Clashes Mar African Political Gains

Ugandan police tried to disperse opposition leader Kizza Besigye's supporters during riots in Kampala after Besigye's arrest on treason charges Monday. Uganda's president has been in office since seizing power nearly 20 years ago.
Ugandan police tried to disperse opposition leader Kizza Besigye's supporters during riots in Kampala after Besigye's arrest on treason charges Monday. Uganda's president has been in office since seizing power nearly 20 years ago. (By James Akena -- Reuters)

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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 18, 2005

NYALA, Sudan -- In Ethiopia, 46 demonstrators protesting reports of election rigging died in a series of clashes with security forces. In Uganda, a senior opposition leader was arrested, touching off riots in one of the continent's most tranquil capitals. In Tanzania, nine people died when security forces fired into protesting crowds during elections on the island of Zanzibar.

This has been a turbulent season across East Africa, a region that has been struggling for well over a decade to consolidate emerging democratic systems against a backdrop of persistent poverty, simmering civil conflict and past dictatorial leadership.

In recent weeks, political violence in several countries has suggested a widening loss of confidence in elected leaders who came to power in the 1980s or 1990s as part of Africa's new wave of democracy -- often replacing brutal dictators -- but who have clung to power or been accused of corruption.

"Times are very fragile in this part of the continent, and frustrations were boiling for some time now over political freedom, over promises made and . . . over extreme poverty levels," said Abdel Mohammed, a conflict expert with the African Union. He spoke this week from his office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as young men burned tires and police fired tear gas outside. "You feel like sometimes if there is going to be war in these countries, it's going to be huge," he said.

Even in Kenya, a relatively stable society, violence tends to flare during elections. In the past several weeks, five people were killed during political rallies as the country prepared to vote in a constitutional referendum scheduled for Monday. The teenage son of a police inspector died Oct. 29 when police fired live ammunition into unruly crowds in the lakeside town of Kisumu. Another 44 people were injured in the rioting, officials said.

"Kenyans don't know what real full-blown war is really is like," said Richard Obwaya, 35, a Kenyan aid worker in the turbulent Darfur region of western Sudan. "We have suffered too much economically. Things could really fall apart. But I really hope we, too, don't turn to the bullet to put things right. It would be so horrible to see Nairobi on fire."

Obwaya is one of thousands of Kenyans who regularly cross the border to provide food and medical aid to neighboring countries with more serious problems of internal conflict. But in recent weeks, the tensions stirred by the proposed constitutional changes at home have sparked street disturbances in Nairobi, the capital.

The changes, if approved, would strengthen the powers of President Mwai Kibaki, a member of the dominant Kikuyu tribe. Members of the second-largest tribe, the Luo, led by a politician Kibaki once promised to make his prime minister, have staged angry rallies marked by hateful harangues and slurs against the Kikuyu.

Church leaders and newspaper columnists in Nairobi have called for calm, while the U.S. Embassy advised Americans on Wednesday not to travel to Kenya because of fears of mounting political violence as the referendum approaches.

"At a time when . . . Sudan next door is yet to realize genuine peace and Somalia yet to become a nation again, we should be concerned at these hate speeches," columnist Jerry Okungu wrote this week in the Standard newspaper. "Need we forget Rwanda so soon?" he asked, referring to the ethnic hostilities that led to mass slaughter in 1994.

Although Kenya is far more prosperous than many of its neighbors, the seeds of unrest are buried in shallow soil. While tourists jet in for safaris and vacations, 70 percent of Kenyans are jobless, and many survive by selling fruit on the street, filling potholes or begging for part-time work as gardeners and cooks.

When Kibaki won the presidency in late 2002, he brought hope for the working poor and pledged a corruption-free government that would develop roads, hospitals and schools so all Kenyans could enjoy a better quality of life. Since then, however, charges of corruption have halted a variety of public projects, enraging many people.

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