After Unrest, Kenya Awash in Conspiracy Theories

African Rights report said yesterday the government was behind violence.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Everyone in Mombasa has a theory about why arson and murder have hit the coast of Kenya, leaving 69 people dead, displacing up to 100,000 people, and sending thousands of tourists scurrying back home.

Street-vendors, hotel workers, tour operators, restaurant managers - everyone professes to know why, in an election year, this stretch of white beaches and swaying palms is experiencing violence such as has never been seen here - not recently, not ever.

The tourist mecca has quieted down since the government agreed to the opposition's demands for electoral reforms before elections due by February. While the atmosphere is now guardedly hopeful, residents are still trying to make sense of the violence.

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Trouble is, everyone has their own idea about why the police station in nearby Likoni was burned Aug. 13, why homes have been randomly gutted by fire, and why three Roman Catholic churches were set aflame in an area where Muslims and Christians have always lived together peacefully.

And none of the theories match. Some say it's the government. Others claim it's the opposition. Others still swear it's the work of an Islamic fundamentalist preacher only recently allowed back into the country. A few argue it's the Navy. In the end, only a handful believe it's really what it looks like: a fight over land in an area where long-time owners have become squatters on their own fields.

As far away as the capital, Nairobi, conspiracy theories come a dime a dozen.

Election strategy?

The opposition alleges the government is pursuing a policy of "electoral cleansing" by engineering attacks against voters who have traditionally opposed the ruling Kenya African National Unity party of President Daniel arap Moi.

Yesterday, the London-based African Rights group released a report saying hard-line members of KANU had engineered the violence in Mombasa to clear out opposition strongholds before the elections.

Similar episodes of violence shook the Rift Valley in 1992, claiming some 2,000 victims before Kenya's first multiparty elections. The human rights organization Africa Watch came to the conclusion that the government had sponsored the tribal clashes in the valley to prove that political pluralism was incompatible with the country's history of ethnic rivalry.

Opposition ploy?

For its part, KANU is placing the blame for the violence squarely on the opposition, pointing out that no government in its right mind would fritter away the estimated $450 million the tourist industry brings into the country annually for the sake of a couple of thousand votes. The opposition, KANU has argued, has every interest in showing Kenyans that the government is weak and incapable of protecting even its most vital interests.

In the lime-laden dust shrouding the old town in Mombasa, vendors selling beaded necklaces blame it all on the Digos, Muslims belonging to the largest tribe along the coast. The Digos supposedly resent "up-country" people, who moved to Mombasa to profit from the booming tourism industry and are attacking the more prosperous interlopers.

"The Digos, who have always lived here, have been either chased away or forced to become squatters on their own land. Now they want it back," Edmund Kwena, Mombasa bureau chief for The Nation, Kenya's leading daily, explains.

Leaflets distributed after the attack on the Likoni police station did indeed raise the issue of land ownership, stating that the time had come for local people to reclaim what was originally theirs.

Yet unlike all other electoral districts along the coast, Likoni harbors a clearly anti-KANU majority. In the 1992 elections, the area was the only one where the opposition won outright.

"There is no doubt in my mind that KANU paid off a few locals to attack the police station and provoke panic," says Mr. Kwena, "Up to 100,000 people who would have voted for the opposition have already left. What happened next is unclear."

Sitting in one of Mombasa's few air-conditioned offices, Edgar Francula, the head of the Kenya branch of Touristick Union International, Europe's largest tour operator, shakes his head in baffled consternation. He has watched arrivals at beach hotels drop by 50 percent and bookings for the high season beginning in December slow to a trickle.

"I met with the president," he whispers, "I told him he had to put out a statement saying there was nothing to worry about, assuring that the government would guarantee security for all tourists along the coast." The statement never came. "That's when I started thinking it was the government's doing. The least they could do was to put out a statement," says another tour operator in Mombasa.

Holy war?

Ralph Winter, a white Kenyan who grew up on the coast has a different theory. "All I know is that all the troubles started after Sheik Balala came back," he says.

Expelled in 1994 for having threatened to wage a holy war against the government, Khalid Balala, the leader of the unregistered Islamic Party of Kenya, slipped back into Mombasa with help from a British journalist just days before the attack in Likoni. The huge following he has among the Digos has prompted some to speculate he may have had a part in the violence. Mr. Balala also recently told a BBC reporter that Mombasa's streets needed to be "washed with blood."

Military action?

"I don't think Balala has anything to do with this. I think it's the Navy," objects the owner of an exclusive beach resort in Lamu, near Mombasa. "Navy people in Mombasa hate the police in Likoni because they are always running useless checks on them.... The raid on the police station was the work of professionals who knew exactly what they were doing. The rest is random violence, a bit of thuggery, and a lot of personal scores being settled," he adds.

And this is the one impression all conspiracy theorists seem to share: that while the Aug. 13 violence in Likoni was engineered, what followed was utterly unforeseen. "Things obviously slipped out of control. If the government was behind the violence, it was probably horrified to see tourists pack up and leave especially since the attackers had gone to great lengths to make sure no tourist would be touched," says Munaf, a young Indian trained in hotel management.

Tourists have indeed been left to sunbathe in peace. Prior to an arson attack against a club near Diani Beach last month, tourists were actually escorted out of the premises and put on a cab. "Whoever it was, and I believe things like these just don't happen on their own, must be cursing at the result," says Mr. Francula. "It's going to take a long time before tourists start coming back."

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