Kenya on the Verge of a Showdown

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(l. to r.): Radu Sigheti / Reuters; Thomas Mukoya / Reuters

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and his political rival Raila Odinga

From the air, Kenya is a country on fire. Plumes of blue smoke rise from villages across the Rift Valley. More fires burn in the sprawling townships on the edge of the capital, Nairobi. On the ground, the city is gripped by fear. Police officers man roadblocks across its main arteries and sirens wail on its outer edges. Violence is sporadic, and sudden. In the slum of Karobongi, witnesses said the feared Mungiki sect — a group that weaves Kikuyu tribal mythology with gang rule in the slums — hacked to death several people from rival tribes in reprisal killings, leaving the roads strewn with limbs. Clashes between tribes also erupted in the tin-shack slum of Mathare, preventing aid workers from delivering daily drops of food and medicine.

The tribal violence that erupted across the country in the wake of a disputed general election has now killed more than 300 people in four days, according to Kenya Human Rights Commission and the International Federation for Human Rights. Tens of thousands have left their homes, with many others pouring over the border into Uganda. On Tuesday, a mob set fire to a church where hundreds of Kikuyu were sheltering in the town of Eldoret, burning 50 alive. The fear is that the last four days may be a taste of worse to come. Thursday will see an unprecedented showdown between the government and the opposition in Nairobi's city center. Opposition leader Raila Odinga has called for a million of his supporters to converge on Uhuru Park and anoint him the "people's President," to protest an election he claims was rigged by the incumbent, President Mwai Kibaki. Kibaki's government has banned the rally, and in the past few days security forces have not hesitated to shoot rioters dead on sight.

Between the two leaders, this is a power struggle. Little separates them politically, but the two have been intense rivals since Odinga fell out with Kibaki after the President reneged on political promises to the man who was then his coalition ally in the 2002 election. The wave of tribal killings erupted during counting that followed a Dec. 27 general election. At one stage on Sunday in this nation of 36 million, Odinga was one million votes in the lead. Election officials in Kibaki's strongholds then disappeared with the ballot boxes, only to reappear with dramatically enhanced tallies for the President, who was promptly declared the winner and sworn in less than an hour later. Kibaki's first act was to ban live TV and radio broadcasts of the resulting unrest. With the U.S., U.K. and Kenya's own Electoral Commission questioning the result, Odinga is demanding that Kabika admit that he lost.

On the streets, the violence is about tribal score-settling. Kibaki is a Kikuyu, Kenya's largest tribe with 22% of the population. Odinga is a Luo, Kenya's third largest at 13%. The Kikuyu have dominated Kenya's politics, business and land ownership since independence in 1963, provoking simmering resentment from the Luo and other smaller tribes. That has only increased in recent years. Kibaki's government was elected on an anti-corruption ticket, and the economy has since grown at a steady 5%, fueled by a thriving tourism sector. But the benefits have not been enjoyed by all. Corruption has reserved much of Kenya's riches for the government and its cronies, and unemployment and poverty have actually increased, so that today more than half the country lives on less than $2 a day.

On Wednesday, the government said of Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement: "It is becoming clear that these well-organized acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing were well planned, financed and rehearsed by Orange Democratic Movement leaders prior to the general elections." That charge made explicit the specter now haunting what has historically been one of Africa's most stable and tourist-friendly nations — that it might descend into the kind of ethnic slaughter seen in Rwanda in 1994. On Thursday, Kenya will confront those fears.