Sunday, January 06, 2008

Kenya Goes To Hell

The breakdown of law and order and peaceful society in Kenya, following disputed elections, has been fast and vast, and has totally overwhelmed most of the public. More than 300 have been killed in vicious machete attacks, arson and police gunfire. More than 250,000 have been forced to flee their homes :

The speed of Kenya’s unravelling has been breathtaking. In Africa, one country after another has been racked by political violence, massacres, corruption and civil war. For 44 years, since independence from Britain, Kenya was largely the exception.

It is true that Jomo Kenyatta, its first leader, and his successor, Daniel arap Moi, countenanced little dissent and plundered the national treasury. But viewed against the savagery that descended on its neighbours – Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan and Rwanda – Kenya was a success story. It was an economic hub and a top tourist destination.

Hidden away were problems, however. Kenya is a mosaic of 42 tribes. But since independence the Kikuyu have dominated politically and economically.

Political patronage enabled them to settle across the country outside their densely populated traditional homeland near Mount Kenya. While poor Kikuyu drove communal taxis or ran street stalls, the wealthier ones owned the big businesses.

Their growing presence and economic power attracted resentment, especially in the Rift Valley in the west.

In the last elections many Kalenjin, the original Rift Valley inhabitants, backed Odinga. Other minor tribes threw in their lot with the flamboyant opposition leader, hoping for a better deal under a Luo president. This led to the closest-fought election in African history.

The violence has killed more than 300 people and the wider suffering has been terrible. Half a million need food and 180,000 have fled their homes. Reports from western Kenya said children were dying from exposure. The World Food Programme suggested that up to 100,000 people faced starvation.

The election was projected as a milestone in Kenya’s advance to a more mature democracy. In 2002 Kibaki had put down the first marker on this path when he won a multi-party election that ended Moi’s autocratic rule. Odinga helped in his victory. But the two fell out and became political opponents.

On December 27, Kenyans voted, with Odinga consistently ahead in opinion polls. He won a parliamentary majority, but two days after election day, delays in counting for the presidential contest and rumours of electoral fraud sparked riots.

Last Sunday, Kibaki was declared the winner by 231,728 votes, even though Odinga had led by a substantial margin in preliminary results. Kibaki was sworn in secretively as 152 European Union observers declared the election deeply flawed.

Aggrieved at having apparently been cheated out of power, Luos went on the rampage against Kibaki’s Kikuyu supporters. Even mobile phone text messages called for violence. “Let’s wipe out the Mt Kenya mafia,” they read, a reference to Kibaki’s power base. “Kill two, get one free.”

As the Kikuyu hit back, tribal clashes spread through the Rift Valley and beyond, as far as the teeming slums of Nairobi and on to Mombasa and the Kenyan coast. In the Rift Valley, the Luo were supported by the Kalenjin and another minor tribe.

The resurrection of two violent criminal gangs, the Mungiki and the Taliban, loyal to the Kikuyu and Luo respectively, added a gruesome dimension.

The Taliban were blamed for horrendous killings in which Kikuyu were hacked to death with machetes in the slums of Nairobi. The Mungiki, who are bound by secret rituals, were accused of hacking off heads and mutilating Luo men. It was reported that a number of Luos were admitted to hospital after forced circumcisions.

The Luo do not practise male circumcision, while the Kikuyu are one of several tribes in which it is a rite of passage.

On Tuesday, a new atrocity evoked memories of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which 800,000 people died. Attackers burnt alive Kikuyu women, children and elderly people sheltering inside a church just outside Eldoret in the Rift Valley.

After throwing stones at the church to make sure the refugees stayed inside, they blocked the door with mattresses soaked in fuel, and added piles of dried maize leaves. Then they set the whole lot on fire. Soon the church was a blazing inferno.

A few escaped, including a woman who broke out, her baby in a shawl on her back. The shawl caught fire. The baby fell back into the flames. The woman ran away with her hair on fire, screaming.

The rest of this story is almost beyond belief.

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