Can Kenya Avert a Bloodbath?

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Ben Curtis / AP

Kenyans, mainly from the Luo tribe, enforce a makeshift roadblock in Kisumu.

Walking the paths of this slum north of Nairobi, John Kimani points to all the homes that now stand unoccupied, the trash on their floors and the doors swinging wide telling the tale of a hasty exit. Almost all the ethnic Luos in Witeithie have fled in the week since local Kikuyus warned them to leave by January 31. "Failure to do That will Suffer the Consequences," warned fliers scattered in front of Luo homes. Few waited around to learn what those consequences might be.

And that's how Kimani, who is Kikuyu, prefers it.

"The Luos started it in Kisumu, and now the Luos should not stay in our neighborhood," said Kimani, referring to the city in western Kenya that has seen repeated attacks against Kikuyus in recent weeks. "Yesterday, we were chasing them from here. We don't want to see them here. They will never stay in peace again."

Attitudes like Kimani's, which seem to be increasingly shared by many ordinary Kenyans toward their neighbors, are raising fears that the ethnic violence which began as a protest against an allegedly rigged election is spiraling out of control. Kenya is no Rwanda, of course, where a 1994 ethnic genocide claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. For one thing, Kenya contains many ethnic groups — 42, as compared to two in Rwanda — and none constitutes more than about 20% of the population. And the country's political leaders are currently talking, under the mediating hand of former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, with a view to heading off the slide into catastrophe. Still, there are clear signs that the tribal conflict is now taking an increasingly organized form, which U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Jendayi Frazer characterized as "clear ethnic cleansing." As in the conflicts in what was once Yugoslavia, the purpose of the increasingly organized mobs killing and threatening members of other tribes was to force all members of that tribe to leave an area. And it may take a lot more than agreement among rival political parties to bring such a conflict under control.

The violence, initially directed mostly at Kikuyus, followed the December 27 re-election of Mwai Kibaki, also a Kikuyu, in what even international observers agreed was a seriously flawed poll. Within the last week, Kikuyu have been striking back at Luos, Luhyas, Kalenjin and other supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga. The opposition initially characterized the violence as a spontaneous upsurge of anger, but fliers scattered around Witeithie — and the findings of a Human Rights Watch investigation — indicate that activists on both sides of the political divide have fanned the flames of ethnic resentment and perhaps even planned the violence to drive their enemies away.

In Eldoret, for example, some locals accused William Ruto, a leader of Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement and a Kalenjin, of hate speech in the run-up to the vote. "He's the main inciter," said a man named Benjamin, who refused to give his last name for fear of punishment. "He said that if we are not going to win as ODM, we will not accept to stay with the Kikuyus. They will have to go."

In an interview with TIME, however, Ruto denied claims that he had done anything wrong. "Many people, I'm sure in the government, want to say, 'Ruto is responsible for all this,' because they think the Rift Valley voted in a way they did not want the Rift Valley to vote," Ruto said. "But the people of Rift Valley removed anything to do with Mwai Kibaki. They want to look for excuses for violence. This is not about William Ruto, my friend."

But Ruto acknowledges that a sense of injustice among non-Kikuyu Kenyans was an important element of the election. "The most central issue that informed the debate in this election was about sharing of resources," said Ruto. "It's not about the Kalenjin community, it's about the people of Kenya."

The ethnic clashes have certainly exposed deep grievances over land and other resources. Much of the worst violence has occurred in the Rift Valley, where land ownership has always been politically sensitive. In the colonial era, the region's fertile farmland was reserved for British settlers. Britain sold it off to the newly independent government, which in turn parceled it out to members of the Kikuyu tribe, setting off a pattern of ethnic conflict in the Rift Valley that has persisted for much of Kenya's independent history. Many Kalenjins and others who had once lived there believed — rightly or wrongly — that an Odinga victory would restore their control of the coveted Rift Valley.

Although Kenya analysts believe the country remains a long way from descending into the horrors of Rwanda, they warn that the ethnic violence that has already killed more than 850 people cannot be allowed to fester. Regardless of what started the violence, or whether it was planned, there are worrying signs that the killings have created their own momentum and a cycle of vengeance that threatens to defy control by politicians.

"The Kikuyu are going to find themselves as a single ethnic group very isolated if Kibaki refuses to go for a recount or some sort of power-sharing arrangement," said Binaifer Nowrojee, director of the Open Society Initiative for East Africa. "As long as there is international attention, there will be restraint. The day the international community is taken by other crises on the globe, Kenya will be left to stew in its own juices and it will get worse. This is the kind of situation if it's not resolved now it will blow up later, and that's where we parallel into Rwanda."

Back in Witeithie, some Luos are still packing up with less than 24 hours before the deadline set by the fliers. Others were still debating whether to leave. One woman, Eunice Owour, said her husband was recovering in the hospital from machete wounds suffered in an attack by Kikuyus. She did not want to go.

Walking away from the scene, Kimani, the Kikuyu, smiled and shook his head.

"We will be coming back here at night," he said. "The best option for her is to leave."