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How Kenya came undone

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

(Page 2 of 3)

"The fact that this violence was going to happen wasn't a surprise," says Waiganjo Kamotho, an attorney and political observer in Nairobi. "For months out in the Rift Valley, we've been hearing people saying "nyorosha," which means, 'We're going to straighten you up, put you in your place.' "

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In the election, voters cast ballots along ethnic lines. Kibaki's support came from Kikuyus. Mr. Odinga, a Luo, drew mainly from his Luo tribe, but a coalition of politicians from smaller ethnic groups added to his base.

For most Kenyans, this tribal fight is not just about the presidency, but land – the ultimate source of wealth in a mainly agricultural society. And the Rift Valley – Kenya's bread basket – is the main battlefield, as small "indigenous" armies with bows, arrows, and machetes march to expel the Kikuyu "newcomers."

"In Kenya, the state has a lot of ability to allocate land, which is a major source of wealth," says Jacqueline Klopp, an Africa expert at Columbia University in New York. Referring to past presidents Kenyatta, a Kikuyu; Mr. Moi, a Kalenjin; and Kibaki, a Kikuyu; she adds, "Kenyatta and Moi did it. Kibaki was a little better, but all allocate land and use it for political patronage."

Under strong-arm leaders such as Kenyatta and Moi – both of whom controlled all branches of government and stifled the media – this cozy relationship between presidents and their tribes caused little violence. Kikuyus bought land in the ancestral areas of the Kalenjins, the Maasais, the Luos, and other tribes, set up trading businesses and prospered. But when Moi bowed to pressure to allow a multiparty system, opposition politicians used the success of the Kikuyu "settlers" against them. In Kalenjin areas, Kalenjin politicians built up their own base of support by feeding resentment toward Kikuyus, calling them "settlers" who had used their connections to the government to "steal" their ancestral lands.

Some politicians used radio broadcasts to spread hatred against Kikuyus, and proclaimed that the time had come to remove the "weeds" from their lands.

Stoked with hate, the ethnic clashes began in earnest, particularly in the areas where Kikuyus had settled in the Rift Valley. Between the elections of 1992 and 1997, more than 2,000 Kenyans were killed and more than 300,000 Kenyans were displaced, most of them Kikuyus.

"Kikuyus are the business community and they are happy when things are not shaken," says Ms. Kabeberi, herself a Kikuyu. "The Luos are like the Zulu community in South Africa. They will go to war for any reason. So you have to be sure you don't give them a reason."

The 'haves' against the 'have-nots'

Politicians have used the belief that Kikuyus control the economy as a battle cry, pitting Kikuyus as the perpetual "haves" against the Luos, Kalenjins, and other tribes as the perpetual "have-nots." Odinga has primed those feelings with a call for majimbo which, for many non-Kikuyus, means each tribe should return to its own ancestral land.

"The Kikuyus are greedy," says a Luo security guard named Innocent. "Who owns all the big businesses? Kikuyus. Who owns all the big farms? Kikuyus. And who are all the top leaders in Kibaki's government? Kikuyus. So when they go into our land and take our property, people are going to push back. It's our turn."

Kikuyus view majimbo as a danger to the future of the country. "The Luos are lazy," says one Kikuyu taxi driver named Johnson. "They don't invest. They don't create. They don't know how to run a business. And now look at the violence they are creating. Do you think these people should be running this country?"