Kenya's Post-Election Violence Kills Hundreds

Kenya's disputed presidential election triggers an explosion of violence that has killed more than 275 people, including dozens burned alive as they sought refuge in a church. President Mwai Kibaki, newly inaugurated for a second term, calls for a meeting with his political opponents.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Kenya's president has already been sworn in for a new term, but that has not stopped the violence that followed his reelection. Critics say the contest was rigged and that led to an explosion of tribal violence in which hundreds of people have been killed.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins is in a western Kenyan town that faced an especially stark incident. And Gwen, what happened?

GWEN THOMPKINS: Well, yesterday at about noon, just outside of the town called Eldoret, many people who had been pushed off their land because of ethnic conflict stemming from the election were burned to death in the church - the Assemblies of God Church - by a mob. The church had been burned to the ground and there are about 13 bodies that have been taken out of the church so far. Their bodies that have burned beyond recognition. About four bodies have been found in houses in the surrounding area - people who apparently fled from the church and died in the houses.

INSKEEP: And so where are you right now?

THOMPKINS: I'm at a hospital in Eldoret, actually, where many of the people who were injured in the church fire were taken. And this is a very strange time for western Kenya, a very strange time for Eldoret. When we were out of the church, - I mean this is in the middle of sort of an agricultural area - there are farms everywhere, all sorts of cane fields everywhere. But there are no people. Everyone seems to have evaporated. They've been pushed off their land and they've been clustering at hospitals and at churches and at schools.

I just talked to a woman who refused to give her name, but she told me that at the church where she had gone to look for safety, that the minister actually separated the displaced people by ethnic group. And she's very concerned that her ethnic group, the Kikuyu - this is the group of the president, Mwai Kibaki - will be targeted later on today because they have been singled out.

INSKEEP: And I suppose we should mention we have a president from one ethnic group, a challenger from another ethnic group, and it's the dispute between them that seems to have turned this into ethnic violence. But Gwen, you told us before this election that it's common in Kenya, every five years you have an election and there is sometimes violence associated with it. Has this gone beyond the normal in Kenya?

THOMPKINS: Yes and no. You know, ethnic violence is, you know, a reality here. In 1992 and in the 1997, during the election periods, many, many, many people died and many people were pushed off their land. And the land disputes that stemmed from those spasms of violence are still troubling the waters here among the ethnic groups in Kenya.

So during this recent campaign there are all sorts of difficulties in places like the Rift Valley and places like western Kenya. But somehow, you know, these land disputes are informed by the political rivalry that's going on between the president, Mwai Kibaki, and the challenger, Raila Odinga, who is a very, very popular candidate and whose stronghold is western Kenya.

INSKEEP: But has this gone beyond the violence of previous election cycles?

THOMPKINS: It appears to be on par. Obviously there was a coup attempt in Kenya in the early 1980s. There was the ethnic violence in 1992 and 1997. You know, the numbers are comparable in terms of deaths. But what seems different about this period is that absolutely no one has any idea of what's going to happen next.

Back in 1992 and 1997, people assumed that once these elections were over, then the violence would go away - and it did, Steve. But this time around, this is a totally different situation in the sense that the election has happened, the results announced, the president has taken the oath of office, and yet the country remains at a standstill.

INSKEEP: NPR's Gwen Thompkins is in western Kenya. Thanks very much, Gwen.

THOMPKINS: Thank you, Steve.

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Kenyan Leaders Pressured to End Violence

Kenya's leaders came under increasing pressure from the international community on Wednesday to end post-election violence that has resulted in the deaths of at least 250 people, including dozens who were burned alive as they sought refuge in a church.

The killing of as many as 50 ethnic Kikuyus Tuesday as they sheltered in a church in the city of Eldoret fueled concern that ethnic conflicts were deepening in the east African nation.

Much of Nairobi was quiet and deserted Wednesday, though clashes continued in the city's giant Mathare slum.

Government spokesman Alfred Mutua downplayed the violence, saying it had only affected about 3 percent of the country's 34 million people. "Kenya is not burning and not at the throes of any division," he said.

Mutua said the security forces had arrested 500 people since skirmishes began.

President Mwai Kibaki was inaugurated for a second term Sunday, but his rival Raila Odinga says the poll was rigged.

The head of the country's electoral commission, Samuel Kivuitu, said he had been pressured by both sides to announce the results quickly - and perhaps wrongly. The country's oldest newspaper, The Standard, on Wednesday quoted Kivuitu as saying, "I do not know whether Kibaki won the election."

In a joint statement, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband also said there were "independent reports of serious irregularities in the counting process."

The pair welcomed news the African Union would send its chief, Ghanaian President John Kufuor, to mediate the conflict. The AU's spokeswoman Habiba Mejri-Cheikh said Kufuor was expected in Kenya Wednesday, but Kufuor's press office said the leader had canceled the visit. They gave no explanation.

Rice and Miliband called "on all political leaders to engage in a spirit of compromise that puts the democratic interests of Kenya first."

"The immediate priority is to combine a sustained call from Kenya's political leaders for the cessation of violence by their followers with an intensive political and legal process that can build a united and peaceful future for Kenya," the statement said.

On Tuesday, Kibaki called for a meeting with his political opponents, but opposition candidate Raila Odinga refused, saying he would meet Kibaki only "if he announces that he was not elected." Odinga accused the government of stoking the chaos, telling The Associated Press in an interview that Kibaki's administration "is guilty, directly, of genocide."

In Nairobi's slums, which are often divided along tribal lines, rival groups have been fighting each other with machetes and sticks as police use tear gas and bullets to keep them from pouring into the city center. The capital has been a ghost town for days, with residents stocking up on food and water and staying in their homes.

There are more than 40 tribes in Kenya, and political leaders have often used unemployed and uneducated young men to intimidate opponents. While Kibaki and Odinga have support from across the tribal spectrum, the youth responsible for the violence tend to see politics in strictly ethnic terms.

The prospect of even more violence is ahead. Odinga insisted he would go ahead with plans to lead a protest march in the capital Thursday. The government banned the demonstration, but Odinga said: "It doesn't matter what they say."

Kibaki, 76, won by a landslide in 2002, ending 24 years of rule by Daniel arap Moi. Kibaki is praised for turning the country into an east African economic powerhouse with an average growth rate of 5 percent, but his anti-graft campaign has been seen as a failure, and the country still struggles with tribalism and poverty.

Odinga, 62, cast himself as a champion of the poor. His main constituency is the Kibera slum, where some 700,000 people live in poverty, but he has been accused of failing to do enough to help them in 15 years as a member of parliament.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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