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How Kenya's ethnic conflicts get politicised

Villagers victims of tribal killings reflect on the possible reasons behind the attacks amid political turmoil.
Last modified: 9 Feb 2013 13:17

Kibuso is a ghost village. You can almost feel the spirits swirl around in the little eddies of dust and ash that the wind kicks up in the oppressive afternoon heat.

They twist and writhe between the burned and abandoned huts where 11 people died early in January.

Kibuso is a poor but pretty village on the banks of the Sabaki River that lies like a great, red intestine uncoiled across Kenya's flat northwest scrub.

The village was home to about 200 Pokomo families. On the day of the attack, most of the men had already left to tend the fields thatline the fertile riverbanks.

Without warning, Orma raiders armed with machetes and a few automatic rifles charged the village, hacking and burning their way through the homes.

Most of the victims were women and children.

Wandering around the abandoned, decaying huts, it would be easy to see the Pokomo as victims of Orma savagery, and that is of course the way they see themselves.

And the Orma - with some justification - also believe they are victims who were simply lashing out in revenge over an earlier slaughter of 54 of their own by the Pokomo.

Complex roots

But this is a complex story with its roots buried deep in a mess of history, myth and provocation; and trying to work out where it all started feels a little like trying to unpick a tangle of barbed wire.

We didn't come to Kibuso to find out where its origins lay though. Messy ethnic rivalries exist right across Kenya in much the same way they do elsewhere in the world. 


Pokomo women sift through the burned wreckage of their home in Kibuso [Peter Greste/Al Jazeera]

What set this one apart was its timing and its brutality; and both of those elements seem to be rooted in the country's toxic politics.

In principle, there is no reason that the Orma and the Pokomo shouldn't be able to co-exist.

The usual explanation for fighting - competition for land and water – is undoubtedly a source of friction, but the Orma are herders who need grasslands for their livestock, while the Pokomo are farmers who need fertile soils for their crops.

In principle, the two agricultural systems ought to dovetail neatly with one another.

Conflicts do occasionally flare up when Orma cattle trample over Pokomo fields, and the farmers kill or capture the animals, but open warfare is usually avoided with patient negotiation between the elders.

So, what was different this time? Without a conclusive police investigation, we may never know.

A commission of enquiry set up after the first attacks, named six people including sitting members of parliament, candidates and former civil servants for incitement.

All were charged, but the cases were dropped for lack of evidence.

'Just politics'

Still, it is commonly understood that this is about politics. Or, more accurately, it is about politicians.

One Orma man put it succinctly. I found him lying in hospital on his belly, his back black and raw with burns from one of the earlier attacks.

"Why do you think this only happens around elections?" he asked.

"Why do we always manage to solve our problems during normal times, but when we come to vote, we end up killing each other? This is just politics."


A Pokomo man weeps amid the burned remains of his house [Al Jazeera/Peter Greste]

The problem lies in the system of ethnic patronage, both real and perceived. Elections in Kenya are seen as a zero-sum game, inwhich one community wins, and another loses.

If a tribe manages to get its representative elected, its people consider themselves as winners, with access to government resources, government support, and government riches. Their rivals simply lose.

Of course, the reality is not as divisive as all that and resources are often delivered equitably, but politicians dangle the prospect of access to power as a way of garnering support.

A leading member of the Jubilee Coalition, Charity Ngilu, recently told a gathering of Kamba that she joined Jubilee to make sure they "have a voice in government".

Under those circumstances, otherwise relatively benign disputes become as heated as phosphorous.

In the Tana Delta, it seems as though the violence may have been intended to discourage voters from registering.

About 100,000 people have fled their homes and registrations are now closed, so if that is the case it has done its job and we should see the attacks subside.

But human rights groups and election observers all say the political abuse of tribe remains a feature of this campaign, and unless that bond can be broken the risk of trouble remains.