not appropriate.
Richard Dowden's piece in the Independent has been very useful; the author spoke about it both on World Service's Newshour and on Today (which you can listen to here), and the message seems to be “think Balkans rather than Rwanda” which is probably why the 'ethnic cleansing' phrase is tripping off the tongue.
There are a couple of reasons why the situation in Kenya is more complex than in other 'tribal' conflicts. This is not a binary dispute - there are at least three major tribes involved plus other smaller tribes, and power in Kenya has not always been held by President Kibaki's Kikuyu as his predecessor Arap Moi was a Kalenjin. Opposition leader Odinga is a Luo, two of whose former presidential candidates have been assassinated since independence. The settlement of land and resources in the post-colonial era is a large factor in the violence, as is the general absence of the rule of law in the wake of an acute political crisis.
In the end many of these phrases work fine in a fuller context; the difficulty comes when we boil them down to shorter forms in headlines and cues. So are we being too coy about the language we're using? Or is this caution justified?