Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Mwai Kibaki, an ethnic Kikuyu, was declared the winner of Kenya's disputed presidential poll in December to the anger of supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga, who is from the Luo community.

The fallout has fuelled ethnic tensions in the country which has more than 40 ethnic groups - and up to 900 people have died in the post-election violence. Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society, spoke to the BBC about the parallels that some are drawing with what happened in Rwanda where such divisions ended in the 1994 genocide and the killing of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Is there anything in such comparisons?

I don't think so. The situation in Rwanda was completely different. First of all the Rwandan genocide was state-initiated. There were government militias - the army, the police took part it and organised it, and that is not happening in Kenya.

Secondly, [Rwanda's] Hutus and Tutsis are not separate ethnic groups - they're actually racially different and their roles in society were different - it's a unique situation. They have the same language, the same culture.

In Kenya, what we're seeing is different ethnic groups and what has happened there is that one particular ethnic group - the Kikuyus - are seen by the others as being richer, politically favoured and just generally better off.They're also in many places on the land of the Kalenjin and the Luo [communities] and that land issue is very, very important.

Population: 37m, comprising more than 40 ethnic groups
Kikuyu: 22%
Luhya: 14%
Luo: 13%
Kalenjin: 12%
Kamba: 11%

It would have been originally Luo or Kalenjin land which was taken by the British in colonial times turned into white farms, a bit like Zimbabwe, and then at independence handed over to the Kikuyu.

So that's why the people in those areas [mainly the Rift Valley Province] are trying to drive the Kikuyu out and the Kikuyu are taking revenge on local Kalenjin and Luo communities in their areas. So it's a sort of ethnic-cleansing.

Think Bosnia, think Kosovo, don't think Rwanda.

Nonetheless, frightening?

Oh, yes and I think we haven't seen the worst of it yet. It's got a momentum of its own now where ethnicity is everything and the politics has slipped away. The election released these feelings of deep frustration which go back a long way.

So although we're seeing talks at a high level now, you're suggesting that may not have that much impact on people the ground? Well I think Kibaki's government could make a difference - if they said we'll have a coalition or a rerun of the election and made concessions - that could control their side.

But I don't think Raila Odinga is in control of these gangs of Kalenjin youth that are running around and I think he doesn't control his troops in the same way as the president does.

What do you think will happen?

I think it'll continue.

The government has hoped that they will just ride this out - they were quite prepared to sit it out even at the cost of a lot of violence. But I think it's become too big now and I think they will have to make some sort of concessions. The rest of the world is pressurising them very heavily.

But even if they do, will they do it in time? Will the concessions be big enough to prevent the people on the streets taking what's now become a sort of a very nasty local personal revenge?



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