MELISSA BLOCK, host:

To help us better understand the forces behind the bloodshed in Kenya, we've turned to Makau Mutua. He is interim dean of the law school at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He's also the chairman of the Kenya Human Rights Commission. Professor Mutua, thanks for joining us.

Professor MAKU MUTUA (Interim Dean, Law School, State University of New York at Buffalo, Chairman, Kenya Human Rights Commission): Thanks for having me, Melissa.

BLOCK: When you consider the Kenyan population, 40 million people, more than 40 tribes. What is the strength of those tribal bonds, would you say, compared with national identity for the country as a whole?

Prof. MUTUA: Well, I think the first thing for us to realize is that Kenya is really an experiment in nation-building. The country was put together by the British by amalgamating these 40 different groups together. And for the most of the country's history, these groups have lived together peacefully in one nation. That is why what is happening is so tragic.

BLOCK: And what accounts for that do you think? And why has, why have these fissures come to the surface?

Prof. MUTUA: Well, there has always been ethnic tensions in Kenya. But you know, the current crisis cannot be traced back to the dawn of the independent state in 1963 when Oginga Odinga, who was then vice president, and Jomo Kenyatta, who was first president, had disagreements. Eventually, Odinga was hounded out of power. And this rupture between Odinga, who was a Luo, and Kenyatta, who was a Kikuyu, has continued to date.

BLOCK: You know, Kenya is in the middle of an economic boom. The economy is growing there. At the same time, there is this huge, huge class of the dispossessed. How much of that do you think is feeding in to the violence that we've seen in the last few days?

Prof. MUTUA: I think that, you know, the electoral campaign was run on several premises. It is true that the economy has grown at an average of five percent a year. But the problem is that the benefits of this economic rebound have not felt across the board. There is a large percentage of young people who are unemployed and who are dispossessed and who feel completely forgotten by the state. It is to these people that Odinga really appealed. Of course, as I said before, the conflict is also highly ethnicized, so that is mostly the Luo, the Luhya and the Kalenjin members of Kenyan society, you know, who are carrying out many of these attacks against Kikuyus.

BLOCK: What do you think is at stake, not just for Kenya here, but also for other countries in Africa and countries well beyond?

Prof. MUTUA: A collapse of the state in Kenya, you know, which a civil war would engender(ph) or a genocidal conflict, would see a massive flow of refugees from the country. The neighboring states have no ability or capacity to absorb such a large population. You know, secondly, Kenya is really the entry point for businesses and for investment in the region. Its economy is larger than the economies of the five or six countries around it put together so all these things is bound to be imperiled, of course, not to mention the lives of the population itself.

BLOCK: You did raise the specter of, I think your phrase was genocidal conflict. Do you really see the possibility that this could extend to that level?

Prof. MUTUA: I think that the kind of thing that we saw in the church in which 50 Kikuyus were killed because of their ethnicity is reminiscent really of the Rwanda genocide. You can imagine what would happen if Kikuyus or a very large group in the country started to retaliate. The whole place would go up in flames. It's extremely important that the two principal leaders, Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki, appeal to their supporters to step back in the brink.

BLOCK: Makau Mutua, thanks very much for talking with us today.

Prof. MUTUA: Thank you so much, Melissa.

BLOCK: Makau Mutua is interim dean of the law school at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He's also chairman of the Kenya Human Rights Commission.

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