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Kenya: Tribal Rage Over Disputed Election

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Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 3, 2008; 1:00 PM

Kenya's attorney general today called for an independent group to verify the results of a recent presidential election, as protests over the outcome continued to roil the country.

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Since Sunday, when President Mwai Kibaki was declared winner of an election amid charges of vote-rigging, a massive wave of house burnings has overwhelmingly targeted members of his ethnic group, the Kikuyus, who have been driven from their homes by the tens of thousands, according to victims, aid workers and local officials.

Washington Post foreign correspondent Stephanie McCrummen was online from Nairobi Thursday, Jan. 3, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the current situation in Kenya, including news from today's protest rally, and explain why stability there is important to the West.

A transcript follows.

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Stephanie McCrummen: Hello everyone from Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, a normally peaceful capital where things are still boiling following disputed election results announced here Sunday, which gave President Mwai Kibaki a second term. Supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga had running battles with riot police all day today as they attempted to make their way downtown for an opposition rally that was banned by the government, and eventually called off until next week. I'm ready to answer any questions about the volatile situation.

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Columbus, Ohio: While the international community has focused on the violence (and rightly so), what is being said or done about the underlying cause for all this violence? The fact that the election results were disputed? What do the Kenyan authorities propose to do to resolve that issue?

Stephanie McCrummen: There is a lot of international pressure on both Kibaki and Odinga to find a political solution, and today Kibaki said he was open to talks with the opposition. The Kenyan attorney general also called today for an independent inquiry into the vote tally. There are all sorts of proposals being floated, including one for some kind of transitional government while there is a total re-do of the election. All that is under discussion at the moment.

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Freising, Germany: So far, the violence between ethnic Luos and Kikuyus reminds eerily of the Rwandan genocide, especially the church burning and deaths in Eldoret.

How prevalent has tribal conflict and tribal loyalty been in recent Kenyan politics?

Stephanie McCrummen: Supporters of Raila Odinga frequently note that they crossed tribal lines to support Kibaki during the 2002 election, and that Kibaki squandered that support and governed like a tribalist, favoring his own Kikuyu community. That criticism isn't entirely fair--Kibaki instituted free primary education for instance which has benefitted all Kenyans. At the same time, almost all of Kibaki's key political appointments and his inner circle are Kikuyu. Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, was Kikuyu, and his community benefitted from land grabs he allowed during his presidency, for instance. So there's this sense that Kikuyu have dominated power structures in Kenya since independence, and at various points, these tensions have erupted in clashes, most recently during the 1990s in western Kenya, where Kikuyus are at the moment being driven from their homes by the thousands.

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Washington, D.C.: Given that Mr. Odinga had already indicated to his supporters that he will go after the "wealthy groups" if elected, don't you think that violence would still have erupted had Odinga been elected because his supporters would have tried to take over Kikuyu businesses because they know that there will be no consequences. Kenyans are damned whether Odinga wins or loses...the only difference is the justification his supporters would provide for causing mayhem.

Stephanie McCrummen: I don't know. There was certainly a perception among Kikuyus that there could be a backlash against them if Odinga were elected. But in his campaign, Odinga had also gone to great lengths to reassure the business community that he'd work with them. He also sharply criticized Kibaki for governing as a tribalist, so perhaps he would have been more careful not to fall into that tribal trap. It's difficult to say.

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Toronto, Canada: I am African and I love Kenya dearly. I pray and hope that it survives intact the current unrest. Do you think Kenya will survive this? What will happen to the bouyant economy after the violent upheaval? Will Kenyans continue to enjoy the good economy that is one of Africa's best?

