Killing intensifies Kenya unrest

Opposition politician who pushed for peace is slain outside home

January 30, 2008|By New York Times News Service

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Mugabe Were, a freshman member of parliament, could have been one of the keys to unlocking Kenya's crisis, but he never got the chance.

He was a moderate opposition politician, a self-made businessman who grew up in a slum, and he bridged the ethnic divide. His wife is from another ethnic group, and as Kenya slid into chaos this past month after a disputed election, he shuttled between different communities and tried to organize a peace march.

Yesterday morning, as he pulled up to the gate of his home, Were was dragged out of his car and shot to death.

"Whoever did this," said Elizabeth Mwangi, a friend, "has killed the dreams of many."

The details are still sketchy, but the shooting appears to have been a hit, not a robbery. Word spread fast and led to violence, with opposition supporters rioting across Nairobi, the capital.

The unrest in Kenya seems to be escalating. Militias from opposing ethnic groups are battling in several towns, and Kenyan army helicopters fired warning shots yesterday to disperse them. There have been reports of forced circumcisions and beheadings.

The economy is paralyzed; more than 800 people have been killed since the Dec. 27 election.

Many Kenyans fear their country is tumbling toward disaster.

"The police are not in control," said Maina Kiai, chairman of the National Commission on Human Rights. "Actually, nobody is in control."

According to a guard at Were's house and family members, Were had just pulled up to his gate about midnight and was waiting for it to open when another car drew alongside him.

"I heard a beep," said his wife, Agnes. "And then two loud shots. I ran out and saw my husband bleeding, and people were yelling to me, `He's still breathing, he's still breathing.' But when I got him to the hospital, he was dead."

Were, 39, whose campaign posters show him smiling with street children, had been shot in the heart and in the eye.

The guard said two men had yanked Were out of the car, shot him and drove off.

Opposition supporters immediately called the killing a political assassination, intended to intimidate Kenya's opposition movement, which is challenging the election that President Mwai Kibaki narrowly won over the top opposition leader, Raila Odinga.

Police officials say they are investigating closely and ruling nothing out.

Were, a successful home builder, was known as a bright spot in a gritty place. He ran an orphanage, had a footbridge and soccer stadium built in the slum where he grew up, and sponsored teenage mothers to allow them to go to college.

Yesterday, a crowd of mourners streamed into his ranch house. The grief soon turned to outrage, and by midmorning the tears had dried and roadblocks of burning tires and huge stones were going up. It was the first time that riots had reached a middle-class neighborhood in Nairobi, and it was not just rowdy unemployed youths from the slums who were wreaking havoc.

"This is how we express our outrage," explained Evans Muremi, a social worker, who stacked tires to burn while wearing a jacket and tie.

The election controversy seems to have brought out the worst in Kenya. While the country has been considered one of the most stable and promising in Africa, it has long been a violent place, with mobs routinely stoning to death suspected criminals.

Likewise, ethnic tensions have always existed in Kenya but have never exploded as widely as they have in the past few weeks. Ethnically driven clashes, fueled by grievances over land and power, have flared in just about every corner of the country.

Kenya's top politicians have been arguing about who is to blame for the violence more than they have been working together to stop it. Kibaki, considered aloof even before the election, has made few public appearances since his country began to unravel. Western diplomats say he is surrounded by hard-liners bent on staying in power.

Yesterday, Kibaki began formal negotiations with Odinga. Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general, has been here for a week trying to bring the two sides together. So far, neither has budged.

Odinga says the election was rigged and is demanding a new vote. Kibaki has refused. Western observers have said the election was so flawed there was no telling who really won.

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