Political Standoff Fuels Ethnic Violence in Kenya

In Kenya, perhaps the most common word people use to describe themselves and other Kenyans is "wanachi," a Swahili word that roughly translates to "ordinary people." The wananchi of Kenya now have the most extraordinary problem on their hands: A political standoff at the highest level has sparked ethnic violence that has left an estimated 300 ordinary Kenyans dead and many more brutalized.

In the aftermath of the disputed election that returned President Mwai Kibaki to office, those who voted for him have been the targets of attack. Raila Odinga, who narrowly lost the election, has called for his supporters to mount a massive demonstration downtown Thursday, despite a government ban on the gathering.

The Moi teaching hospital in the city of Eldoret has received more than 70 bodies since the election results were announced, including 17 from a church where people were burned alive Tuesday. The acting director of the hospital says 50 more bodies are strewn in the fields along the outskirts of town, and people are scared.

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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