Will Kenya's Vote Lead to Tribal War?

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Karel Prinsloo / AP

Opposition supporters taunt police during riots in the Nairobi slum of Kibera, Dec. 31, 2007

Correction Appended: January 2, 2008

Tribal violence erupted across Kenya Monday, claiming the lives of at least 124 people, after widespread accusations that President Mwai Kibaki rigged an election to defeat opposition candidate Raili Odinga.

Odinga supporters in his western stronghold, Kisumu, torched gas stations and more violence erupted in towns across the country. In Nairobi, walls of flame 20 feet high consumed homes in the slums. Crowds chanted "No Raila, no peace!" — a slogan that has become their rallying cry in the days since the vote. Many stores closed and there was panic buying at those that stayed open. Damage was extensive. Ann Wanjiru, a woman's activist in a massive slum called Mathare, in eastern Nairobi, said: "Everything is just gone. Where most of the people live, the poorest people, it has all been destroyed."

While both sides pleaded for calm, there were fears the violence could aggravate an enduring national tribal split between Luos, who support Odinga, and Kikuyus, who back Kibaki. The two groups co-exist in an uneasy rivalry in Kenya. On Monday, crowds of Kikuyus in the west of the country were reported to be fleeing across the border to Uganda, while six Kikuyus were hacked to death in the popular tourist port city of Mombasa. Police, given orders to shoot rioters on sight, imposed a curfew at locations across the country and barred people from leaving the slums, a tactic which may have contained the violence but also kept innocent people from fleeing. The television channel KTN said 124 people had been killed, but other media tallies put the death toll closer to 150.

The chaos represents Kenya's biggest domestic political crisis since independence from Britain in 1963. It was also a major disappointment for a country that had been considered a bright spot in the troubled region of East Africa. The economy, particularly tourism, is booming and Kibaki was considered to be an improvement over his predecessor, Daniel arap Moi, whose Kanu party regime was seen as autocratic and corrupt. Five years ago, when Kibaki won election as head of the Democratic Party on promises to clean up the massive corruption of the Moi era, crowds of close to 1 million cheered at his swearing-in ceremony.

Since then his image has slipped from that of a capable reformer to an aging and fragile stereotypical African "big man." The 76-year-old was sworn in Sunday in a hasty ceremony attended by party loyalists, less than an hour after the Electoral Commission of Kenya pronounced he had beaten Odinga, 62, by just 230,000 votes. (Odinga had led most pre-election polls in the weeks leading up to the election.)

Kibaki banned live television and radio broadcasts Sunday, and on Monday afternoon, at the height of the crisis, KTN aired children's shows in which smiling children sang "Paddycake, Paddycake." Political activist and anti-corruption campaigner Mwalimu Mati said: "It was really one man swearing in himself and using his presidential appointees to do it. That's the scary bit — our institutions have failed us."

The vote last Thursday was initially portrayed as a success. Turnout was 70%. Nairobi's Daily Nation newspaper boasted such a peaceful and energetic political process would be the "envy of Africa." But the mood soured as the counting went on. And when Odinga jumped to a lead of nearly 1 million votes, results were delayed from several of Kibaki's strongholds. Election officials either disappeared with ballot boxes or refused to answer their phones. When the final result was announced, Kibaki had squeaked through with a victory over Odinga.

That prompted several observer groups to scrap assessments that the vote was free and fair. The European Union said it had evidence that the vote may have been rigged. On Monday, the U.S., whose State Department at first congratulated Kibaki on his victory, issued a statement through its Nairobi embassy saying it was concerned by "serious problems experienced during the vote counting process." "These included various anomalies with respect to unrealistically high voter turnout rates, close to 100% in some constituencies," it said. Koki Muli, co-chair of a domestic observer group called KEDOF, added: "The electoral process lost credibility toward the end with regard to tallying and announcement of presidential results."

Odinga canceled a Monday rally in downtown Nairobi after riot police bearing plexiglass shields and truncheons blocked the entrance. He plans another rally on Thursday, and is urging his supporters to wear black armbands in protest at the result. "If you want to do any kind of negotiations [with Kibaki]," he told journalists Monday, "that must be the starting point — that I won the election and Kibaki lost it. If Kibaki accepts that position, then we can negotiate, then we can dialogue. Without that, there is no basis for dialogue."

The original version of this story incorrectly stated that KTN was Kenya's national broadcaster. KTN is a privately owned TV channel.