Ethnic Violence Troubles Kenya
Political change seen as opening door to intertribal disputes
NYANZA PROVINCE, WESTERN KENYA — A HEAVY rain beats down on the mud-walled farmhouse as Tobias, a member of the Luo tribe, produces a three-foot, metal-tipped arrow. He says it is the one that killed his father the day before when several hundred Nandi tribesmen swooped down steep hills and across the sugar cane and corn fields that mark the traditional "boundary" between the two tribes.
"We could not attack them because their number was so big," says Tobias (whose last name is withheld for his protection).
After months of tribal clashes in the western regions, Kenya has discovered that tribal relations can be inflamed quickly during periods of political uncertainty.
Kenyan clergy, western diplomats, and others are now urging government and opposition leaders to cooperate in an effort to avoid further bloodshed. The lesson, it seems, is that political change cannot be rushed.
"We have been trying to dismantle a one-party system in too short a period," says Calestous Juma, head of the African Center for Technology Studies.
"People feel the authority of the state, and of President [Daniel arap] Moi, is gone, so we can go in and loot," says Mr. Juma, a neutral political analyst.
Normally the Nandis, who are part of the cluster of tribes known as Kalenjin, get along fairly well with their neighbors, such as the Luo and Luhya. But these are not normal political times.
On Dec. 3, Kenyan President Moi, a Kalenjin, acting under strong international and domestic pressure, agreed to allow multiparty politics to replace his one-party, authoritarian rule. Moi has set no date for the election, which under the Constitution must be held by March 1993.
As multiparty politics dawned on Kenyan officials, some of them began warning of tribal upheavals. Some Kalenjins in the government party, the Kenya African National Union, even warned non-Kalenjins and opposition parties to stay out of their territory.
Shortly after that, in late 1991, attacks by Nandis against neighboring Luos and Luhyas began.
Luos and Luhyas in western Kenya say police, many of them Kalenjin, did little to stop the violence or tribal threats.
"The police were only telling us that if we had been warned by Kalenjin to leave an area, we should leave," says a Luhya school teacher, speaking on condition of anonymity. She says she was warned in early March, along with other non-Kalenjins, to abandon an apartment complex in Kapsabet, a mostly Nandi town.
In mid-March, Moi called for an end to the tribal fighting, and the government announced it had arrested about 700 people suspected of instigating the violence.
Asked why the government waited until so long to intervene, James Simani, spokesman for the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said: "Nobody thought these things would come to what they did come to. Everybody was taken by surprise. We're not blaming anybody."
But the Roman Catholic church in Kenya, long critical of the government, blames the Moi administration for the violence. In a statement released March 22, and signed by all 18 Catholic bishops, the church said: "It is difficult for the government to exonerate itself from the responsibility of these violent clashes."
The bishops called on the government to arrest those responsible and "to accept the fact that Kenya today is a multiparty state.... Political dissent and constructive criticism should not be labeled as seditious and subversive opposition."
Juma, the political analyst, sees several lessons from the string of tribal clashes, including the need for nonpartisan institutions that can play a political advisory role to all sides in the months ahead.
He also suggests the government should establish an impartial land commission to hear grievances related to land ownership. "Latent" grievances over land fueled some of the clashes between the Nandis and their neighbors, he says.
The potential for violence is far from over. Moi has promised to try to block a strike called for today and tomorrow by an opposition party, the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy, to protest political imprisonment and poor economic conditions. Meanwhile, some minor tribal clashes continue.
A United States official, however, hoping the worst of the violence is over, says: "People have been up to the brink, looked down, and want to come back."
That weariness is evident in the tiny living room of Tobias's home. "I don't know how I'm going to feed my six kids," his mother says. "My husband was responsible for everything in my home."