Ethnic Violence Takes Hold in Kenya

Fighting between rival factions in has claimed the lives of more than 800 people in Kenya. A U.S. diplomat says the situation has devolved into ethnic cleansing. Xan Rice, East Africa correspondent for the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper, reports on the latest attempts to negotiate a peace after a disputed presidential election.

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BILL WOLFF, host:

It started as a political battle between supporters on opposite side of Kenya's contested elections in December. Opposition leaders accused the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, of fixing the results in his favor. The dispute sparked violence among three of the largest of Kenya's more than 70 ethnic groups. Now, the month-long violence that's left more than 800 people dead is being called, at least by one diplomat, ethnic cleansing.

Yesterday, the U.S. diplomat in Kenya said vicious political protests have devolved into near genocide.

Joining us now with an update on the situation from Kenya is Xan Rice, the East Africa correspondent for the British newspaper, the Guardian.

Xan, good morning.

Mr. XAN RICE (East Africa Correspondent, Guardian): Good morning.

WOLFF: Can you give us an update as to the sense of danger in the country? How widespread is the fear? Are there areas that feel safer than others?

Mr. RICE: Yes, there certainly are areas which feel safer than others. The worse areas are in the Rift Valley and far west in Kenya, and those are both to the west of the capital Nairobi. The other danger is - or within the capital of Nairobi, within the low-income areas, the slums, as they call them here.

But I would say the sense of danger and of trepidation as to what's going to happen in Kenya is countrywide. Even if there's no effect on the ground, people are extremely worried.

WOLFF: And what is the current status of the attempted political reconciliation between President Kibaki and Raila Odinga, the opposition leader?

Mr. RICE: Both teams from Kibaki's side and from Odinga's side are meeting today, for the first day, at a downtown hotel. There's no details of exactly what they discussed. It is, as I say, only the first day.

So there's some hope in that since Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary general, is chairing those talks.

So at least that is going on.

But the murder this morning of a second opposition MP - member of parliament -has really, really raised fears that there's going to be more violence.

ALISON STEWART, host:

And we should point out, you're actually in a car on your way to the airport to go cover that story, right?

Mr. RICE: That's right. Yeah, I'm on my way to the airport to take me to the town of Eldoret, which is in the Rift Valley. And, in fact, that's the place where a lot of the nastiest stuff initially after the election took place.

WOLFF: And what is - if you can explain it to us - the core issue among the warring groups? Is it simply the election which sparked the violence, or are there other issues like economy or territory or historical ethnic resentments that are fueling the violence? What is it at the core of the violence?

Mr. RICE: Well, I think all of the things you mentioned are factors. I mean, I think that there's little doubt that the spark for the violence was the disputed election. And if there was a perception that it was free and fair, and as many people think that the opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, did win, if that, in fact, is the result, I doubt very much we'd have seen any violence -perhaps some, but only on a small level.

So, that was certainly the response to this. But underlying it all is - there's a feeling amongst many people in Kenya that one ethnic group, the Kikuyus, which is President Kibaki's group, perhaps enjoy too much political and economic power. They make up about a fifth of the population. But they certainly found the best, in a sense, independence, as they say, economically and politically. And there are a lot of resentments about that. They also probably own the most land in the country, and land is a big issue here.

So, there's a lot of factors. You know, they've been kept as a lid - a lid has been kept on these factors since independence. But for some reason, this election was seen as very crucial, and perhaps was handled so badly by the authorities that things just couldn't - the genie couldn't be kept in a bottle any longer, to use a cliche.

WOLFF: What we've read so far is about violence among three ethnic groups - the Kikuyus…

Mr. RICE: Yeah.

WOLFF: …the Luos, and the Kalenjins.

Mr. RICE: Yeah.

WOLFF: There are about 70 ethnic groups in Kenya. Is the violence limited to those three groups, or have other ethnic groups been…

STEWART: Dragged into this, yeah?

WOLFF: …enveloped into the violence?

Mr. RICE: Yeah. No, it's not only those three. I mean, as far as I understand, there's about 43 main ethnic groups. There may be many sub-ethnic groups making up 70, as you say. But it hasn't merely been those three. It's principally been those three.

But, you know, on the pro-government side, it's not only the Kikuyus who've been targeted. It's the Kambas. It's the Kisiis as well.

On the opposition side, the Luhyas have also been involved, the Miji Kendas, which are the coastal ethnic group. You know, some people see this, as they say, it's 42 versus one. And then, you know, (unintelligible) to the 43 ethnic groups I was talking about, everybody versus the Kikuyu. It's a slight simplification because it's not - not everyone is involved in the fighting. But there is a perception that the opposition has the broad base of support, whereas, the government draws its support not the - not totally exclusively, but almost exclusively from the Kikuyu community.

STEWART: We're speaking with Xan Rice, the East Africa correspondent for the British newspaper the Guardian.

WOLFF: Xan, Kenya is perceived to be one of the more stable and more prosperous countries on the African continent. Is that prosperity and that stability…

(Soundbite of dial tone)

WOLFF: We may have lost Xan. It sounds as if…

STEWART: Yeah, I think we did.

WOLFF: That was Xan Rice, who reports for the Guardian on East African affairs, filling us in as he could about the ethnic violence in Kenya following the disputed election in January.

STEWART: Yeah. Actually, we mentioned that Xan was actually on his way to the airport to cover some more of the violence. He was going to one of the more difficult areas, as he described it, the Rift Valley, which is just outside the main area of Nairobi.

So hopefully, maybe we can get Xan back on the phone…

WOLFF: Yes.

STEWART: …later on, then finish our questions. Maybe we'll finish it up on the blog.

WOLFF: Yeah. Because certainly, I think one question is to ask, is the prosperity or the perceived prosperity and stability in Kenya retrievable given all of this violence?

STEWART: Well, one of the things - oh, Rachel, you wanted to chime in?

RACHEL MARTIN: I just want to let you guys to know there is some breaking news across the wire that the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon plans to visit Kenya on Friday to support efforts to end the crisis and to support the mediating efforts there. U.N. …

STEWART: His predecessor.

MARTIN: His predecessor, Kofi Annan, has been there trying to mediate and to bring court about some of kind of peace deal.

WOLFF: We seem to have gotten Xan back on the phone.

Xan, are you there?

No, he is not.

STEWART: All right. Well, we'll wrap this segment up, and we'll see if we can get Xan back to answer some more questions. Maybe we'll post that on the blog a little bit later.

Hey, Rachel, thanks a lot…

MARTIN: Welcome.

STEWART: …for the breaking news on that.

Coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT: a gender neutral pronoun is emerging - it's yo.

WOLFF: Yo?

STEWART: Yo.

WOLFF: Okay.

STEWART: Oh, you do that well.

WOLFF: Thank you.

STEWART: We can tell you where it came from and whether you'll hear Brian Williams saying it anytime soon.

WOLFF: And my money's against that.

STEWART: I don't know. It could happen.

This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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