Kenya’s divisions aren’t only tribal

Interesting article purportedly aiming to examine Kenya’s class system but which ultimately ends up reinforcing the western perception that the post-election crisis is based on ethnicity.

By KATHARINE HOURELD, Associated Press Writer Sun Feb 3, 1:02 PM ET

NAIROBI, Kenya – When Steve Maina finishes a round of golf at Kenya’s exclusive Windsor club, a waistcoated waiter hurries over with a tall iced drink while armed guards watch discreetly from the shrubbery, a few minutes’ drive from one of Nairobi’s oldest slums.

That’s Mathare, the shantytown where Cliff Owino’s tin shack leans over a river of sewage and almost every morning a corpse with machete wounds turns up in an alley.

Most of the time, these two faces of Kenya, so close geographically, exist on different planes. But clashes triggered by Kenya’s disputed elections on Dec. 27 set them on a collision course. Some 800 people have died and more than 300,000 been displaced after opposition leader Raila Odinga accused President Mwai Kibaki of rigging the slim margin that secured him another five-year term.

Many factors contributed to the violence — frustration over poverty and corruption, ethnic rivalries exploited by politicians, criminal gangs and competition over land — but most of all the feeling of Kenya’s poor that Kibaki’s much-touted economic boom is passing them by.

“We are the weak,” complains 25-year-old Owino in the gloom of his tiny shack where Odinga stares down from a poster on the wall. Owino has dog-eared dictionaries and books on philosophy to read by the light of a gas lantern. He dreams of going to college but knows he can never afford the fees.

“We work harder than a donkey but we can never be rich,” he says.

Owino is a Luo, the same ethnic group as his hero Odinga. But he says that tribe, often used as a shorthand to explain the country’s strife, didn’t come into it. Sitting in his dark, leaky shack, Owino explains he voted for Odinga because he promised to change the corruption of the current regime and spread the country’s wealth.

In 2002, the candidate of change was Kibaki, of the Kikuyu tribe, Kenya’s largest. The man he was seeking to unseat was the notoriously corrupt President Daniel arap Moi, who had driven the country’s economy into the ground. Odinga campaigned vigorously for Kibaki then, winning him votes from the slums.

Kibaki, an economist, won the 2002 election, and since then tourism and agriculture have led economic growth averaging 5 percent a year. But the gap between rich and poor has widened substantially.

“If this matter (of elections) is not resolved, we don’t have a better future,” Owino said, explaining why he braves police bullets to hit the streets every time Odinga calls a demonstration. “If we don’t have a future, I don’t see the point of living.”

But those surfing the wave of Kenya’s prosperity blame politicians as well as poverty for the violence.

“The election campaigns implied it would be like a light switch: You move out of the slums overnight, you’ll be driving a car,” says Maina, 38, his gold wedding ring flashing as his golf ball sails through the air.

Maina and many of his friends are Kikuyu. In the aftermath of the elections, Kikuyus have been murdered and their businesses burned.

By the sculpted lake at the Windsor, which costs nearly $5,000 to join, Maina’s friends swap tales of previously friendly neighbors who forced Kikuyus out of homes and tried to take over businesses. In the west of the country, which has seen the worst violence, his golfing partner’s hairdresser had her salon taken over by neighbor from another tribe and another friend forced from her home because she was Kikuyu.

“People were expecting to take over property,” said Maina, who employs five people to look after his own home. “Instead of saying why don’t we create more of that wealth, they want to grab it and distribute it. I was worried this could turn into a class war.”

But the police have largely kept protesters penned in the slums with tear gas and live bullets, and politicians capitalized on long-held land grievances to channel the violence on ethnic, rather than economic, lines.

“The Kikuyus have been demonized,” says Maina. “Politicians on both sides are to blame, but those of Odinga’s party “have been preaching a campaign of hate.”

Owino also fears ethnicity is looming too large.

“We are not fighting Kikuyus, we are fighting the government,” he insists, as rain turns the mud and sewage to sludge outside his door. “They were not for change, they were for the status quo.”

If there is ethnic violence, he says, it is because Kikuyus are not sharing their power. Kenya’s first president after independence from Britain, Jomo Kenyatta, was a Kikuyu. Moi, of the Kalenjin tribe, came next, then Kibaki, a Kikuyu. Now the Luo feel it is their turn.

Kikuyus “want to dominate us …. We are not being ruled by people representing all Kenyans,” Owino said.

Maina, an executive with a private medical firm, insists that he has never been helped by his tribe or government connections. No one is stopping anyone else from making money, Maina points out. He says he takes his own children into the slums to help on a church project supporting a school.

“We work our butts off. Many hours, over the weekend, at night you are on that laptop,” he says to nods of agreement from friends.

Yet Maina, who voted for the ruling party, knows that his country is sitting on an economic time bomb.

“The violence will subside, but the injustice will remain, and if those injustices are not addressed, we will be back here again,” he says sadly. “The election gave them (the poor) a sense of hope and it was taken away.”

Owino occasionally makes $6 a day as a construction worker, and lives in a slum so violent it’s nicknamed Baghdad.

“Kibaki gave us promises but they ended up in dust,” Owino said. “Now they want calm. What about justice?”

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