Stephanie McCrummen: Hi there. Your question is one many Kenyans are asking themselves. All I can say is there are many diplomatic efforts underway to find a viable solution to the political crisis. The Kenyan attorney general has called today for an independent inquiry into the vote tally, which, if carried out, may assauge protesters. One question is whether Odinga's supporters--the people you see protesting on the streets here--will accept anything less than their leader being pronounced president. And with each passing day of being hemmed in and crushed by riot police, rather than allowed to express themselves through lawful protest, they're getting more and more angry and restless. The other question is whether people, especially Kibaki and Odinga, will be able to rise above tribal animosities and act like Kenyans. I do think there is a strong sense of pride here about how far Kenya had come as a democracy, and an equally strong fear of throwing all that away.

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Anonymous: As a former Foreign Service Officer who worked in Africa, though not in Kenya, I was interested in the apparently abrupt turnaround by the Department of State in quickly congratulating the Kenyan president on his win, then saying the department had grave concerns and was not ready to congratulate anyone. Any insights as to what happened? Did the embassy or someone in Washington jump too soon in congratulating? Have any African leaders expressed skepticism as to the election results? Normally they are reluctant to criticize one of their own (e.g., look at lack of criticms of Mugabe), though I would of course not imply that this is due to many of them rigging elections.

Stephanie McCrummen: Hi--interesting question. My understanding is that the early congrats to Kibaki came from Washington, not here in the field. Embassy officials here in fact seemed quite embarassed at how out of touch Washington seemed to be with the situation on the ground, and quickly scrambled to get out a different message. As for other African leaders criticizing Kibaki--while I haven't heard of any criticism, I also haven't heard of any African leaders calling Kibaki to offer congratulations.

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Fairfax, Va.: How close are things to a humanitarian crisis?

Stephanie McCrummen: People who live in Nairobi's slum areas are increasingly complaining that they have no food or water since shops have been shut down since Sunday, since they've not been able to work, and since they've basically been trapped inside their neighborhoods by riot police. I spoke with several people in Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum, this evening who said they would go on a looting spree tonight so they could eat. The situation in Eldoret, in western Kenya, is also getting worse, it seems. Perhaps 20,000 people are displaced in ethnically-charged attacks there that seem to be targetting people of Kibaki's ethnic group, the Kikuyu (though other ethnic groups are suffering as well). Homes have been burned, foodstocks destroyed, and no aid is getting through the roadblocks set up there. The police seem not to be in control.

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Boise, Idaho: What are the leadership differences expected between Odinga and Kibaki? What are the Lou people expecting to change with thier choice for president in office?

Stephanie McCrummen: Thanks for the question. The Luo and other ethnic groups who supported Raila Odinga have pretty high expectations--for more jobs, lower prices for basic goods, better roads, better schools, you name it. More generally, though, they speak of a more equitable distribution of Kenya's wealth. Raila had proposed to devolve the federal government to the local level, which in theory would be governement resources closer to the people. Odinga supporters feel that Kibaki has favored his own ethnic group, the Kikuyu, during his term.

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New York, N.Y.: Where are the Kikuyus being driven to and what is being done to protect them?

Stephanie McCrummen: Hi there. The Kikuyus I spoke with in Eldoret, in western Kenya, were headed wherever they had family, it seemed--many to Nairobi and Central Province, which is considered Kikuyu homeland. Their attackers often tell them to go back to Central. But tens of thousands are just seeking refuge wherever they can at the moment--in churches, police stations, schools, wherever. The government seems almost unaware of the situation, and very little is being done to protect people. They seem quite vulnerable.

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Columbus, Ohio: Kenya is an important regional hub for the whole of the East African region. What kind of impact is this situation having on the other economies around the region? Any word on that? I'm an interested party being from neighbouring Uganda. I noticed my government was the first African nation to congratulate Pres. Kibaki.

Stephanie McCrummen: I don't have any figures, but the country has been virtually shut down for several days, and businesspeople are losing millions. There have been gas shortages. The Nairobi stock exchange was closed today. Long term, many Kenyan leaders are concerned that the violence and uncertainty could have an impact on foreign investment. And thanks for correcting me about whether African leaders had congratulated Mr. Kibaki -- didn't realize that Museveni had called.

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Stephanie McCrummen: Thanks everyone for your questions.

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