Kenya violence leaves uncertain future

Other News Materials 10 February 2008 08:26 (UTC +04:00)
Kenya violence leaves uncertain future

( AP )- More than a century ago, European colonists carved up Africa, jamming together people who spoke different languages, danced to different music and worshipped different gods within the same borders.

Kenya was one of the few new nations that flourished. But now, the once stable and prosperous country seems as flawed and fragile a creation as many other African states. Weeks of bloodshed have seen ethnic gangs exact revenge on rivals and people divide themselves along tribal lines.

The spark was an election which the opposition says the president stole, and which foreign and domestic observers agree was deeply flawed. Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan says he hopes to have mediated a settlement by early this week. But even if the politicians agree, the wounds will not heal easily.

Appeals to tribe have long trumped ideology in Kenyan politics, and ethnic strife has been common around election time since the country made its first democratic strides in the 1990s.

But no previous violence has been so sustained or ferocious. More than 1,000 people have been killed and 300,000 forced from their home since the Dec. 27 vote. The economy has been gutted, and many wonder whether the world's view of the Kenya of bountiful game parks, shimmering beaches, thriving capital and busy port was just an illusion.

No matter what happens at the ongoing peace talks, "there won't be a cataclysm, that doesn't seem likely," said Gladwell Otieno of the Africa Center for Open Governance in Nairobi, the capital.

Instead, she and others see Kenya's long-simmering problems - crime, poverty, corruption - magnified and bereft of politicians able to tackle them.

"Increasing balkanization, people seeking out the company of their own, entrenched vigilante groups, entrenched gangs," Otieno continued. "We hope it doesn't go that way, but we don't know."

In this village outside Nairobi, a postcard-perfect landscape of hills, tea plantations and flat-topped acacia trees, an increasingly fractious and faltering Kenya is comes into view.

Packed into the grounds of a dilapidated police station are more than 4,000 people. They're camped out in tents, waiting in line for baked beans, doing laundry in a pit by the latrines.

And on the edge of the camp, they're waiting for buses.

"I'm going to my homeland," said Helen Odhiambo, a 30-year-old mother of three.

Like most people at the camp, Odhiambo is of the Luo tribe, whose ancestral lands are in western Kenya, on the shores of Lake Victoria. Three generations ago her family moved to the central highlands, the territory of the Kikuyu, the largest and most dominant of Kenya's 42 tribes.

Odhiambo has never lived in the homeland of which she speaks.

"My grandmother said we had a small homestead for the whole family." That was decades ago.

But "I cannot stay here," she said, telling the story of the night three weeks ago when Kikuyus, from President Mwai Kibaki's ethnic group, went hunting for Luos, the tribe of opposition leader Raila Odinga, who says the election was stolen from him.

"I grabbed things in my house. My children grabbed things. We left much behind," Odhiambo said. She had heard that some of her neighbors were killed, but didn't know anything more.

Piled all around Odhiambo were bundles of clothes, pots and pans strung together, a soiled teddy bear. The bus, she hoped, would come that afternoon. She couldn't say exactly where she would go. Western Kenya was as far as she had thought it out.

Up the road, back toward Nairobi, the migration was going in other directions. Camped out next to a church were Kikuyus driven out of the west. George Mbugua, 47, worked in a village in the lush Rift Valley, home to the Kalenjin people, who have long resented an influx of Kikuyus that began with independence from Britain nearly a half century ago and never really stopped.

"Here now, I am friendless, family-less, penniless. But I am told we're all Kikuyu people here, that I will be helped," he said. He didn't sound convinced.

Nobody knows how many people are moving across Kenya to seek the safety of ethnic numbers in this country of 38 million. But it's not just the rural poor; there are many reports of Nairobi landlords renting only to the right ethnicity, and businesses taking care about which staff are sent to which jobs.

For many ordinary Kenyans, the new reality is sobering.

"Sure, we all made jokes about each other, the Luos and Kikuyu, the other people," said Victor Gitonga, a 24-year-old Kikuyu Red Cross worker who was helping at the Luo camp.

"But that was joking. If people cannot live, work, stay in any place in this country, than is this a country? We are finished," he said.

It would take a lot more to get to that point - no one's even whispering about secession.

" Kenya is too important a country to allow to fail ," U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger said in an interview.

The East African country is a key ally in the war on terror and a hub for the U.N. and scores of aid groups working in the region. Nearly all its neighbors rely on the deep-water port in Mombasa and the country's extensive, if worn-down, road network - in fact, at one point last month, Kenyan turmoil temporarily drove up Ugandan gas prices by about 200 percent.

For now, everyone is looking to Annan, who said Friday the two sides were "making progress."

But there's growing doubt that Kibaki, under whose rule the Kikuyu grew more dominant and corruption worse, or Odinga, who has made a career out of appealing to tribal loyalties, can bring Kenyans together.

"If the real, fundamental issues behind this violence aren't solved, there will be a massive backlash against the Kikuyu," said Caroline Elkins, an associate professor of African studies at Harvard University.

She already worries about the next election, in 2012, saying: "They've got to sort this out now."