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Tribal links lie behind Kenya’s election violence

Political and ethnic loyalties have long intertwined in Kenya, and the violence that erupted after President Mwai Kibaki claimed re-election shows how volatile the mix can be.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Political and ethnic loyalties have long intertwined in Kenya, and the violence that erupted after President Mwai Kibaki claimed re-election shows how volatile the mix can be.

As in previous ballots, candidates campaigned using a mix of direct and indirect ethnic appeals. Phrases like "It is our time to eat" were understood by voters who know that whoever controls the presidency has power to allocate money, jobs and other benefits to his own group.

Kibaki's Kikuyu people comprise the largest ethnic group in Kenya and are frequently accused by other tribes of monopolizing business and political power. Chief among the critics are members of another major tribe, the Luo. The president's rival, Raila Odinga, is a Luo.

Kenya has more than 40 tribes in all. It is easy to identify some by their looks or their dress, such as the stately, cattle-herding Masai, but most tribe members cannot be easily identified just on appearance.

What is common among all tribes is that most people are poor because of Kenya's high unemployment. In the past five years, Kibaki's administration introduced a fund that saw money allocated and disbursed directly to all of Kenya's 210 constituencies that saw some areas receive government money for the first time since independence from Britain in 1963.

Constitutional change didn't work
In an attempt to force candidates to reach beyond their own groups, lawmakers amended the constitution in 1992 requiring a winning presidential candidate to get both the most votes overall and at least 25 percent of votes in at least five of Kenya's eight provinces. Provinces tend to be dominated by different tribes, so the amendment was aimed at ensuring a president has at least some support across much of the country.

But in 1992, the new opposition parties campaigned primarily in their perceived tribal strongholds. That was easier for parties only a year old and, in any event, government officials stopped them campaigning elsewhere.

Tribal clashes fanned by politics in that campaign resulted in hundreds of deaths and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes. To date many have been unable to return.

Similar violence preceded the 1997 election, though on a smaller scale, with dozens killed.

Campaign violence was even milder before this year's ballot, held Thursday. But that changed when officials declared Kibaki the winner Sunday. Opposition supporters accusing Kibaki of fraud have clashed with police, and direct tribal fighting also has flared across Kenya.

Both the president and his rival urged an end to ethnic violence that killed more than 100 people since Saturday, according to reports from police and witnesses. But there was no let up.

Red Cross caught in middle
The head of the Kenyan Red Cross, Abbas Gullet, said mobs in many provinces were attacking the homes of Kikuyu, forcing the families to seek refuge in police stations. Rioters even demanded to know the ethnicity of Red Cross workers offering first aid to the wounded, he said.

In Kibera, a huge slum in Nairobi, panicked residents called journalists to report ethnic gangs roaming the narrow, sewage-filled alleys seeking out rival tribe members to avenge their own tribe's deaths in overnight violence.

"Why are we burning these shops?" 26-year-old Abdi Ochieng said as he watched his Luo neighbors cart away sheets of corrugated iron looted from smoldering Kikuyu businesses. "Kibaki does not own them. Neither does Odinga."