Kenyan Fights Slow Election Drive

Tribal strife has displaced many Kenyans, causing them to miss the voter registration period

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

RIVALS in Kenya's ongoing tribal clashes, a group of Kalenjins and Kikuyus sit on the lawn of a church near here, only a few yards apart, eying each other warily under a gray sky.

Both groups have fled separate attacks by members of the other tribe, only to end up, ironically, together here - homeless, hungry, and dependent on the church for food.

Until last year, Kenya had escaped the kind of ethnic fighting that has ripped Somalia, South Africa, and Yugoslavia. But for the past eight months, Kenyan tribes have been fighting each other, mostly in western Kenya.

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A report released June 12, disputed by government officials, accuses senior government officials of fomenting tribal violence, possibly as a pretext for postponing multiparty elections, due to be held by next March.

The report by opposition parties, Kenyan churches, and other groups critical of the government charges that government trucks and helicopters were used to assist combatants of the Kalenjin tribe, to which President Daniel arap Moi belongs.

President Moi blames opposition party leaders for stirring up the violence as an act of "political thuggery" aimed at making Kenya ungovernable.

In a country where guns have long been outlawed for most civilians, the attacks by various tribes have been carried out not with artillery and machine guns, but with machetes and bows and poisoned arrows.

"It's like a guerrilla war," says Ernest Murimi of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nakuru, which includes many of the disputed areas.

Homes have been destroyed; hundreds of Kenyans have been injured, and more than 200 killed, the diocese says. Attacks have provoked counterattacks.

One thing is clear: Months of growing tribal violence went on before Moi took steps to intervene in the besieged areas.

The June 12 report notes that last year Moi did not criticize some Kalenjin politicians when they warned that the Rift Valley, a large swath of Kenya that is home to most Kalenjins, was reserved only for Kalenjins.

By stirring Kalenjin attacks on non-Kalenjins to drive them out of their districts, the report suggests, incumbent Kalenjins could keep an easier hold on their constituencies in the next elections.

But not all Kalenjins back Moi.

"We have suffered a lot," says a Kalenjin living in the area of some of the clashes, who asked not to be named. The president "has not taken care of us."

Government critics also express concern that thousands of Kenyans who fled the fighting and who are still too afraid to return home will miss their opportunity to register as voters. The government's voter registration period started June 8 and is scheduled to last only eight weeks.

Grace Githu, a Kenyan lawyer says, "The allegation that the clashes were brought about to keep people from voting would prove correct" if Kenyans displaced by the violence are not given a chance to register. Most of those who have fled are non-Kalenjin, she says.

"A way must be found whereby all the displaced people can go home," says Ms. Githu, chairman of the Kenya Chapter of the International Federation of Women Lawyers. "They can only do that if peace has been restored."

Githu says the period of voter registration should be extended.

But opposition parties urge Kenyans to boycott the registration entirely. They are calling on Moi to establish an independent national election commission. The existing commission was hand-picked by the president.

Sitting on the lawn in front of the church here, Paulina Chepwony, a displaced Kalenjin too afraid to go home, describes a May 24 attack by Kikuyus that forced her to flee her community.

"The people arrived at our farms in lorries," she says. "They were carrying pangas [machetes]. My house was completely burned."

She and her 12 children, along with several hundred other Kalenjins, walked about 25 miles through thick forest to Londiana. "There were wild animals," she says. "And some women gave birth along the way."

Lloyce Wangari, a Kikuyu at the church, fled an attack May 16 by Kalenjins. She says she's still too scared to return home, preferring to live with her three children under a low, makeshift shelter of tin roofing panels she has set up on the church compound.

Tribal tensions continue to be fanned by some politicians. Cabinet member William ole Ntimama recently said at a public rally in his Masai tribal area that non-Masai would not be allowed to vote in the district unless they owned land or business.

Kenya law places no such restriction on voters. Moi did not criticize Mr. Ntimama's remarks.

On the first day of voter registration, three non-Masai were reported killed in attacks by Masai at a registration center. Hundreds of families have since fled their homes in the area.

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