What's the real source of Kenya's violence?

Lee Sustar looks at the dynamics behind the political violence in Kenya.

WITH HUNDREDS of people killed in ethnic and police violence and some 250,000 displaced from their homes, the rivals in Kenya's disputed presidential elections were reportedly planning a meeting to try to end the bloodshed.

Pressure for a compromise came from the U.S. and Britain, which depend on the country of 37 million as a base for economic, political and, more recently, military operations in East Africa. With highways blocked and many truck drivers fearful of crossing the most violent territory, food and fuel are in short supply not only in Kenya, but in neighboring Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi as well.

The blatantly rigged election victory by President Mwai Kibaki in a December 27 vote triggered nationwide violence that broke down largely along ethnic lines. Targeted in much of the violence were members of Kibaki's Kikuyu group. While only 22 percent of Kenya's population is Kikuyu, they hold most top government positions under Kibaki.

The violence has been explained in the mainstream media as "tribal" warfare that inexplicably erupted in what had been one of Africa's most "stable" countries. In fact, violence has long been central to Kenyan politics, beginning under brutal colonial rule that one author described as "Britain's Gulag," a reference to Joseph Stalin's prison camps in Russia.

The British dominated Kenya by initially promoting a Kikuyu elite, but then repressed the majority of the Kikuyu brutally during the so-called Mau Mau nationalist rebellion of the 1950s, prior to Kenya's independence in 1963.

State violence was also central under former president Daniel Arap Moi, who ran a corrupt one-party state from 1978 until 1992. He lasted another decade in office under "democratic" rule before being eased out under pressure from Britain and the U.S., making way for the election of Kibaki, who had served for a time as vice president.

Kibaki, an economist with a reputation as a liberal reformer, continued the same corrupt practices and political cronyism of the Moi years, simply changing the recipients of state largess.

A tiny minority of Kikuyu with government connections benefited from the economic boom of recent years, which was driven by a rise in the price of food and raw materials as well as tourism. Significantly, Moi--who hasn't been prosecuted for corruption--endorsed Kibaki for re-election.

The resulting class polarization--along with an increase in police violence in the name of fighting gangs in the slums--set the stage for the explosion of political violence. The Kikuyu, who are disproportionately represented in business and commercial life, became the scapegoats for class inequality.

"Essentially, it is a matter of rich versus poor," said a global justice activist. "But people here are encouraged by the political elites to channel their frustrations with the very unbalanced capitalist system into group identification that will reinforce reliable voting blocs."

Thus, while Kibaki appealed to the Kikuyu, his challenger, Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), blended a populist appeal with anti-Kikuyu sentiment and made appeals for ethnic solidarity to his own Luo group.

The result was that anger over Kibaki's stolen election quickly turned into violence against the Kikuyu, including the small traders in the informal economy in Nairobi's Kibera slum, where an estimated 600,000 live in tin and cardboard shacks.

The ethnic violence also swept Mombasa, with centers of nightlife looted and destroyed in the coastal city that is popular with tourists and therefore crucial to the Kenyan economy. The worst violence took place the Rift Valley to the west, where the Kikuyu are a small minority and have historically had tensions with other ethnic groups over land.

After the election, tens of thousands of Kikuyu saw their homes destroyed as members of the Kalenjin group attacked them with machetes. An estimated 50 people were burned alive in a church.

Many of the killings, however, also took place at the hands of police and other security forces, who repressed supporters of Odinga's ODM. Odinga called on his backers to mount a mass protest January 3, but heavy police repression prevented the demonstration from taking place.

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THE U.S. and Britain were taken by surprise by the violence. The U.S. State Department was initially ready to accept Kibaki's claim to victory, even though his win came because of a last-minute surge of votes. A Kibaki victory, moreover, was completely against the trend in parliamentary elections, which gave Odinga's ODM nearly half the seats and an effective majority.

Nevertheless, the U.S. and Britain were prepared to accept all this to keep Kibaki in office. His government had helped the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of neighboring Somalia last year by arresting supposed Islamist politicians among Somali war refugees. Some 17 native-born Kenyans have also been flown out of the country as part of the CIA "rendition" program into Ethiopia; another was sent to Guantánamo.

Kenya's Muslim community--about 10 percent of the population--is outraged by this, and Odinga's decision to court their votes seems to be another reason for the U.S. support for Kibaki.

Odinga, however, isn't the populist firebrand he appeared to be during the campaign. Son of the famous liberation fighter Odinga Odinga, Ralia Odinga is a former socialist who was educated in the former East Germany. He was a political prisoner under Moi for six years in the 1980s for supposedly taking part in a 1982 coup attempt.

In 2001, he went to work for his former jailer, Moi, serving as energy minister. In that post, he made lucrative oil industry connections, according to the Kenya Environmental & Political News blog. His family also acquired a state-owned molasses factory at that time. Since then, Odinga has been known for displaying his wealth.

Odinga and Kibaki formed a united front against Moi's chosen successor in the 2002 elections, reportedly with the expectation that Odinga would become prime minister. When the deal fell apart, Odinga resigned and led the opposition to a 2005 constitutional reform that would have extended Kibaki's presidential powers. That set the stage for the 2007 vote.

Now, widespread violence has exposed the ugly reality behind Kenyan "democracy."

"It is the Kenyan people who have lost in these elections," wrote Firoze Manji, a Kenyan and editor of the London-based Pambazuka e-mail newsletter on African politics. "It boils down to a fight over who has access to the honey pot that is the state...So the battle lines are reduced to which group of people are going to be chosen to fill their pockets--and citizens are left to decide perhaps that a few crumbs might fall off the table in their direction."