In Kenya, ethnic distrust is as deep as the machete scars

Thirty-six people died when the Kenya Assemblies of God Church was attacked and burned down by ethnic Kalenjin militias during Kenya's post election violence nearly two years ago. Alleged attackers and victims talk about what happened.
Map locates Kiambaa in Kenya
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 22, 2009

KIAMBAA, KENYA -- Nearly two years after a wave of post-election violence brought this East African nation to the brink of civil war, Joseph Ngaruiya has learned to ride his bike with one leg, the other having never fully healed from machete cuts. He's learned to tolerate the "sorrys" and small talk of neighbors who he believes hacked him nearly to death and burned a church here, killing 36 people in one the worst days of the ethnic bloodletting.

What he has not managed, he says, is to summon sufficient faith in their apologies or in justice to keep him from buying an AK-47 once he gathers enough money.

"To stay the way we were that time, unarmed, we can't," said Ngaruiya, 38, who was among hundreds of thousands of ethnic Kikuyus driven from this western farming region by Kalenjin tribal militias after the disputed December 2007 election. "Next time, it will be much worse."

Despite a power-sharing deal and a reform agenda intended to rescue this nation from collapse, the situation remains dangerously volatile, troubling U.S. officials who are already juggling other worries in the region. With Kenya's eastern neighbor, Somalia, at war with al-Qaeda-linked rebels and its northwestern neighbor, Sudan, sliding toward civil war, U.S. officials say a stable Kenya is more crucial than ever.

But the coalition government of President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader turned prime minister Raila Odinga has remained entrenched in the divisive tribal politics that led to the ethnic violence.

The government has moved slowly on reforms, blocking any domestic judicial process for trying the perpetrators of the violence, who are widely believed to include Kenya's political elites.

The International Criminal Court recently announced its own investigation, which is likely to focus on a few top leaders alleged to have orchestrated violence.

"Leaders and people are going into their tribal cocoons, where they feel they are safe," said Ken Wafula, director of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, a Kenyan human rights group. "Unless something is done, we are waiting for an explosion that would be very disastrous."

Rift Valley violence

Perhaps nowhere is the situation more fragile than here in the rolling, green Rift Valley. Some of the worst ethnic violence played out in this western region after Odinga accused Kibaki, who is Kikuyu, of stealing the 2007 presidential election. What followed has been described by investigations as a well-planned bloodbath in which Odinga's Kalenjin supporters burned houses and farms and otherwise drove Kikuyus out of the Rift Valley with bows, arrows and machetes. Kikuyu gangs soon organized their own ethnically driven retaliation against Odinga supporters. In all, more than 1,000 people were killed.

Though the tribal calculus could change this time, depending on political alliances in Nairobi, the capital, people speak with near certainty of a repeat of that violence, only this time with guns.

According to Wafula and others, Kalenjin and Kikuyu self-defense militias are forming, some of them including retired military commanders. And while reports of people buying guns are difficult to verify -- and Kenya's gun laws are strict -- Kenyan police earlier this month intercepted a cache of 100,000 bullets, military-grade weapons and uniforms being smuggled with the assistance of local police, which has lent some credence to the claims.

Sitting in his mud-walled house, Joseph Ngaruiya said that he knows where to get a gun when he's ready.

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