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22 February 2024

Kenya violence brings a bloody end to uneasy coexistence among ethnic groups

By Agencies


For nearly 40 years, Josphat Mwangi lived on his farm in western Kenya, a six-acre plot of rolling earth with a sparkling river in the distance.

Now, he lives in a white tent on an old fairground, surrounded by thousands of others who fled an explosion of violence after Kenya’s deeply flawed presidential election on December 27.

“I could never have imagined this,” said Mwangi, 64, whose house was set ablaze the night the election results were announced. “Those people who burned my home, they were my neighbours. Families I helped have now turned against me.”

In many regions of this once-stable African country, the violence following President Mwai Kibaki’s re-election has brought a bloody end to decades of coexistence among Kenya’s ethnic groups, transforming the face of villages, cities and towns where Kenyans lived together - however uneasily at times - since independence from Britain in 1963.

Some worry the change may be permanent, and that has sobering implications for building democracy and stability.

Much of the fighting has pitted other tribes against Kibaki’s Kikuyu, long dominant in Kenyan politics and the economy. The vote tapped into a well of resentment that resurfaces regularly at election time in Kenya, but this year’s bloodshed has been the most brutal and sustained by far.

“Polarization of the communities here is growing day by day,” said Ben Rawlence, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The longer the political stalemate continues, the more likely the ethnic map of Kenya will be permanently altered.”

Nowhere is the split more pronounced than in western Kenya, the heart of opposition territory, where tens of thousands of Kikuyus like Mwangi are leaving town after their communities turned on them.

Kikuyus have fled to vast displacement camps - a sight more common in neighbors like Somalia and Sudan than in Kenya, which is renowned for its tourist-friendly game parks and white-sand beaches.

“We are being forced to sell our land,” said Patrick Njure, a Kikuyu who lived with his wife and two children on a 1.5-acre plot since 1993, but fled after the election to a displacement camp that is housing more than 11,000 people. In the Rift Valley province alone, some 120,000 people are believed to have been displaced, with tens of thousands seeking shelter in churches and schools, according to the International Organization for Migration.

“The government did nothing to protect us,” Njure said, his wife, Ann, by his side. “The people who chased us away want to take the land without paying anything.”

Gilbert Kosgei, a businessman from the Kalenjin ethnic group, which supports the opposition, argues Kikuyus deserve only a token price for the land because they obtained it through favoritism shown to Kikuyus.

“We are paying them only for the trees they have planted, the small beauty they have done to that land,” Kosgei said. “We are going back to the prices that our grandfathers knew.”

“Let’s close this chapter of living with Kikuyus,” Kosgei added. “Let’s finish this.”

In the western town of Kisumu, Kenya’s third-largest city, Kikuyus also are fleeing for their safety.

“I don’t think the Kikuyus can ever come back to this place,” said Collins Odhiambo, a Kisumu resident. “They know it won’t be easy and most are selling their houses. There is still so much resentment, tensions are just simmering.”

Another Kisumu resident, Andrew Oteno, said: “The Kikuyus have to suffer for the injustice being done here.”

More than 600 people have died in the riots and ethnic killings that erupted across the country since the election, which returned Kibaki to power for a second five-year term after a tally that international observers say was rigged. Opposition leader Raila Odinga, a Luo, came in second after his early lead evaporated overnight.

Tribal tensions have been simmering in Kenya for decades.

After independence in 1963, then-President Jomo Kenyatta flooded this western Kenyan region, native to the Kalenjin and Luo tribes, with his Kikuyu people. Many of the Kikuyu had been displaced by the British from the fertile central highlands that are their ancestral home.

The Kikuyu settlers quickly prospered, growing into the most powerful of Kenya’s 42 ethnic groups, running businesses and politics. But favoritism shown to Kikuyus fueled old resentments.

Kikuyus in the Rift Valley were targeted in ethnic clashes during elections in 1992 and 1997, when then-President Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin, sponsored gangs from his tribe to intimidate his opponents.

Politicians also helped stoke recent violence, with opposition politicians promising Kalenjins the return of lands they believe were wrongly wrested from them.

Government commissions set up to look at land and ethnic clashes have taken years to complete reports that were filed away to gather dust, some never published at all, the recommendations never acted on.

“The land issue has not been solved since independence,” said Roman Catholic Bishop Cornelius Korir in Eldoret, some 320 kilometers (200 miles) from the capital, Nairobi, where hundreds of Kikuyus had camped outside his church. “If it is not settled now, it will explode still in the future.”

Some Kalenjins say there will be no peace until all Kikuyus are gone from the Rift Valley.

“Let them not buy time, hiding in churches and show grounds,” said Zacharia Barno, who runs a transport business in Eldoret. “They have an opportunity now to leave.”

Asked whether such ethnic divisions would be disastrous for Kenya’s democracy, Barno said his tribe will always take precedence over his national pride.

“First I’m a Kalenjin, then I’m a Kenyan,” he said. “I’m not a Kenyan first.” (AP)