February 10, 2008 / 1:00 AM / 10 years ago

History looms behind Kenyan crisis

<p>Kikuyus wave clubs and machetes outside Naivasha Country Club, near the town of Naivasha in this January 28, 2008 file photo.Peter Andrews/Files</p>

NAIVASHA, Kenya (Reuters) - Although they are from different tribes, Peter and Sospeter have much in common: they do the same job, are roughly the same age and practically share the same first name.

Now Kenya's ethnic clashes have landed the two men -- one a Kikuyu of the tribe of President Mwai Kibaki, the other a Luo like opposition leader Raila Odinga -- in hospital. There, thanks to a shortage of space in the midst of a flood of violent injuries, they share the same bed.

Sospeter Odipo, a Luo, said he doesn't mind sharing a bed with fellow flower-farmer Peter Ndungu, a Kikuyu, but he says he can no longer live alongside Kikuyus. He plans to return to Kisumu in his western tribal homeland.

Outside the hospital gates, their communities fire arrows and chuck rocks at each other in the latest post-poll clash.

A month or so ago, few could have believed the tension exposed by elections in a country best known for tourism would prompt conflict that has killed 1,000, displaced 300,000 and been called "ethnic cleansing" by the United States and others.

"It was there the whole time but people didn't want to acknowledge it," said Paul Brennan, a missionary who has worked in Kenya for the last 30 years.

"It is about land. It is about jealousy, exacerbated by politics -- the spark was the election."

The trigger was disputed polls that returned Kibaki to power. Odinga says Kibaki rigged it. But the seeds of the conflict were sown long ago.

Politics, land and ethnicity have combined before to spill into violence. Clashes in the early and the late 90s also caused the deaths of hundreds, mostly Kikuyus, in the Rift Valley.

"REVENGE"

Resentment of the Kikuyu stems even further back, to perceptions that they were favored by colonial power Britain and -- as shrewd businessmen and women -- then emerged from the country's 42 tribes as the most influential, analysts say.

Crowded in central Kenya and encouraged by the independent nation's first president, himself a Kikuyu, they moved on to and bought land from other groups in the Rift Valley.

"They say we stole their land. We didn't. We bought it," said Jane Nyaga, 55, a retired Kikuyu teacher, as she sat on her only remaining possession, a sofa, near a police station sheltering refugees. A mob from another tribe, the Kalenjin, burnt her house.

"I have a title deed to prove it, but they don't care. They think only Kalenjin belong here so we somehow stole it."

Brennan feels the current violence has taken on a new dimension: "Of course (previous clashes) were serious to those affected, but there wasn't the targeting and the revenge we are seeing now."

What started as the opposition's rejection of the election has spread -- fuelled, many say, by politicians or elders mobilizing gangs to protect their local interests.

Protests in urban areas were as much about the gap between rich and poor as they were politics, some Kenyans say. But they were met with a tough police response, igniting resentment.

When the violence reached Naivasha -- just north of Nairobi -- last week, it was mostly Kikuyus who were retaliating for attacks on their own in western Kenya after Kibaki's victory was announced.

Hundreds of youths from the Kalenjin and Kisii tribes battled last Sunday in Chebilat, near Kericho town, shooting arrows and slingshots as each side accused the other of chasing them off their land.

"SO MUCH HATRED"

The result, said Francois Grignon, Africa Director for the International Crisis Group, has been the collapse of state legitimacy. "The institutions of the state are being rejected. They are not playing their role so people are resorting to violence," he told Reuters.

Many Kenyans, disgusted by the bloodshed, pin their hopes on talks between the two leaders' parties in Nairobi.

But Grignon warned it could get much worse if those meetings fail: "We could see fighting on a much larger scale."

Meanwhile, in Eldoret, also in the west, a successful Kikuyu businessman who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals said he was tearing up plans to retire there and heading home generations after his family arrived.

"It has been devastating," he said. "The change has happened so quickly. We lived with these people and we shared our lives together. We never imagined that they harbored so much hatred."

When clashes permit, buses, trucks and cars load up at makeshift camps, piled high with furniture before crisscrossing the country, ferrying thousands of Kenyans back to homelands.

Kikuyus from the west are heading to Central Kenya. Luos, Luhyas and Kalenjins and heading back westwards.

As much as the displaced may consider these ethnic tribelands home, Grignon warned they may face more struggles if many return to overpopulated regions where unemployment is high.

"It is going to be a major issue that will require some serious political negotiations and people with large tracts of land giving some up," he said.

(For special coverage from Reuters on Kenya's crisis see: http ://africa.reuters.com/elections/kenya/)

Additional reporting by Tim Cocks; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Andrew Cawthorne

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