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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.

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On Tuesday, chief European Union election observer Alexander Lambsdorff also delivered a blow to Kibaki's legitimacy as president, by announcing that he and his observer group noticed significant irregularities in the way in which the election results were tabulated by Kenya's election workers, and thus, had "doubts about the results."

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Echoes of Rwanda

The overtones of Rwanda's 1994 genocide are ominous, but Kenya's ethnic strife differs from that of Rwanda in crucial ways.

The Rwandan genocide had been planned well in advance. State radio had demonized the economically powerful Tutsi minority for years, and after the apparent assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimina, that same state radio urged Rwandan Hutus to kill Tutsis in large numbers.

Hutus were supplied with machetes to do the job, urged on by local officials – and even parish priests – to not rest until "the work was done."

Kenya's ethnic strife, by contrast, is being carried out on a much smaller scale by many different actors. Much of the violence is focused on the economically and politically dominant Kikuyu group, but the attacks lack the Rwandan genocide's organization and preparation, and there is no evidence that Kenyan officials are organizing it. To the contary, all TV and radio stations have been temporarily forbidden to broadcast live and all news is heavily censored for the time being.

The danger in Kenya, however, lies in the intransigence of the two main leaders, both of whom claim to be president after last week's vote.

Raila Odinga has called for his supporters to hold a mass rally on Thursday in Uhuru Park in the center of Nairobi. A similar rally was effectively shut down by Kenyan police and paramilitary forces, who closed all routes into the city, declared a city wide curfew, and announced shoot-to-kill orders for soldiers stationed around the slum neighborhood of Kibera, which forms Odinga's main support base.

In Kibera itself, residents predicted that the country would erupt into further violence if Odinga's rally is banned. "If people are not given the chance to go to Uhuru park to hear what Raila has to say, there will be a lot of fire in the country tomorrow," says Peter Obuto, a civil servant. But if they are allowed to gather, "when Raila tells the people to cool down, they will do it."

Prices skyrocketing

The streets of Kibera have become an obstacle course of charred cars and minivans. Prices for milk and bread have doubled, and cooking fuel is simply not to be found. "The food sold in Kibera comes from the Kikuyu people, and they are really helping us," says Mr. Obutu. "But because of the perception that the Kikuyus don't want to give up power, the Luos, Kalingens, Luhyas, Kissis, and Kambas are ganging up on them. And we, the common people, are suffering."

As Obuto speaks, a crowd gathers to talk to a visiting reporter. But within minutes, a gang armed with machetes walks up, and shouts at the crowd to disperse. "Disperse immediately, or we will burn that car," a man shouts in Swahili.

A few miles away, close to Uhuru Park, Father Francis gives advice to parishioners who are deeply troubled by the violence and looking for their church to lend its help for peace.

"It is not enough to kneel and pray," he says. "We tell parishioners that whatever they do, they must do something that will affect peace somehow."

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