Tracing the Roots of Ethnic Violence in Kenya

The month of ethnic bloodletting in Kenya has historic roots. Grievances over land and privilege date back decades. And the dispute over last month's presidential election has aggravated those tensions in deadly ways.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

To Kenya now, where a second opposition politician was shot death today.

His party claims it was a political murder. The police say the lawmaker was killed in a quarrel over a woman. Either way, this did nothing to defuse the tension in Kenya. An estimate 900 people have died since the disputed presidential election last month.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has this report on the roots of the conflict.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Kenyans are still reeling from the shock and the intensity of the explosion of violence and hatred that has shaken this country. The crisis has turned Kenya from one of Africa's most stable and prosperous nations into the continent's latest crisis. The brutality has pitted neighbor against neighbor in scenes reminiscent of Rwanda. Kenyans are using machetes, daggers, bows and arrows, and clubs to settle scores.

Some people have been burned alive. The conflict was sparked by last month's presidential election, which returned Mwai Kibaki to the presidency. Local and international observers said the vote tally was fraudulent. Kibaki insists he is Kenya's rightful leader.

His opposition rival, Raila Odinga, insists he would have won in a legitimate count. Author and playwright Binyavanga Wainana lays the blame for the current troubles at the feet of both men.

Mr. BINYAVANGA WAINANA (Author; Playwright): Right now, what's happening is our political leaders are dancing on a stage with matches and gasoline. The intensity of the plea from the public for this to stop is incredible. But Kibaki's head seems to be in the sand. Raila seems to be positioning himself for brinkmanship so Kenya is in the hands of Mr. Raila and Mr. Kibaki, who've got the gas and who've got the matches. And it's looking like they're prepared to go as far as they can go and they can continue dancing simply for the sake of themselves.

QUIST-ARCTON: But Gladwell Wazonio Otieno(ph), a political activist who heads the Africa Center for Open Governance based here in Nairobi, says that's why politics have played a central role in the crisis, the issues go much deeper.

Ms. GLADWELL OTIENO (Executive Director, Africa Centre for Open Governance): I would say that you can damage a lot with poisonous politics but obviously, you also have a situation of economic inequity, you have a very, very small class in Kenya that's own a large part of the economy. Kenya is the 10th most unequal country in this world and…

QUIST-ARCTON: Otieno says historically, Kenya has failed to address crucial issues and grievances over land, wealth, power and privilege dating back many years. Kenya is a country suffering from what she calls chronic land hunger, a problem which first surfaced during colonial rule but which has never been properly addressed since independence in 1963.

Much of the worst violence has occurred in the slums surrounding Nairobi and the Rift Valley; a fertile region that was dominated by the British during colonial times. Much of the Rift Valley was divvied up amongst Kikuyu under Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, himself a Kikuyu.

Again, Gladwell Otieno.

Ms. OTIENO: So there are deep underlying reasons but poisonous politics plays a role because our politicians views ethnic differences to buttress their claims to power.

QUIST-ARCTON: Kenya's 36 million people are made up of more than 40 different ethnic groups, the largest of which is the Kikuyu. They make up about a fifth of the population and traditionally, the most powerful, dominating in politics and business. Kibaki is from the Kikuyu tribe while Odinga is a Luo. In the current crisis, it is tribe against tribe with Luo and allied groups against the Kikuyu and vice versa.

Political scientist and social commentator Wambui Mwangi of Toronto University says politicians have taken advantage of historic tensions.

Professor WAMBUI MWANGI (Political Science, University of Toronto; Social Commentator): Oh, well, that's the basis level. Politicians want votes and there's nothing easier to campaign on vent fear and hatred. It is really a very simple, very base, very venal and excessively callous and ruthless way of doing business, which is not to say that there are not real issues underlying these clashes; they certainly are.

QUIST-ARCTON: Outside mediators are trying to resolve some of these issues.

Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has been mediating in talks between Kibaki and Odinga's negotiating teams. Annan succeeded in bringing together the two men to talk. He had talks with Kibaki at the African Union Summit in neighboring Ethiopia, and is due to talk to Odinga, the opposition leader, here tomorrow. But Kenyan observers say the peace talks have not quelled the vicious ethnic rivalry. This includes hate radio and text messages. Veteran journalist and columnist Kwamchetsi Makokha.

Mr. KWAMCHETSI MAKOKHA (Journalist; Columnist): Those SMSs, those so-called hate messages are finding resonance within a certain large section of the population. I think we must go back and find out what is it that is so wrong with our social relations that makes it possible for those hate messages to find such huge resonance within the population.

QUIST-ARCTON: Kenya's people are desperately hoping that the negotiations between the two sides will end the deadly violence and restore peace.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Nairobi.

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