HomeFeaturesDailyBriefingsRapidReconSpecial ReportsAbout Us

Kenya's Descent into Anarchy

The previously stable and economically prosperous East African nation of Kenya has erupted in a spasm of deadly post-election violence resulting in the deaths of over 300 individuals in a few short days. The unrest began soon after evidence of improprieties in Kenya's December 27 presidential election emerged. The election pitted the incumbent, President Mwai Kibaki, against Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement, who was running ahead in polling prior to the election. Kibaki was deemed the winner, but allegations of vote-rigging by Kibaki and his supporters have been alleged by Odinga and backed up by Western observers. As protests exploded in anger over the results, the confrontations between supporters of the two candidates have taken on the decidedly unsavory flavor of ethnic conflict. The Kikuyu tribe, of which President Kibaki is a member, has been targeted by members of Odinga's Luo tribe and vice versa, with the involvement of other tribes as well. There are more than 40 tribes in Kenya with Kikuyus as the most numerous tribe at 22% of the population, a group that has traditionally composed the country's most prominent figures in government and commerce. Luos comprise 13% of the population and have a history of animosity with the Kikuyu.

Many Luos feel they have been politically cheated by Kikuyus over Kenya's history. Odinga's father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, fell out with founding President Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, within three years of 1963 independence. The rift worsened when rising Luo politician Tom Mboya was assassinated in 1969, and Luos blamed it on Kenyatta's regime. Odinga says Kibaki cheated him out of a deal to create a prime minister's position in exchange for his Luo votes in the 2002 election.

Kenya, unlike some of its East African neighbors, has been relatively free of turmoil of this sort since its independence from the United Kingdom, enjoying a healthy economy and tourism sector. Though tribal tensions have been present in the past, inter-tribal violence of this kind has broken a new threshold. According to The New York Times:

Within the span of a week, one of the most developed, promising countries in Africa has turned into a starter kit for disaster. Tribal militias are roaming the countryside with rusty machetes, neighborhoods are pulling apart, and Kenya’s economy, one of the biggest on the continent, is unraveling — with fuel shortages rippling across East Africa because the roads in Kenya, a regional hub, are too dangerous to use. Roadblocks set up by armed men, something synonymous with anarchic Somalia, have cropped up across the country, in towns on the savannah and in the cramped slums.

In an event reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide of the 1990's and other similarly horrific events that have plagued history, an Assemblies of God church packed full of refugees was burnt to the ground on January 1. The massacre, perpetrated by a tribal melange of Kalenjins, Luhyas and Luos in the town of Eldoret, killed approximately 50 members of the Kikuyu tribe that had sought refuge in the seemingly safe confines of a place of worship. As reported by The Australian:

In broad daylight, a crowd of Kenyans set a church filled with hundreds of terrified families on fire and listened to their screams as flames engulfed them. According to witnesses including police and a Red Cross volunteer, those who escaped the Assemblies of God Church in Eldoret, about 300km west of Nairobi, were hunted down with machetes; others hid inside pit latrines.

Thursday, January 3, saw an attempted protest in Kenya's capital of Nairobi by supporters of Raila Odinga. Battles raged between opposition members and police across the city's slums. Further protests are planned for the coming days.

Kenyan police fired tear gas and water cannons to prevent an opposition rally Thursday before the country's top legal official called for an independent probe into the presidential election which has sparked a week of deadly unrest.

Huge numbers of paramilitary police fired tear gas and warning shots to disperse protesters gathered at the site of a rally called by opposition leader Raila Odinga.

The police action prevented thousands of people from getting from slum districts in the capital to Uhuru (independence) Park for the protest.

The main fear now is that Kenya's post-election chaos will descend into an outright civil war with the potential for acts of ethnic cleansing and even genocide against the Kikuyu. Jendayi Frazer, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, has been dispatched to Kenya in an attempt to address the crisis. So far, efforts at mediation between the two candidates and their supporters have failed even though Kibaki and Odinga have called for a halt to the bloodshed and as the disruptive effects of the election dispute are now being felt inside Kenya's neighboring states as well.