Tribal strife leaves Kenya on the brink of humanitarian disaster

At least 250,000 people have been displaced by the violence that followed the presidential elections, and half a million are in desperate need of aid. Steve Bloomfield reports
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The Independent Online

A humanitarian crisis is building in Kenya in the aftermath of the violence that followed the country's elections. Aid agencies said the humanitarian crisis was getting worse, with at least 250,000 people displaced and more than 500,000 in need of emergency assistance. Kenyans, used to taking in refugees from other regional conflicts, are on the move themselves, with thousands fleeing into neighbouring Uganda.

As this worrying situation developed in what has been one of Africa's most stable states, there came a glimmer of hope. Kenya's two political leaders, President Mwai Kibaki and the man who also believes he won December's presidential election, Raila Odinga, yesterday edged closer to compromise following a visit by the top US diplomat for Africa, Jendayi Frazer. After meeting Ms Frazer, Mr Kibaki's office issued a statement agreeing to the formation of a government of national unity. Mr Odinga said he was willing to discuss it only as part of internationally mediated talks.

Over the past week, Kenya's reputation as a country of peace and stability, where the press is free, democracy rules and Western tourists can enjoy superb safari and beach holidays, has been shattered. More than 300 people have been killed and a quarter of a million displaced as anger at Mr Kibaki's disputed re-election has exploded into violence and hatred of a kind not seen in Kenya since the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s.

Renewed fears of widespread violence meant that yesterday thousands of terrified refugees under armed escort fled western Kenya in buses that streamed down roads strewn with downed power lines, burnt-out vehicles and corpses.

At Cheptiret, bus after packed bus drove slowly past soldiers, loyal to the president, who stood guard at a roadblock. Hours earlier, a machete-wielding mob had controlled the roadblock.

Wide-eyed passengers pointed out of the windows, hands covering their mouths, as they looked at two bodies lying in the dirt on the roadside next to the charred hulk of a white minibus. The two men had been pelted with stones and then set ablaze, said a witness.

The numbers of deaths, though large, don't even begin to tell the full story. Kenya, a land of 42 tribes, has never experienced civil war. Neighbouring Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia have smouldered with tribal tensions for decades, often exploding into ugly conflicts claiming hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of lives. Kenya has not been like that and isn't supposed to be like that. But in the past week I've lost count of the number of angry young men spitting out their hatred for members of another tribe.

In Eldoret, the scene of the church massacre, Kikuyus are running for their lives, their houses burned down by gangs of Kalenjins, Luhyas and Luos, as neighbour turns on neighbour. Families have split up Kikuyu wives having to leave Kalenjin husbands for fear of what their neighbours would do. At roadblocks set up on every route out of town, gangs of up to 1,000 young Kalenjin men armed with machetes and bows and arrows demand to see identity cards. Those with Kikuyu names are dragged out of cars and trucks some have been killed, others manage to flee. Less than 300 yards up the road, police, mainly drawn from the Kalenjin, sit idly by.

Human rights groups have accused the police of unjustified killings. The state-funded Kenyan National Commission of Human Rights, alongside 22 other civil organisations, complained yesterday that "one of the forms that violence has taken is in the extraordinary use of force by Kenya's police force... to the extent of extrajudicial executions".

Tens of thousands have sought refuge in churches and cathedrals, and many times that number have been trapped in their homes. Nisha Thakkar, 35, lives in Parklands, a district south of Nairobi's city centre. "We've been living off dried food all week, so I came out to buy some fresh fruit and vegetables, but the prices have gone up by 50 per cent. We can't afford it," she said. "Today is the first day I went outside since Sunday, and though a few buses have started again, the streets are still empty.

"Most of the rioting has been in the centre and slum areas, but we have all been scared. We have never experienced anything like this before. The Red Cross are asking for blankets and food donations. Many people living in the slums have lost everything; others don't know what they've lost because they're still too scared to go back to their houses and businesses."

It has been easy to describe the violence as tribal because much of it has been. But the trigger was political the feeling, shared by foreign observers, diplomats, even influential members of the Kikuyu business community, that Mr Kibaki's people stole the election.

But separating tribe from politics in Kenya is not so simple. Politics here is unashamedly tribal. There is no left and right, no liberal and conservative. The manifestos of the two main leaders hardly differ: both would introduce free secondary education; both would seek to grow the economy through more private investment; both claim to want to end corruption.

The majority of Kenyans decide who they will vote for on the basis of their tribe. Raila Odinga proclaims as a badge of honour that 99 per cent of Luos voted for him; in Mr Kibaki's Central Province homeland he won 97 per cent of the vote. In the months running up to the election both candidates scrambled around for the support of tribal leaders, knowing that it would bring the backing of the majority of their people. Mr Odinga made Musalia Mudavadi his running mate, guaranteeing the backing of Luhyas in Western Province. Najib Balala provided support at the Coast. William Ruto brought in the Kalenjin vote in Rift Valley.

Kikuyus have dominated the economy and the political scene since Kenya won independence in 1963. Even during the time of Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin, Kikuyus still held many of the most influential posts. At the last election in 2002, the first truly democratic vote in Kenya, the two main candidates were both Kikuyus. This election was the first time the old Kikuyu political guard faced the very real threat of defeat; the first time Luos, one of Kenya's largest tribes but marginalised since independence, believed they could claim power.

In the months running up to the election, leaders on both sides raised ethnic tensions. In particular, Mr Raila's Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) played on fears of Kikuyu dominance by championing "majimboism", a form of devolved government which, he promised, would bring economic development to the provinces. His supporters read this as a sign that Kikuyus, who live in every part of the country, would lose their grip on the economy.

Since the violence erupted, both sides have made mealy-mouthed calls for calm, while at the same time accusing the other side of "genocide", which has done little to quell the unrest. But amid the violence, there have been signs that Kenya has what it takes to stop the slide towards tribal divisions. As the week went on, the vast majority of Kenyans refused to turn on each other. Instead, they turned on their leaders. Kikuyus, Luos, Kalenjins and Luhyas have openly criticised their own leaders. "These politicians," said one Kikuyu man in Eldoret, "all drinking coffee in the InterContinental. They are not the ones fighting. It is the common man who is suffering." Maina Kiai, chairman of the Kenya National Human Rights Commission, said none of Kenya's political leaders appeared to care much for their people. "There is a sense that we are just fodder for them," she said. One Nairobi radio station even announced it was banning politicians from its airwaves as they were inciting violence.

By the end of the week, a semblance of normality had returned to Nairobi, although the situation around the country was still tense. Shops reopened and office workers walked the streets. Street hawkers, selling everything from flags and plug adaptors to puppies, were out in force. At the Westlands roundabout, normally one of Nairobi's most traffic-clogged junctions, the jams had returned after days of empty roads.

Kenya has struggled with its national identity since 1963. Tribal divisions have been expertly exploited by a succession of leaders. Cornelius Korir, the Bishop of Eldoret, who is currently sheltering some 10,000 people in the grounds of his cathedral, said too many Kenyans identify themselves by their tribe first, their nation second. "We have not yet reached the stage where we are saying we are Kenyans," he said.

Not yet, maybe. But there are signs of hope. Among young urban Kenyans, the tribal identity is not so strong. "It has never been an issue for us," said David Okoth. "We went to school with people from different tribes. Now we are trying to build our businesses, forge our careers. Tribe doesn't come into it." Juliette Njeri, his girlfriend, added: "It is not a problem for us." David is a Luo, Juliette a Kikuyu. A week ago, this wouldn't have been worth mentioning. Now it's become something to cling to.