Kenya's slums: new political battleground

Tribal fighting continued this weekend over high rents.

Thousands of residents here streamed out of the Kibera slum this weekend, hauling their gerry cans, bed frames, and cooking utensils as they escaped violent clashes that have claimed a reported 15 lives so far.

Francis Ayuya, waiting for a hired wheelbarrow to help him move his belongings to a different slum across town, says that he is not coming back. "This is only the beginning of bad days to come," he says. "I don't want to stay and see more."

The clashes in Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum with half a million inhabitants - and just four miles from downtown - began escalating last month and have been gathering momentum ever since. Ostensibly just a dispute between landlords and tenants over rent, the violence serves as a snapshot of much that is wrong with Kenya today. The problems range from poverty to intractable ethnic tensions - and the divisive behavior of the politicians who take advantage of these issues.

President Daniel arap Moi sparked the clashes when he visited Kibera at the end of October and suggested that some landlords were oppressing the poor with unreasonably high rents.

In Kibera, a history of tensions runs between the landlords and tenants. Mr. Moi's comments were dynamite in a camp where most landlords are from the Nubian tribe (a predominantly Muslim group originally from Sudan), and the tenants come from the Luo (a large tribe from Western Kenya).

Within days, tenants refused to pay their rents and scuffles broke out. Last week, energy minister Raila Odinga, a senior minister and a Luo, visited the slum to repeat Moi's remarks. The next day Luos and Nubians faced off, rampaging through the dusty footpaths while wielding, machetes, rocks, chairs, and flower pots.

Moi's comments are generally seen here as a clumsy attempt to secure popularity among the Luo. After 23 years in power, the president is being forced to step down next year by the Constitution.

Before he leaves power, however, Moi wants to ensure the success of his Kenyan African National Union (KANU) party, and as such, his own place in history and future standing. In a country where voting is still done, for the most part, along tribal lines, Moi - a member of the small Kalanjin tribe - knows he must form enough alliances with other tribes to bring in the necessary votes.

"Moi wants to cling onto power, hence his strategy is to try and play one group against another. In Kibera, he is siding with the Luo, the second largest tribe after the Kikuyu, in an aim to shore up his power, " says Joseph Ayee, head of the University of Ghana's political science department. "...Moi also knows that his position is tenuous because his government is accused of massive corruption.... So this is also about diverting attention from the real problems facing Kenya and instead hitting away on the 'tribal nerve.' "

This is not the first time Moi has tried such divisive tactics. His supporters were accused of inciting tribal clashes during the last two election campaigns, in 1992 and 1997. Hundreds of people died and thousands were displaced.

According to the United Nations, the flow of rural people looking for work in the cities in Africa is happening at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world. Half of Nairobi's 2.5 million population is estimated to live in unofficial slums near the city.

In Kibera, as many as 1,200 people may live on 2.5 acres. It is often said that there are more churches than toilets in the slum, with 400 people confined to share one outhouse considered normal. Rents range from 300 to 2000 Kenyan shillings a month (US$4 to 25), but during the current recession, even this is becoming difficult.

"The people laying their lives on the line in the rent battle are already the poorest of the poor. Why complicate their lives further with political rhetoric?" Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper wrote in an editorial.

"I don't care about leaving Kibera," says Mr. Ayuya, as he gathers a broken chair, blankets, and a framed picture of his children and loads them on a wheelbarrow. "It is all the same. I had nothing in Kibera, and I will have nothing in Kangeme (the slum to which he is moving)..., but at least I have less chance of being killed there." Ayuya says he plans to vote for KANU in the next elections "because Raila (Odinga) is there, and Raila will work for us."

Odinga, meanwhile, brushed off the clashes and his and Moi's role in them, saying the violence had been simply part of a "cycle" of tension between competing interest groups. "These events will soon blow over," he said.

Others, however, are not so sure. John Githongo, head of the local chapter of the NGO Transparency International, argues that Moi and Odinga's careless speech may end up costing more lives. "The president's populist gimmick seems to have gone horribly wrong," says Mr. Githongo. "He simply wanted to get some support out of the Luo. Now we can't say where it will lead."

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