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How can Kenya avoid ethnic war?

Former UN chief Kofi Annan launched formal peace talks Tuesday as a fresh round of reprisal killings swept the country.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / January 30, 2008

Charred: Nelly Chepchumba (l.) inspected the remains of her school last week after it was burned down in ethnic violence that has now claimed more than 850 lives.

Ben Curtis/AP

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Athi River, Kenya

Amid the postelection violence that has rocked Kenya, the town of Athi River has been an oasis of calm. Kikuyus, Luos, and other ethnic groups work together, determined not to let the outside chaos come in.

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The secret to Athi River's peace, says restaurant owner Simon Kilonzo Kyatha, is that the majority of the population are Kikuyus and Kambas, two ethnic groups that supported the reelection of President Mwai Kibaki. Thanks to safety in numbers, they can avoid the fate of their tribesmen who are being killed or displaced in many other parts of Kenya.

It is peace – backed up by threat. And as a new wave of reprisal attacks begins across the country– more than 150 people were killed in the past few days – Kenya may be at the brink of a spiral of violence unless peace talks produce results soon.

"We don't want our place to be affected by the people of Kibera and Mathare," says Mr. Kyatha, referring to two of Nairobi's most strife-ridden slums. "If a Luo or a Kalenjin comes back here to stir up trouble, we will skin him alive. Let them fight there, but not here."

This scenario – in which ethnic communities keep the peace by separately defending their interests – may bring temporary calm, but some observers worry that it could spell the end of Kenya as a stable, multiethnic nation. Kenyans who once spoke of their nation as a peaceful democracy now speak of the country's Balkanization. As several international efforts to mediate this crisis have failed, Kenyans now realize that to avoid the fate of other African disaster zones, politicians, civil activists, and international mediators must move fast to build trust and find common ground.

"This crisis can be an opportunity," says Waiganjo Kamotho, a Nairobi attorney and political commentator, "because it forces us as a country to resolve problems we have refused, and the government has refused, to consider as priorities."

Long-hidden ethnic tensions ignited

Kenya hid its problems from the world very well. Usually the top African destination for tourists, Kenya cultivated an image abroad of moderate politics and ethnic tolerance. Having a one-party state run by strongman President Daniel arap Moi from 1978 to 2002 contributed to this sense of peacefulness, since dissent and protest were illegal and quickly swept out of public sight.

Today, Kenya's two top political figures – President Mwai Kibaki and populist opposition leader Raila Odinga – both continue to claim to have won the Dec. 27 presidential elections. Their intransigence has helped ignite bitter ethnic clashes that have left more than 850 people dead since the vote. Even so, a large and growing chorus of Kenyan and international experts agrees that Kenya's road map to peace is both clear and achievable.

"We don't expect the deal to come in one week," says François Grignon, Africa director for the International Crisis Group. "What we do expect is a breakthrough to allow a process to address the long-term issues."

The risks of a prolonged impasse were made plain Tuesday when an opposition parliamentarian was gunned down outside his home in Nairobi in what Mr. Odinga called a "planned political assassination." Ethnic fighting quickly broke out in slums throughout the capital as news of the killing spread. The unrest came as police and military forces tried to quell a fresh wave of reprisal killings in Rift Valley towns where the president's ethnic group, the Kikuyus, are dominant.

International mediation efforts run into snags