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The 'politics of jealousy' drives violence in Kenya

Much tension is rooted in economic factors, a fight for land and jobs.

January 17, 2008|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

KATATA, KENYA — Laborers living on a tiny coffee farm here in western Kenya awoke in the middle of the night last week to an odd light radiating from their huts. At first it seemed like an early sunrise. Then they realized their homes were on fire.

"I told my children, 'Now we are dead,' " recalled Rosemary Nasimiyu, 53, who warned her five youngsters not to scream as they fled, so attackers would not shoot them.

She and other victims said they recognized the culprits: neighbors from a different tribe across the river. But they say the motive had little to do with ethnic rivalry or even the disputed Dec. 27 presidential poll that has rocked this East African nation.

"They're after this land," said Helen Bosibori, 28, a coffee picker who lost her belongings in the blaze.

Chaos in Kenya since last month's election has often been linked to simmering tribal tensions or a political power struggle. More than 600 people have been killed in the violence, including at least 17 who were burned alive in a horrific church attack that drew comparisons with the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

But as the story of Katata illustrates, much of Kenya's violence is rooted in economics. In the Rift Valley, the epicenter of recent killing and destruction, leaders and residents insist that much of the fighting stems from competition for land, jobs and business opportunities. They describe it as a classic struggle between haves and have-nots.

"It's the politics of jealousy, and it's been brewing for a long time," said Ken Wafula, a human rights activist.

Even the electoral tug of war between President Mwai Kibaki and challenger Raila Odinga largely is a fight over wealth, thanks to a political spoils system in which victors dole out rewards, including grants and government jobs, to fellow tribespeople.

"It's not about race," Odinga said Wednesday in Nairobi, the capital.

"Kibaki represents a small clique that has been presiding over the inequitable distribution of Kenya's resources."

Several thousand of Odinga's supporters clashed with riot police in several cities Wednesday, defying a ban on demonstrations. At least two people were reported killed as police used tear gas and live bullets to quickly disperse crowds. In Nairobi, police used tear gas against newly elected parliament members who attempted to gather for a march.

"We have a right to assemble," said Najib Balala, a member of parliament, his eyes red from the gas. Balala was chased several blocks by police before escaping in a car.

The attack in Katata last week left one security guard dead and 32 homes destroyed.

On the other side of the river from Katata's coffee fields, in a farming valley known as Mathmbei Ward, residents say poverty is worsening. They blame their problems on the farm owners, who are from Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe, the largest in Kenya.

Since Kibaki took office in 2002, said Jeffrey Ndiema, 23, a farmer, Kikuyus are increasingly better off, whereas the Kalenjin tribe members who largely make up Mathmbei Ward have struggled. A neighbor was fired from the police force to make room for a Kikuyu, he said. The Kikuyu school across the river gets government subsidies, but the Kalenjin school has five teachers for 1,000 students.

Kikuyus had allowed Kalenjins to grow corn on the edges of the coffee fields. But three years ago, Kikuyus stopped leasing the land and began planting corn themselves in competition with Kalenjins.

When asked whether Kalenjins led the Katata attack, Ndiema denied involvement -- as did other Kalenjins interviewed. But he said violence was a justifiable way of "sending a message" against Kibaki, who was hastily inaugurated Dec. 30 after being declared the victor in an election that Odinga insists he won.

"Kibaki is all the way in Nairobi," he said. "We can't reach him there. The only way is to hit those here who supported him."

Elections in Kenya have often spurred unrest, partly because of the country's winner-take-all tradition. Victors are expected to reward supporters handsomely. Kenyans, ranging from powerful businessmen to impoverished laborers, view national elections as an opportunity to improve their lot once every five years.

The modern practice started with Kenya's founding father, Jomo Kenyatta. After taking office, Kenyatta stacked his Cabinet with fellow Kikuyus. The nepotism filtered down to all aspects of society, from bank loans to taxi franchises.

Kenyatta helped Kikuyus buy up millions of acres of land owned by the British colonialists in the prime Rift Valley. Kikuyus grew to become Kenya's most prosperous tribe, migrating from their ancestral home in central Kenya to every corner of the country.

Subsequent presidents followed his example. The Kalenjins enjoyed their turn during the 24-year rule of former President Daniel Arap Moi, a member of their tribe.

Supporters of Odinga believed strongly that victory would give his long-marginalized Luo tribe its chance to eat at the government table.

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