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Kenyans fear tribal violence as elections get underway

The two presidential front-runners lead coalitions based on rival tribal groupings, bringing to mind the horrific killings that followed the 2007 vote.

March 04, 2013|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • A Kenyan voter has her identification card checked at a polling station in the Kibera slum in Nairobi.
A Kenyan voter has her identification card checked at a polling station… (Dai Kurokawa, European…)

NAIROBI, Kenya — George Oduor saw a friend hacked to death with machetes as the disputed 2007 elections triggered tribal violence that sent many Kenyans fleeing from their homes. He survived only because the killers were from his own Luo tribe.

As Kenyans went to the polls Monday for a new round of elections that pitted tribal leaders against each other, those memories came flooding back — fed by gangs of Luos who began agitating last week to drive the remaining members of the Kikuyu tribe out of Oduor's neighborhood.

"These gangs say, 'If you know your neighbor is a Kikuyu, tell him to leave, and if you don't tell him, you will be in trouble,' " said Oduor, who lives in the Nairobi slum of Mathare. "I don't want to see violence, because violence makes us refugees."

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The two presidential front-runners, Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, lead political coalitions based on rival tribal groupings. They have vowed to abide by the results, but some Kenyans fear violence from Odinga's Luos or Kenyatta's Kikuyus if either candidate loses.

With eight candidates vying to be replace outgoing President Mwai Kibaki, most analysts predict that neither Odinga nor Kenyatta will get more than 50% of the vote, which would mean a runoff next month. Results are not expected for several days.

Among those worried about a recurrence of violence is George Thuo, 30, a carpenter sanding a bed frame on the roadside in Mathare across from a military base that took in those who fled the bloodshed before. Thuo, a Kikuyu, woke in terror early Monday to the sound of rowdy gangs of Luos, reminding him of how he fled the neighborhood of tin shacks and narrow alleys in 2007.

"They were shouting and throwing rocks at people's doors and on people's roofs, waking people up, telling people 'You should wake up and go and vote,' " he said of Monday's disturbance. "The government is telling us it's going to be secure, but I don't see it, because early in the morning when that gang was shouting and throwing rocks there was no one stopping them.

"The way I see it, if things are going the tribal way, there will be no peace and Kenya will have a lot of problems," said Thuo, who acknowledged that he, like most Kenyans, voted along tribal lines.

The corrugated metal shacks of Mathare are so heavily covered with rival red and orange election posters that it seems the whole town has been wallpapered by a colorblind designer. To some here, the bitter tribal tensions that exploded in 2007 have just been papered over like the tin walls, while the yawning divisions remain.

Tensions have been exacerbated by the fact that Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, have been charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court for allegedly inciting killings and violence in the 2007 vote. They deny the charges but face trial in the coming months, making for an awkward situation if they win the balloting.

Election day, which also saw about 12,000 candidates compete for local and national posts, was relatively peaceful. But in 2007 the trouble started only after the announcement of results triggered a bitter dispute and tribal clashes. As many as 1,500 people were slain that year. Thousands more were beaten, raped or forcibly circumcised, while villages were burned to the ground. In one particularly gruesome incident, women and children were locked in a church that was set on fire, killing about 30 people. Attackers threw one baby into the flames, witnesses said.

There was some violence Monday, when attackers near the coastal city of Mombasa ambushed police. Authorities, who said nine officers and six assailants died, blamed a separatist group and suggested that the incident had no tribal element.

In Mathare, some people packed up and fled their homes or emptied their shops of stock before Monday's vote, according to residents. "Business is down; everyone is reserving their money," said Dorcas Wanjiku, 32, a shoe seller who lined up at 2 a.m. to wait for polls to open. "There's fear around."

She said renewed tribal violence after the election would be "a disaster" for the country.

Phyllis Wanjiku, no relation to Dorcas but a friend of hers, said Kenyatta's supporters would be furious if he was elected president but still had to face ICC charges at the Hague. "We would have bloodshed," she said. "This is what we are fearing."

Nonetheless, Kenya is eager to shed the taint of the 2007 violence. A short drive from Mathare — and what seems half a world away — a group of tech-savvy Kenyans monitor reports of voting problems by computer. It's an initiative of Ushahidi, a group that developed an app to map election violence in the wake of the 2007 vote.

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