Tens of thousands flee ethnic violence in Kenya

Disputed election uncovers tribal strife in democratic nation

January 07, 2008|By New York Times News Service

NAKURU, Kenya -- Kenya's privileged tribe is on the run.

During the past few days, tens of thousands of Kikuyus, the tribe of Kenya's president, have packed into heavily guarded buses to flee the western part of the country because of ethnic violence. Yesterday, endless convoys of buses - some with their windshields smashed by rocks - crawled across a landscape of scorched homes and empty farms.

It is nothing short of a mass exodus. The tribe that has dominated business and politics in Kenya since independence in 1963 is being chased off its land by machete-wielding mobs made up of members of other tribes furious about the Dec. 27 election, which Kenya's president, Mwai Kibaki, won under dubious circumstances. In some places, Kikuyus have been hunted down with bows and arrows.

The election - and the unresolved battle about who really won - has ignited old tensions in Kenya, which in a week and a half has gone from being one of Africa's most promising countries to another equatorial trouble zone.

The political impasse continued yesterday, with Jendayi E. Frazer, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, meeting again with opposition leaders and government officials, but no resolution was in sight.

Main opposition leader Raila Odinga signaled yesterday that he is willing to share power with the government he accuses of rigging elections, but he also called for mass rallies - a move that threatens renewed bloodletting.

The fighting that claimed more than 300 lives last week has subsided, and many people have gone back to work in the capital, Nairobi. There, people from different tribes live side by side and often work in the same offices. They are aware of ethnic differences and sometimes joke about them, but it usually does not go further than that.

But out here, these differences matter. A tribal war is shaping up between the Kalenjin, who mostly support Kenya's opposition leaders, and the Kikuyus, who voted heavily - up to 98 percent in some areas - for the president.

Tens of thousands of Kikuyus are camped out at police stations and churches for protection, waiting for buses guarded by military escorts to evacuate them to the central highlands, the traditional Kikuyu homeland. There they are safe because almost everyone who lives in the highlands is Kikuyu.

The last time the Rift Valley was this violent was in 1992, another election year in Kenya and a time of turbulent transition between dictatorship and democracy. Kalenjin militias, stirred up by politicians who told them that the valley was Kalenjin ancestral land, massacred hundreds of Kikuyus in a bid to steal their farms.

Since then, "Emotions have been festering, resentments have been building and we sat around pretending ethnicity didn't exist," said Maina Kiai, chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.

Kenya has more than 40 tribes, but the Kikuyus have almost always been on top. They run shops, restaurants, banks and factories across the country. One reason Kibaki has engendered so much resentment from other tribes is because many of the top officials in his government - including the ministers of defense, justice, finance and internal security - are Kikuyus.

The Kikuyus are the biggest tribe in Kenya but far from the majority, at 22 percent of the population. The Kalenjins make up about 12 percent.

This election stirred up anti-Kikuyu jealousies like never before. Odinga, the top opposition candidate and a member of the Luo tribe, built his campaign on a promise to end Kikuyu favoritism and share the fruits of Kenya's growing economy with all tribes.

In the Rift Valley, Kalenjin gangs stormed Kikuyu farms after Kibaki saw an 11th-hour surge in the vote tally. Police officers seemed reluctant to intervene. Dozens of Kikuyus were massacred, including up to 50 women and children hiding in a church who were burned alive.

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