Ethnic Fault Lines Emerge in Kenya's Post-Election Turmoil

The International Criminal Court named several prominent Kenyans as suspects in the violence that followed the 2007 election. More than 1,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced during the turmoil.

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By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 1, 2008

NAIROBI, Dec. 31 -- With the death toll from post-election violence surpassing 100 and riots continuing in many parts of Kenya, an uncomfortable tension settled Monday over a struggling, melting-pot settlement called Kangeme, a densely populated sprawl of corrugated steel shacks.

A day after President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of a second term, people who have lived as neighbors for decades in the Nairobi enclave began speaking of two Kenyas, one for the Kikuyu, Kibaki's tribe, and one for Luos and other ethnic groups loyal to opposition leader Raila Odinga, who says the vote was rigged.

Along Kangeme's bustling, muddy streets, a question lingered: whether Kenya, long an island of relative calm in volatile East Africa, would erupt into all-out ethnic war or hobble along on the strength of ties formed in places like this, where Kikuyus, Luos and members of other ethnic groups have shopped at one another's markets, lent one another money and even intermarried.

In the setting sun of New Year's Eve, Evans Njue, 34, answered with his feet.

"We have been living together like gentlemen," he said, towing a cart heaped high with his belongings toward a waiting truck on the edge of Kangeme. "But leaders are making us fight here. I'm afraid of walking around. I want to go home." By that he meant his ethnic home town of Meru, 300 miles northeast of Nairobi.

The violence followed elections initially praised as a model of democratic engagement, but which quickly led to chaos Sunday as the opposition charged rigging.

The charges have been heightened by an undercurrent of tribalism that ran through the election from the start. Odinga's supporters accused Kibaki of favoring his Kikuyu community, which is the largest tribe in Kenya and has dominated politics and power structures here since the country gained independence from Britain in 1963.

At the same time, there was a prevailing sense among Odinga's supporters that his time -- and by extension, their own -- had come. Odinga had been leading by a large margin that vanished on Sunday as returns poured in for Kibaki in tallies that international observers have called into question.

"They got power at independence and now they don't want to relinquish it," said Martin Makokha, 30, a grocery clerk who is not Kikuyu, but said he voted for Kibaki in 2002 with high hopes. "We feel the Kikuyu have betrayed us. Very much."

The idea of two Kenyas is not just metaphorical. Throughout Sunday and Monday, a crude sorting process appeared to be underway here and in many other parts of the country.

A man walking to his job as a security guard in Nairobi said that he was stopped by roaming Kikuyu gangs at no fewer than five checkpoints along the way. Fearing for his life, he was told to show his national identity card. He is from the Kisii ethnic group, which divided its vote between Kibaki and Odinga.

In another neighborhood Monday, Cecilia Wanjira, a Kikuyu, sat in the smoldering ruins of a small market situated on land her family owned.


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