Kenya's Upcoming Elections Bring Ethnic Tension

People watch during a visit from the European Union's chief election monitor in Molo, Kenya.

People watch during a visit from the European Union's chief election monitor in Molo, Kenya, on Friday. Alexander Graf Lambsdorff condemned clashes in which hundreds were killed and thousands displaced in this year's run-up to the Dec. 27 national election. Thomas Muknoya/Pool/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Thomas Muknoya/Pool/AP

The Electoral Commission of Kenya has a dream.

"We'd like somebody to make a choice not because they're scared they'll be beaten up or someone from their region will lose; they'd rather make choices based on their own free will and information," said Mani Lemayian, spokesman for the Electoral Commission.

He already has cause for despair. Nearly 20 people have died in ethnic clashes leading up to next week's elections, and hundreds have been displaced.

The commission is planning to set up makeshift polling stations in the areas that have been hardest hit, so that residents who have been burned out of their homes can still vote. But Kenyans who have left their home areas entirely will have no say in the race at all.

"There is some evidence that in every election year, some form of violence between ethnic groups occurs. People come and burn down your houses. People come and chase away your animals. People come and kill brutally," said Adams Oloo, who teaches political science at Nairobi University.

Elections Spark Violence

Oloo said violence often erupts at election time in Kenya to settle old land grievances between ethnic groups in the Rift Valley, for instance, and also to dissuade people from voting.

Either way, the violence appears coordinated — often by the candidates themselves, Oloo said.

"There's something funny about the violence. The violence continues until the elections. And then, when elections are over, most of the time violence kind of dissipates, which kind of tells you the violence was simply meant to do with elections to disenfranchise some people. It was simply meant to scare some people," he said.

Kenya has 42 distinct ethnic groups — each with its own language and home territory — but no single group has enough votes to dominate the rest of the country.

So, most of the smaller groups line up behind the two largest — the Kikuyu and the Luo. Both the Kikuyu and the Luo played instrumental roles in bringing independence and democracy to Kenya. But since independence, the Kikuyus have had two presidents and the Luo have had none.

The incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, is Kikuyu. His main rival — who is believed to be the front-runner — is Raila Odinga, who is Luo.

Some Kenyans say ethnicity won't matter to them next week, but the polling also shows that almost all of the Luos are voting for Odinga and most Kikuyus are voting for Kibaki.

"I think people are conscious that voting in tribes is not the typical way to vote. In public, they will say no, but in private, as the figures show, they will probably vote according to tribe," said Havi Murungi, research director of Consumer Insight.

Prejudice Is a Factor

What Kikuyus and Luos say about one another is scandalous. The police are monitoring radio stations and other communications in indigenous languages — and so is the Kenya Human Rights Commission.

Njuguna Mutahi, from the Human Rights Commission, said Kikuyu have proclaimed, "'These people are uncircumcised. We cannot be led by them, so don't vote for them.'"

Mutahi is monitoring the text messages that are popping up on cell phones.

Luos traditionally do not circumcise, but to Kikuyus, the practice is sacred. Kikuyus do not allow uncircumcised men to participate in community affairs.

There are other prejudices.

Peter Omondi, a Luo advertising agent, said he is voting for Odinga because Kibaki failed to fulfill most of the promises he made at the beginning of his term. Omondi also said Kikuyus are arrogant.

"Kikuyus think the presidency belongs to them. They have this mood and arrogance to say, 'It's ours. It's not for you people. It's ours,' " Omondi said.

Wahome Murigu, a Kikuyu advertising agent, said he is "117 percent" behind Kibaki. Murigu said he has lost a lot of Luo friends because of politics.

"People call me 'Kikuyu' or 'Okuyu.' That's what the Luos call me," he said. Okuyu is a short name for Kikuyu.

All of the polls show that next week's vote will be close, so no matter what happens, many people will be disappointed.

"First few days will not be good. It will be terrible because those emotions must be expressed, and, in some places, very violently," Mutahi said.

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