Stubborn violence tears Nairobi slums

Rivals in tainted presidential election trade charges

January 04, 2008|By Paul Salopek | Paul Salopek,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Postelection chaos swirled like a hurricane over this African capital yesterday, with a strange eye of calm reigning over an abandoned downtown while a storm of tear gas, hurled rocks and arsonists' smoke swept across the city's ring of slums.

Heavily armed police blocked tens of thousands of angry marchers from attending an opposition rally in a central park, while the two leaders locked in the bitterest presidential election in Kenyan history showed no intention of negotiating their way out of a deepening political crisis that has killed at least 300 people.

Incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, the declared winner of last week's vote by a razor-thin margin, lashed out during a hastily called news briefing at "the senseless violence instigated by some leaders" driven by "personal agendas."

That charge clearly was aimed at Kibaki's archrival, opposition candidate Raila Odinga, who insists - and his claims are bolstered by the reports of independent poll monitors - that the election was stolen.

"I have no power to change what is happening right now," Odinga said, swatting away flies in front of a Nairobi morgue packed with battered corpses of scores of Kenyans, most of them impoverished slum dwellers beaten or hacked to death over the past four days of political rage.

Asked whether he would consider a power-sharing arrangement with Kibaki, Odinga retorted, "Who wants to share power with a thief?"

Kenya's morgues could grow more crowded if a stream of peacemakers fails to bring either politician to the bargaining table. The latest to try was Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who left the opposition Orange Democratic Movement party headquarters in Nairobi yesterday, apparently empty-handed.

The U.S. government announced it was dispatching its Africa troubleshooter, Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer, to Kenya, a country once hailed as one of the continent's most promising democracies.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation deteriorated. Shops remained closed, factories were idle, and transport to the country's western hinterlands, an opposition stronghold, was paralyzed by vigilante roadblocks.

The Kenyan Red Cross estimated that at least 100,000 people, and possibly up to 500,000, face serious food shortages because of the political upheaval.

"We couldn't have prepared for this, not even in the worst-case scenario," said Red Cross director Abbas Gullet. "Right now, we're mostly picking up the dead."

Gullet was toiling in Nairobi's dusty Mathare slum, a battlefield of tin roofs and alleyways where the two candidates' tribal followers - Kikuyus backing Kibaki and Luos supporting Odinga - attacked each other with knives, machetes, rocks and clubs. Gullet and his stretcher-bearers retrieved a dead man who lay stiffening in a gutter, his shoes pilfered and his head caved in by rocks.

"We used to live as brothers and sisters," said Mary Wambui, 18, a Kikuyu refugee from the slum whose family hut had been looted by gangs of Luo youths. "That is not possible now."

Gunfire rattled in the near distance. A truckload of heavily armed police rolled up. Wambui and other displaced women camping by the road sprang to their feet and ululated, urging the officers to go shoot the Luos.

Paul Salopek writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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