Can Kenya stop violence after vote?

Government forces are cracking down on protesters in the wake of Thursday's controversial vote.

By , Staff writer

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    Crackdown: Police detained an opposition supporter Monday in Nairobi.
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    Opposition leader Raila Odinga rejected the results of the election.
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The thousand-odd protesters carried leafy branches – a standard totem of protest in Kenya – and returned to the slum of Kibera after being turned back, peacefully, by police.

It is a calm exception to the looting, shooting, and tear gas that have followed Kenya's most closely contested presidential election. It is also a sign that opposition discontent – peaceful or otherwise – over the announced victory of incumbent President Mwai Kibaki shows no sign of stopping.

"The international community knows exactly what has happened: Mr. Kibaki lost the election," says opposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga at a Monday press conference. "We will not accept what happened yesterday. It is important that this crisis be resolved peacefully, and we have urged our supporters around the country ... to resist acts of violence."

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If the Dec. 27 elections were a test of Kenyan democracy, as analysts said they would be, the past few days show Kenya heading for a failing grade.

Charges of rigging from both major parties, violent protests, and a spiral of ethnic violence – some of it prompted by racist cellphone text messages – have killed more than 120 Kenyans around the country.

"From an outside perspective, it looks like [this election] happened too fast," says Bradley Austin, an election expert at the International Foundation for Election Systems. "I don't think they had all the systems in place that they wanted. And then you add in 2 million additional voters [since the 2002 election], with such a high voter turnout, and you have what you have here."

Some neighborhoods, such as the Nairobi slum of Kibera, have been sealed off to prevent the spread of violence. Police in riot gear and paramilitary troops with ax handles have taken positions in key intersections, closing off sensitive areas with boulders and yellow tape.

Spasms of ethnic violence

In towns across Kenya, ethnic violence is breaking out, with members of Mr. Odinga's Luo community attacking Kikuyus in western parts of the country, and members of Mr. Kibaki's Kikuyu community attacking Luos in Central Province.

Police response to that violence has been swift, with reports of soldiers and paramilitary forces using live ammunition to clear away looters and protesters.

All Kenyan television broadcasts have been severely restricted, with bans on live broadcasts, and all other news items subject to government censorship. The government says this is necessary to prevent violence reminiscent of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. But without independent journalism, rumors are spreading like wildfire, and irresponsible or hateful statements gain power.

One cellphone text message making the rounds calls for violence against Kikuyus: "Let's wipe out the Mt. Kenya mafia," it reads, adding, "Kill 2, get 1 free."

Both campaigns have called for calm, and international observers have appealed to both sides to open lines of communication and come to a peaceful settlement. At the same time, election observers have begun to criticize the Dec. 27 elections as deeply flawed.

Observers allege fraud

"I myself have seen forms which have been changed and no one could tell me who had done the changes," said chief European Union election observer Alexander Lambsdorff. "Interestingly enough, all the changes favored the same candidate."

At their campaign headquarters, leaders from Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement Party (ODM) met to discuss their next move. A planned march into the city for an "alternative swearing-in ceremony" was squashed when police sealed off all routes to the planned venue: Uhuru Park.

"We want [Kibaki] to step down," said Odinga at a press conference on Monday. "He was not given the ballots by the majority of the people."

While Odinga himself appealed for calm, some ODM supporters say the violence is understandable.

"This is not a cocktail party," says one losing ODM parliament candidate, at ODM headquarters. "The little man is asserting his rights. He tried to do that in the legal way by casting his vote, but the state used its machinery to stop him. So now he is using the only voice he has left, street protest."

Hassan Omar Hassan, a spokesman for the Kenyan National Human Rights Commission, says that both sides need to take stock and realize that their political ambitions are costing innocent human lives. "I just hope that [Odinga] and Kibaki will restore calm and that they will acknowledge that the solution rests in both of them. They are putting people who are innocent into danger. This violence is now ethnically driven, and we don't want the country to descend into chaos."

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