Political poll tensions rise in Kenya

2013-02-27 21:43
Raila Odinga

Raila Odinga

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Nairobi - Dozens of shack homes have been burned to the ground in recent weeks in Mathare, Nairobi's most dangerous slum. Families are moving into zones controlled by their own clans, fearful of attacks between the tribes of Kenya's top two presidential candidates.

Kenya on Monday holds its first presidential election since the 2007 vote devolved into months of tribal violence that killed more than 1 000 people and displaced 600 000 from their homes. In a hopeful sign, this year's presidential candidates pledged at a weekend prayer rally to accept the outcome of the election and ensure violence doesn't again break out.

But the government-funded Kenya National Commission on Human Rights on Wednesday released a long list of physical attacks, hate speech and cases of ethnic intimidation Kenya has seen in recent weeks, exposing an undercurrent of tribal tension.

Those strains are on high display in Mathare, where at least seven people have died and 100 shacks burned in the last two months. Officially Mathare suffered 112 deaths during the 2007-08 election violence, though one policeman, who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the press, says Mathare really suffered over 370 killings.

Lewis Kamau is a Kikuyu but wears the bright orange hat of the Luo candidate, Raila Odinga. Kamau is not crossing party lines; he says the hat protects him from Luo attacks. He says he expects Luos to react negatively if Odinga loses.

"Violence will erupt because of results they don't like," he said. "I know these people. They won't accept the results."

Kamau - who backs the Kikuyu candidate, Uhuru Kenyatta - is standing 20 feet from a dirt lot scorched by fire, one of the shacks burned in Luo-on-Kikuyu attacks that began in late December and carried over into January.

"Just the other day they burned here and we didn't retaliate," he said, motioning to the charred lot. "We kept quiet. On Monday after the [election results] announcement, we will be ready for it."

Odinga or Kenyatta must win at least 50% of the vote in Monday's election, or the two will go to a second-round run-off, where attention will be even more focused on the two, heightening tensions further.

Tribal vote

Many in Mathare, and across town in Nairobi's biggest slum, Kibera, say that Kenyans have learned from the 2007-08 violence, and won't repeat it. But many of those pronouncements come from people who assume their candidate will win.

"I think given the 2007 experience we will accept the results, even if, God forbid, we Luos lose. But I don't see us losing," said Daniel Omondo, an information technology specialist in Mathare.

The Kikuyu-Luo rift goes back decades, to when Odinga's father was asked by British colonialist to be Kenya's prime minister. The elder Odinga declined, saying that Jomo Kenyatta - Uhuru's father - was the rightful leader. Kenyatta eventually became president, with Odinga as his vice president. But a few years later Kenyatta forced Odinga out of the government, and the tribes' relations began a long slide downward.

In a small tin shack in Kibera where illegal, home-made whisky is served, one Odinga backer who gave his name as Christian Nyambega said the country needs its political leaders to accept the results and for the voters to remain calm. Then one of his drinking colleagues became agitated at the memory of the disputed 2007 election win of current President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu.

"They're going to steal the vote the way they did for Kibaki. The Kikuyus are not the only tribe in Kenya. We have 42 tribes in Kenya," said the man, who gave his name only as Patrick, saying he feared government retribution.

Of the dozens of worrying cases of political tensions described by the human rights commission on Wednesday was one in which Kikuyu landlords in a low-income area of Nairobi ejected Luo tenants from their rental houses. It also said a member of Kenyatta's party has been linked to the use of gangs to threaten opponents. The report also documented cases of residents voluntarily moving to areas controlled by their own tribe.

One Western embassy official watching election developments closely said he expects less violence this election season than in 2007. But he said if 200 people die in violence, it might have to be considered progress compared with the more than 1 000 deaths in 2007-08.

There are other areas of concern in addition to the Luo-Kikuyu rift in Nairobi. A United Nations official who is watching election developments said that Kenya's Rift Valley has seen an influx of imported guns that didn't exist five years ago, and the Tana River area - a region that has seen serious tribal fighting over the last year - is likely to see more deaths.

The official said that violence in Mathare will be the worst in Nairobi, and that members of Amnesty International and Kenya's Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission have been receiving serious threats. The official said he could not be identified because he was not authorized to share election data.

New system

Since Kenya's last election, the country now has a new constitution, a new judicial system that is lauded as less corrupted, and the police force is being overhauled. Many residents hold out hope that those changes will help ensure that government systems - instead of massive street violence - will be used to settle election disputes.

"The violence [in 2007-08] came because of the stealing of votes. The Odinga supporters thought it was rigged, so there was an outcry. This time we have a credible judicial commission and we have seen many changes in police," said Bernard Titus, a Kibera resident.

In addition, four prominent Kenyans - including Kenyatta and his vice presidential candidate - face charges at the International Criminal Court over allegations that they orchestrated the 2007 election violence. Some Kenyans believe those charges have reduced the chances that power brokers will hire thugs - mostly young men and boys from the slums hired for $5 to $10 a day - and send them into the street.

Grace Kalibo runs a small shop selling basic food goods in Kibera. She attended Sunday's massive peace rally where Odinga and Kenyatta shook hands and pledged peace. She believes Kenya will avoid the massive violence of five years ago.

So does her neighbour, Lucas Awol, a 39-year-old bar owner where poor Kibera men gather on Sunday afternoons.

"This time they won't react at all. They are tired of war," said Awol. "This time it will be peaceful. People say so."

- AP

Read more on:    uhuru kenyatta  |  raila odinga  |  mwai kibaki  |  kenya  |  kenya elections  |  kenya elections 2013  |  east africa
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