NAIROBI, KENYA — ESCALATING tribal and political violence has brought sections of Kenya to a state of virtual war, prompting President Daniel arap Moi to ban political rallies only four months after he legalized opposition parties.
The growing political unrest in this East African nation, once considered a hallmark of stability, has increased suspicions between the government and opposition leaders and could threaten elections promised for later this year.
In recent weeks, at least 60 people have been killed in clashes between the Kalenjin tribe, to which the president belongs, and the Luo, Kikuyu, and Luyha tribes. Several thousand Kenyans have been left homeless; either their homes were burned down or they were chased away by threats of violence from other tribes.
At the same time, police have clashed with antigovernment demonstrators in several towns. Kenyan Vice President George Saitoti told parliament last week that police had arrested about 700 persons suspected of being involved in tribal violence.
The government's ban, which President Moi announced Friday, follows strong domestic and international condemnation of a police crackdown against a hunger strike in Nairobi earlier this month by women protesting for the release of political prisoners.
Opposition party leaders and the National Council of Churches of Kenya have accused the government of instigating the tribal disputes and violence at opposition political rallies as a pretext to call off elections Moi had promised to hold later this year.
"I think it's essentially tribal terrorism to advance [the government's] political agenda which [it] couldn't advance any other way," says one Western diplomat.
The government insists the blame rests with the opposition parties.
"It's easy to spark a tribal situation, because people still regard themselves as members of tribes," says a senior Kenyan official. "I see a commitment [within the Kenyan government] to an election, and no sign whatsoever of establishing a fallback."
The official did not rule out the possibility, however, that some local Kenyan officials or opposition politicians have been "trying to make capital" out of the tribal conflicts by encouraging them.
IN the wake of the tribal and police violence, opposition party leaders are calling for establishment of a transitional government and national elections. One of the two main opposition parties, the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), has even called for intervention in Kenya by United Nations peacekeeping troops.
Opposition leaders agree that tribal disputes have been difficult to control, but remain skeptical of the government's arrest of 700 citizens charged with inciting violence.
"It's really in response to the [public] hew and cry that they [the government] belatedly seem to be taking some action," says Democratic Party (DP) chairman Kibaki Muriithi. "Some of us [will remain] skeptical until we are told those [arrested] are the right persons.
"You can push a people only to a certain extent," he says. "They are human beings. Their houses are being burned, their families becoming homeless. They have children and wives and [are] looking for their protection."
Much of the tribal violence involves Moi's tribe, the Kalenjin. Opposition leaders charge the government has stirred up and recruited Kalenjins to fight other tribes around them.
Whoever and whatever prompted such attacks, the reaction to them is escalating.
In western Kenya, anonymous leaflets were recently distributed to non-Kalenjins, warning them to leave town to avoid danger. Following that, leaflets telling Kalenjins to flee have appeared in some slums in Nairobi.
A senior member of FORD says that some Kalenjins have stopped vehicles passing through their areas and beaten passengers who are Luos, another tribe in Kenya.
Luos have begun beating Kalenjins passing through predominantly Luo areas, he adds.
DP official Muriithi says his party is telling its supporters: "An eye for an eye is the law of the jungle. Turn the other side of the cheek. Use other more civilized methods."
One solution, according to church and opposition leaders, is for Kenyan churches to invite both the government and opposition parties to meet to agree on ways to encourage peaceful relations between tribes and a peaceful campaign process.
"Churches have a very major role," Muriithi says. "They must get together and organize massive prayers all over the country, preaching that peace and peaceful coexistence is the answer. That's the most important weapon."
Church officials say they are considering such a move.