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How Kenya came undone

Long-simmering ethnic tensions threaten to tear apart East Africa's most stable, prosperous country.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / January 29, 2008

Doused: A man threw water on a burning house last week in Eldoret, Kenya. It's part of ethnic violence that killed more than 750 and displaced 250,000 since a disputed Dec. 27 vote.

Ben Curtis/AP

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Nakuru, Kenya

They came at night by the hundreds, shooting villagers with arrows and attacking them with knives, hatchets, and farm tools. The killings were a warning to the rest of the village: Leave now, or die.

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"These people were our neighbors, I knew them, but what I have seen is something that I cannot explain," says Julia Muthoni, an elderly widow who found refuge in the city of Nakuru. "The problem is that we Kikuyus are being targeted because we voted for the reelection of President Mwai Kibaki. Even before the election, they were threatening us saying that whether Kibaki wins or not, Kikuyus are going to be evicted."

Just a few weeks ago, Kenya remained an oasis of stability surrounded by nations at war. The tourist-friendly country is East Africa's economic engine, a hub for global trade, and a base for international humanitarian work. It has been a been a model of what other African countries could achieve if they worked hard, developed their economies, and embraced free democracy. So the explosion of violence that has left more than 750 people dead – including more than 100 in the past few days – and forced a quarter-million to flee their homes since the disputed Dec. 27 presidential election came as a shock to many. But under the placid surface, Kenya boils with deep ethnic resentment that some observers say has been ignored for too long.

"The matchbox was lit [by the vote], but the fuel was already there," says Njeri Kabeberi, a political analyst and head of the Center for Multiparty Democracy in Nairobi. "There has always been ethnic tension within Kenyan society that has never truly been removed or dealt with."

While the most recent spark for the violence was the deeply flawed elections in which Mr. Kibaki was declared president, the underlying source of the country's tension is a perception that one ethnic group – Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe – has unfairly benefited from the nation's wealth solely because of its proximity to people in power. Resentment between Kenya's ethnic communities is chronic, observers say, but mistrust of Kikuyus has been building ever since Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, took power after independence from Britain in 1963.

Under Mr. Kenyatta – himself a Kikuyu – Kikuyus rose to high positions in government, took over major firms, and bought much of the farm land sold off by departing white settlers in the fertile Rift Valley. But it took a sense of betrayal to produce the violence of today, experts say. In 2002, a remarkably broad coalition of opposition leaders from different ethnic groups overthrew the 24-year dictatorship of President Daniel arap Moi. The new government signed a memorandum of understanding to share power.

But in 2003, Kibaki revoked that agreement and went back to the old habit of filling government positions – including, crucially, the Electoral Commission of Kenya – with personal allies and members of his own ethnic group, the Kikuyus. Furious at what they considered a betrayal, and cut off from access to power, former allies such as populist opposition leader Raila Odinga – a member of the Luo ethnic group who claims that he won the Dec. 27 vote – broke from the government and started a campaign for "majimbo," Swahili for self-rule, and resistance to Kikuyu domination.