The curse of tribal rivalry

One month on, and large parts of Kenya
still burn. Kofi Annan- brokered talks have started in Nairobi, bringing together the government and
the opposition, with a team of hard-bargainers on both sides. Kenyans are
confident, but realistic. The African Union has Kenya high on its agenda, though
cynics say little can be expected apart from some knuckle-rapping, since many
African heads have similarly “rigged” their positions.

 The US
top envoy to Africa has used the term “ethnic cleansing” to refer to the attempted
expulsion of the Kikuyus from the Rift Valley and western Uganda. Others
are waiting in the wings to call it “genocide”. Hopefully, they won’t get a

But ethnic motives are undeniable.
The refugees who have streamed across the border into Uganda -- official
figures are 7,000, although others are staying with relatives and friends-- are
Kikuyus almost to a man. They are the ones targeted, who were burned alive in
the Eldoret church, whose farm-houses have been torched, and crops laid waste.
Some have married into other tribes, but the killer gangs are sometimes merciless
to them, too.

Tribal differences have been
exacerbated over time, with politicians using them to create divisions, and win
votes and support. This has always happened around election time. Cases are not
uncommon in the Rift Valley of ethnic leaders telling voters that the
environment of their area has to be “cleansed”; and everyone knows what the
terminology means. Foreign observers find it strange that people who have lived
cheek by jowl for 30 or 40 years suddenly turn on each other, as the result of
an election.

In Africa
elections are not taken lightly; voters keep vigil at polling-stations. The
leader and his lieutenants of the next five or six years will have a definite
impact on a person’s life, depending which ethnic group he belongs to, or which
part of the country he lives. Voters in developed countries will be less
affected by such details; in Africa they can
be life or death, prosperity or misery. The electorate vote for leaders, for
individuals, not for ideology, or parties, except insofar as these represent
the leader they choose.

Yet Kenya has been known for its
tolerance and its inter-ethnic harmony. Masai warriors took Kikuyu wives
generations back; Luos and Luhyas fight on the sports pitch, but have no
problem inter-marrying; a few Asians and whites have also married Kenyans. For
the younger generation intermarriage is not uncommon, even between Kikuyus and
Luos, and is no big deal. Youth in the urban estates mix easily, and are hardly
aware of their ethnic origins. People have started to think of themselves first
as Kenyans, but recent events have shown how an ethnic spark can start a

When push comes to shove, ethnicity
asserts itself above everything else, even religious belief, in most cases.
Colonial rule took pride in its policy of “divide and rule”; tribal groups were
kept in their areas, and served the colonial administration in what they were
either good at, or needed for. Some were trained in the police and armed forces,
because of their legendary, and often real, bravery; others would make good
civil servants, eventually, and were drafted into minor administrative
positions; others made good cooks and house servants, or night-watchmen; while
others were needed to pick tea. Those lucky enough to be admitted to the best
national schools met people from other tribes for the first time. This
interaction and cultural exchange was important for the country’s future, and
was encouraged for some years, until some groups seemed far ahead of the
others. Then affirmative action was applied, restricting student mobility
across provinces, and another natural avenue of ethnic integration was blocked.

But it is the violence and wanton destruction
that has alarmed most people, and the breakdown of law and order in many areas.
Kenya has access to the sea,
and the port of Mombasa
is the entry point for goods destined for much of the interior of equatorial
Africa: Uganda, southern Sudan, Rwanda,
and eastern Congo.
The only trunk road passes through the Rift Valley. Ugandan truck-drivers reach
home with frightening stories, since the Kenyan regular police are unable to
cope, not having been trained for such emergencies. Some drivers are lucky to
join a convoy. Those who aren’t will have their trucks burnt, and will be lucky
to escape with their lives. The reason? Museveni, the Ugandan president, was
the first to congratulate Kibaki when the election result was announced – he is
still among the very few to do so -- and rumours of Ugandan soldiers being
transported into Kenya
to shoot protesters spread like wild-fire.

On-line news stations have outdone
each other in reporting the violence and mayhem.

Youths wielding enormous machetes,
high on drugs, crowding a makeshift road-block or on the rampage through slum
alleyways are enough to make Rambo quail. Deeper questions arise: who is
financing these operations? Who bought the machetes, and who ferries the gangs
into trouble spots? Where do they get petrol bombs from? Who feeds the rioters,
and who is paying them? Who continues to incite them, because at a given moment
everything will suddenly stop – and after some time, start up again? Who issues
the commands? Rumours proliferate, because in developed countries it is never
easy to get at the real truths, particularly in Kenya which has a history of political
thuggery, and assassinations, none of which has been satisfactorily explained.

But there are signs of hope. Dialogue
has started; attitudes are softening, even if slightly. One Opposition MP from
western Kenya,
Cyrus Jirongo, has been going around his constituency on a bicycle, persuading
youth, and other potential trouble-makers, not to incite and kill. His area,
Lugari, has had the lowest rate of fatalities. In another surprise move, one of
the hard-liner Opposition leaders, considered the most opposed to dialogue,
visited victims of the violence in the Eldoret university and referral
hospital, and told the spoilers to back off, and leave the Kikuyus in peace.

A Kikuyu friend of mine is happily married
to a Luo. When his mother died, his father adopted two Rwandese children
orphaned in the genocide. The future of Africa
will be built on relationships like this.

Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, in Uganda.


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