Kenya’s rival groups gird for fresh violence
- Image: Tom Maruko, Flickr
As residents pin their hopes on talks to resolve the post-election crisis, eyewitnesses in Kenyan say that militias are re-arming themselves for fresh attacks.
By Daniel Auma in Nairobi for ISN Security Watch (25/02/08)
Kenya’s rival groups are arming themselves in preparation for organized ethnic violence as talks to end the country’s post-election imbroglio continue.
Across the country, reports of militia activity and village “defense armies” continuing to arm in anticipation of the outcome of the mediation efforts has alarmed most Kenyans.
Unlike the violence that erupted after the announcement of the presidential election results on 30 December, subsequent ethnic violence that left 1,000 people dead and 600,000 displaced was largely carried out by village militias in revenge attacks.
President Mwai Kibaki claims to have won the election over opposition candidate Raila Odinga, and hardliners from both sides are also claiming victory. The positions taken by all parties involved have made their supporters more than ever before willing and ready to battle it out. Kenyans have been pinning hopes on negotiations led by former UN chief Kofi Annan to help resolve the crisis.
In the Rift Valley, where opposition support is staunchest, witnesses told ISN Security Watch that young men were lining up along the dusty roadsides, marching and warming up for possible attacks.
Kibaki’s supporters are allegedly being protected by the state, and witnesses say the notorious killer gangs, the Mungiki, which gained fame in 2007 for carrying out a series of beheadings targeting mainly lower-cadre government officials, has been fully armed.
In Nairobi, police raided homes in the Korogocho slums last week to flush out hundreds of people suspected to have illegally occupied residences whose owners had fled the violence. “The police came to our homes last week at night. It was a real battle. They came along with members of the Mungiki,” a resident told ISN Security Watch.
Government, opposition deny re-arming report
Residents of a neighborhood in Nairobi say various ethnic communities have been holding nightly meetings in preparation for possible violent confrontations.
The militia arming came as the International Crisis Group (ICG) warned in a report last week that militias have been gearing up for fresh attacks in various parts of the country.
“Calm has partly returned but the situation remains highly volatile and serious obstacles remain,” the Brussels-based group said in its report released 20 February.
Kenya’s main opposition, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), and its rival Party of National Unity (PNU) are negotiating a political settlement, but the re-emergence of militia groups could plague Kenya for years to come, the report noted.
“Kenya has been in its worst political crisis since independence. The current uneasy calm in Kenya should not be misunderstood as a return to normalcy,” the ICG cautioned.
Kenya’s government and the main opposition have dismissed the ICG report as non-factual and “lacking basis” but agree that some lingering criminal elements may still be out there after the killing spree that left 1,000 people dead.
“The report is not factual at all and has no foundation. There could be some remnants of the criminal gangs who are trying to wage ethnic tensions but I don’t think we have a hand in it,” Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula told ISN Security Watch.
“I believe the report is exaggerated, but if it isn’t, the government is capable of dealing with the militia,” Wetangula added.
Pro-opposition gangs from the local Kalenjin community targeted members of Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe in Rift Valley. Thousands of homes were burned and hundreds of people were killed, most hacked by machetes or shot by poisoned arrows.
Annan, who is spearheading negotiations for a political settlement, has nudged ODM and PNU hardliners to control their supporters.
Kenya is a platform for relief operations in Somalia and Sudan, a haven for many refugees from the region and a vital trade hub. The international community has warned that failure to resolve the crisis would have “severe consequences” for the region.
Conflict researchers say that if the violence breaks out along ethnic and territorial lines, it might have severe consequences for the whole of East Africa and beyond.
“It is clear that there has been a level of organization of militias on all sides in different areas of the country. The degree of organization and control of violent groups appears to vary considerably though, from small armies to village self defense units,” Ben Rawlence, a researcher for the group Human Rights Watch, told ISN Security Watch.
“The important thing going forward is that the police and the authorities investigate all groups equally and provide enough security so that citizens do not feel the need to take the law into their own hands,” said Rawlence.
The opposition has been accused of colluding with village gangs to target rival political camps, mainly supporters of Kibaki. Even though politics appear to be the root of the violence on the surface, long-drawn disagreements over land, access to economic empowerment and the distribution of political power among the 41-plus ethnic groups provide fertile ground.
“In many cases, community leaders and local politicians actively incited and, in some cases, directly organized last month’s attacks,” Rawlence said, noting that national political leaders on both sides have done little to rein in the excesses of their supporters.
The ODM has denied arming militias for fresh violence, saying their focus at the moment is the ongoing peace talks.
“The issue of groups arming in advance for imminent war is far-fetched. It is neither here nor there. There is no grain of truth in the arming hypothesis. We want peace to prevail in our region and as well as elsewhere,” William Ruto, a senior ODM member told ISN Security Watch.
Controlling ethnic tensions
Some Kenyans fear that even if the politicians strike a settlement during the talks, they will struggle to control ethnic tensions, which have taken on a momentum of their own.
The banned Mungiki sect, whose membership consists of mainly the Kikuyu ethnic group, swung into action moments after the re-election of Kibaki, beheading and mutilating members of rival communities in Nairobi.
“We received leaflets [from the Mungiki] warning us to leave or face death,” Joel Omondi, a resident of a town in central Kenya, told ISN Security Watch. “They said they would behead anyone who supported the opposition. They gave us just seven days to leave,” said a resident of Naivasha town in Rift Valley. The threats prompted hundreds of people to flock to police stations for refuge.
The Mungiki – engaged in a protracted battle with authorities spanning more than 20 years – first styled themselves as the guardians of Kenya’s largest community, the Kikuyu, saying they would re-establish ancient traditions.
Attracting large numbers of jobless teenagers, the group soon became an underground youth wing for politicians, who used it to unleash terror on their opponents. To counter the Mungiki, residents in the informal settlements formed their own vigilante groups, saying the police had failed to deal with the threat.
One notorious gang is the equally dreaded Taliban, taking on the name of the Afghanistan group, which draws membership from the Luo community – who largely back the opposition. Another group, Saboti Land Defense Force, draws its membership from the Luhya community.
ODM: Government not a “serious partner”
Critics of the opposition say their threats to resort to mass disobedience, or “mass action,” are a cover for the start of countrywide protests that could deteriorate on a massive scale.
The accusations came after the opposition threatened to resume street protests if the Annan talks failed to produce concrete results within a week.
“The only language I understand about mass action is violence,” Kenya Justice Minister Martha Karua told journalists in response to opposition threats.
Saying that the government was not “a serious partner” in negotiations, the ODM set a week’s deadline for constitutional changes to allow a political settlement or “peaceful mass action” would resume.
Included in the changes proposed by the ODM is a prime minister post. Since the current constitution does not provide for such a position, parliament will have to be convened to amend the constitution to create the position, which will go to Odinga as part of the political settlement.
“The ODM proposes that parliament be summoned within the next week to enact the necessary changes in the constitution to implement these mediation proposals,” Anyang’ Nyong’o, the ODM’s secretary general, told ISN Security Watch. “If that does not happen ODM will resume peaceful mass action,” he added.
The conflict has tarnished the image of a nation long seen as one of Africa’s more stable and with one of the continent’s most promising economies. It has gone beyond a simple election dispute, taking the lid off decades-old divisions between tribal groupings and stoking fears among the population that a return to bloodshed is inevitable if a final deal is not struck soon.
Daniel Auma is a correspondent for Security Watch in Nairobi.
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