By Sasha Chanoff January 19, 2008 FROM READING recent headlines about Kenya, one would think that the post-election violence is the result of tribal hatreds. But this assessment is wrong. "Tribal violence spirals in Kenya," "tribal war," "tribal bloodletting" announced headlines around the world. A recent New York Times article said the mayhem in Kenya is a result of the "atavistic vein of tribal tension that . . . until now had not provoked widespread mayhem." This is a facile explanation of Kenya's post-election violence. Yes, some people from different tribes are attacking one another. It's ugly and scary. But it's not inevitable; it's not part of the genetic makeup of the president's tribe, the Kikuyu, and the runner-up's tribe, the Luo or of any other tribes to both hate and kill one another. Why the violence then? It's about politics and poverty. For their own gain, politicians exploit tribal differences and manipulate the poor and the destitute. It's no surprise that the perpetrators of "tribal violence" are usually idle young men who also loot and thieve while rampaging. Politicians often covertly hire or encourage them. Don't think in terms of tribal violence. Consider, instead, "politically engineered violence," or "politically instigated violence." These are much more apt descriptions. And the difference is critical. To understand why, it's worth looking at some other places where the concept of ethnic hatred has been inaccurately and dangerously blamed as the trigger for mass atrocities. After the Bosnian war broke out, the Clinton administration outlined a bold military plan of action to protect civilians. President Clinton had read "Balkan's Ghosts," the book by Robert Kaplan that depicts different people in the Balkans as destined to hate and kill one another. Influenced by this "ancient tribal hatreds" explanation of violence, Clinton turned fearful of a quagmire in what he perceived to be an unfixable region. His buy-in to thinking about Bosnia in terms of inevitable tribal animosity overlooked the commonness of interethnic life and intermarriage among Bosnians. Serbian extremist and nationalistic rhetoric was a major trigger for the Bosnian war, not tribal hatred. Misunderstanding this cost lives as the United States and European powers shied away from military support. The consequences: More than 100,000 dead, the Srebrenica massacre, mass rapes, and destruction. When the Rwandan genocide began, many journalists touted the same explanation - age-old tribal hatred - and in so doing gave the world more legroom not to act. In "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," author Samantha Power highlights this reporting and quotes the more nuanced and accurate perspective of an African studies professor who said, "Ethnic groups do have prejudices and people do tend to feel that they may be different from other groups. But it's not enough to make a person pick up a knife or a gun and kill somebody else. It is when politicians come and excite passion and try to threaten people" that violence can occur. Kenya doesn't have a Slobodan Milosevic or Hutu extremists spreading propaganda of nationalism and hate to incite and justify killing. Comparisons to such extremes are out of place. They are also, unfortunately, emblematic of the pithy yet distorted media summaries. Sure, there are differences and grievances between some of Kenya's 42 tribes, especially evident when politicking brought about violence in 1992 and 1997. More significantly, Nairobi hums with interethnic life. Intermarriage and people working and living alongside one another are the norm, not tribal tension. But this election brought out unprecedented havoc. Many Kenyans felt cheated when election monitors reported vote-counting irregularities and the incumbent was sworn in for a second term. In the most impoverished and diverse areas, protests, riots, attacks, and looting broke out, mainly along tribal lines. The media quickly jumped on the "tribal hatred" explanation. Kenyan intellectuals, such as Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai and Binyavanga Wainaina, have countered this portrayal, writing about the political roots of the violence. Wainaina highlights power-hungry politicians exploiting ethnic sentiments. The result can be serious and spiraling violence, a Pandora's box of vengeance. The backdrop, though, is politics and poverty, not genetics or simmering tribal animosity. But it's easier to accept (and write about) this explanation than to examine the complexities of political violence. It's easy to buy into misleading stereotypes, throw up our hands, and think, "what can you do, that's Africa." To do nothing because we believe nothing can be done, because it's easy to believe the violence is inevitable, is to turn our backs on a country that is teetering on the edge of real democracy. We can act, and act decisively. We must influence and support Kenya to institute fair and transparent political processes. That is in its best interest and ours. Sasha Chanoff is cofounder and executive director of the humanitarian organization Mapendo International.