Conspiracy theories rife in wake of Kenya bomb blasts

Kenya analysts say Sunday's Kenya bomb blasts are an attempt to rile the political environment ahead of a referendum on a new draft constitution. Conspiracy theories abound.

By , Correspondent

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    General Service Unit paramilitary personnel search the area for clues at Uhuru Park, Nairobi, Kenya, Monday. Two bomb blasts ripped through the park in Kenya's capital during a packed political rally late Sunday, killing six people and injured more than 100.
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The first salvoes appear to have been fired in a campaign to intimidate Kenyans from voting on a new constitution.

Two explosions at a church rally Sunday killed six people and injured more than 100, leaving police officers scouring central Nairobi’s Uhuru Park on Monday for clues. No one has claimed responsibility for the Kenya bomb blasts, but there were quick allegations and conspiracies bordering on the bizarre.

Constitutional reform supporters blamed opponents; opponents blamed supporters; church leaders blamed the government; a government minister blamed the president and prime minister; and analysts blamed those who most want to keep the status quo.

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“I suspect instead that this is an agent provocateur action designed to set up a scenario where people might be afraid to vote. It was clearly not intended to be a massacre. It’s a scare tactic,” says Mwalimu Mati, director of anti-corruption watchdog Mars Group Kenya.

The concern is that Sunday’s attack will not be the last. “Of course there can be more,” adds Mr. Mati.

Christian church leaders, who had organized the rally to bolster opposition to a new constitution that they say eases laws on abortion and Islamic courts, were among the first to point fingers.

"Having been informed over and over that the passage of the new constitution during the referendum is a government project, we are left in no doubt that the government, either directly or indirectly, had a hand in this attack,” the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) said in a statement with 14 other church organizations.

“Who else in this country holds explosive devices?"

Was it the Yes's or the No's?

It was the 'Yes' campaign who perpetrated the attacks, trying to bully the constitution’s opponents from voting, said Higher Education Minister William Ruto, the de facto torch-bearer of opposition to the draft.

“This is a sign some people want to force the constitution on Kenyans,” he told reporters as he toured Uhuru Park on Monday, apparently referring to President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, rivals during the 2007 national elections but united now in support for the new draft.

Mr. Ruto has fallen out with Mr. Odinga, a close ally during the 2007 elections. Ruto now appears set on leading the 'No' team in a bid to gather its supporters around him ahead of a bid for the presidency in 2012.

Considering Ruto's political aims, it's perhaps no surprise that he has also been accused of having a hand in the attacks. Anyang Nyong’o, leader of the 'Yes' campaign, has suggested that Ruto's group bombed their own rally to "attract sympathy." Outlandish as it may seem, this theory had Facebook, Twitter, and Kenyan blogs humming through Monday.

'Someone is trying to create a crisis'

Because the church organizations oppose the draft constitution, and also because Ruto appears to be manipulating opposition to the upcoming referendum as a way of bolstering his own 2012 candidacy, all the sudden finger-pointing is being met with a dose of skepticism.

“Suggestions that the government is behind the bombing of its own people, when their side is so far ahead in terms of referendum support, border on desperation,” says Hassan Omar Hassan, vice-chair of the Kenya National Human Rights Commission.

Opinion polls have so far found that 58 percent of Kenyans support the new constitution, leaving those opposed struggling to find new ways of winning their argument with voters.

“Clearly someone was out deliberately to escalate tensions, to try to create a crisis, so that the environment for a peaceful referendum is not there," says Mr. Hassan.

“I’m sure we will find that they will fail.”

But some believe that Sunday's attacks could be a turning point. “If all goes according to plan the bombings should turn the tide of the entire campaign and win lots of sympathy for the 'No' brigade, probably enough to enable them to emerge victorious after August 4,” one blogger wrote on Mashada.com.

The question to ask, perhaps, is who benefits from attempting to keep the voters from the polls on August 4.

New constitution will upend the status quo

The draft before the voters would restrict sweeping presidential powers, strengthen the courts system, and overhaul policies seen as protecting powerful politicians alleged to have stolen vast tracts of land. So, a firm approval for the constitution, which would be enacted within a week of a 'Yes' result, would immediately begin the work of undoing decades of privilege and loot which has flowed to Kenya’s leaders.

This cuts across all sides in the debate, as there are few senior Kenyan politicians who have not had to defend themselves at some point against allegations of corruption or looting from the state.

If the constitution passes, land reform policies will be passed through Parliament, which will restrict the total area of property any one person can hold. And idle land must be seized by the state.

“Clearly those with the greatest vested interest in keeping the status quo are the guys who have benefited most from that status quo over the years,” says one European diplomat in Nairobi.

“So there’s been lots of chatter today that these bombs were planted on behalf of the elite, on both sides of the argument, to try scupper the whole thing under the provisos of a national security crisis or whatever.”

This theory is not so farfetched, says Mr. Mati of the Mars Group Kenya. “There are all manner of people who would want to see [the referendum] stopped,” he says.

Not a tribal dispute

Unlike the last constitutional referendum, in 2005, there is little sense of Kenya splitting down the middle according to tribe. Both the 'Yes' and 'No' camps draw support at leadership and grassroots levels from across Kenya’s 42 ethnic groups.

The Church congregations gathered for Sunday’s rally, and in pews the length of this majority-Christian nation, are a tribal polyglot.

Even Higher Education Minister William Ruto’s community, the Kalenjin, are far from united behind his urgent insistence that the constitution be shot down.

Kenyan history has shown, however, that entrenched interests with access to money are still able to buy loyalties and sow division whenever the country goes to the polls. Election violence in 2007 left 1,500 dead and 300,000 displaced.

Such volatility was recognized by US Vice President Joe Biden, who visited Nairobi last week and expressed America's support for the new constitution.

"As you prepare to write a new history for your nation, resist those who try to divide you based on ethnicity or religion or region – and above all, fear, it is a tool as old as mankind, and it's been used with great effect in this country in the past," Mr. Biden said.

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