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Ethnic violence: Why Kenya is not another Rwanda

Africa Union Chairman John Kufuor is expected to arrive in Kenya Thursday for talks to calm ethnic tensions in the wake of Thursday's disputed presidential vote.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / January 3, 2008

Fuel: People line up to buy kerosene after days of riots in Nairobi, Kenya.

Noor Khamis/Reuters

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Nairobi, Kenya

The ethnic violence that has killed more than 300 people since last Thursday's disputed presidential election has come as a shock for many here in East Africa's most stable and prosperous country.

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It carries echoes of Rwanda's 1994 genocide in which more than 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered in 100 days and it is prompting a flurry of diplomatic activity.

While President Mwai Kibaki and his populist rival Raila Odinga were accusing one another of stoking the ethnic strife, Kenya suffered its worst outbreak of violence yet on Tuesday. An estimated 30 Kenyans of the Kikuyu ethnic group – many of them children – were burned alive after taking shelter from a mob in a church in the western town of Eldoret.

"If you look at what happened in Eldoret, it's genocidal," says Abdullah Ahmed Nasir, a political observer and former chair of the Law Society of Kenya. "It has echoes of Rwanda, and this could be the start of a wave of revenge. If people are killing Kikuyus because they are Kikuyus, then definitely it will spread elsewhere to other [ethnic] communities."

"The only way to stop this is for [Kibaki] and [Odinga] to agree on a way forward," Mr. Nasir adds. "If they can agree to an interim government, and then hold elections again in one year's time, then all this could stop."

But getting these two men to agree will take international pressure, Nasir adds. "If Kibaki is pushed to talk, and if the international community can put pressure on Raila, they can agree to meet, and move toward a solution."

In an apparent olive branch to Odinga, Kibaki invited all members of the new opposition-dominated parliament to a meeting Wednesday at State House in Nairobi. But no opposition MPs attended as Odinga demanded outside mediation.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Wednesday that Ghanaian President and African Union Chairman John Kufuor would go and would meet Kibaki and Odinga on Thursday.

Kibaki's tenuous hold on power took a shock Tuesday, as Kenya's chief election official, Samuel Kivuitu, admitted that he was "under pressure" to pronounce Kibaki the winner on Sunday, and that he did "not know whether Kibaki won the election."

"We are the culprits as a commission," Mr. Kivuitu told reporters Tuesday, after meeting with the 22 other members of the Electoral Commission of Kenya. "We have to leave it to an independent group to investigate what actually went wrong."

Kenya's ethnic groups

Kenya is lauded for staying peaceful since independence in 1963, while most of its neighbors have been fighting wars. But it is often criticized for failing to tackle ingrained tribalism.

Kenya has more than 40 ethnic groups, each with a strong identity.

The main groups are: Kikuyu (22 percent); Luhya (14 percent); Luo (13 percent); Kalenjin (12 percent); Kamba (11 percent), according to government statistics.

President Mwai Kibaki is a Kikuyu, the politically and economically dominant group since independence.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga is a Luo. His constituency includes the massive Kibera slum, where a large Luo population is fanatically behind him.

Former President Daniel arap Moi comes from the Kalenjin group that has produced most of Kenya's famous long-distance runners.

Source: Reuters AlertNet