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By William Wallis

Published: February 21 2008 19:13 | Last updated: February 21 2008 19:13

The blast from a bus horn disturbs the calm of dawn in the city of Kisumu, western Kenya, signalling the arrival of another cargo of traumatised passengers.

At a makeshift transit centre near the shores of Lake Victoria, where local church groups are providing food, medical care and onward passage to victims of violence further east, the vehicle pulls in. Its passengers step down to recount the terrifying ordeal that has forced them back to a region many left generations ago in search of better livelihoods. Some were witness to forced circumcisions and beheadings. Others were warned to leave or expect the same.

The bomb that detonated when incumbent President Mwai Kibaki seized a dubious election victory last December from the jaws of defeat has provoked an exodus that risks permanently fracturing Kenya's multi-ethnic society. What started as a wave of protests centred in Nairobi slums and the opposition stronghold of Kisumu turned rapidly into a cycle of communal violencethat has swept across the fertile Rift Valley in-between.

Within the confines of a Nairobi hotel, Kenya's rival politicians are now wrestling with each other in negotiations mediated by Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general. Outside, the nation has been crumbling as they speak.

These deliberations have resonance far beyond Kenya's borders. The country's stability as a regional entrepot is essential for the economic health of east and central Africa and for the regeneration of neighbouring states wracked by war. Until recently, it was central to a narrative that saw the continent turning a corner, drawing in more investment, consolidating peace and attaining unprecedented levels of economic growth. The speed with which this has unravelled has forced the world to think again.

Bars and restaurants in Nairobi's wealthier neighbourhoods appear at first to be part of a different reality. They have filled up again with the fashion-conscious and well-to-do, jiving to the sounds of Swahili rap. But conversation can turn acid in an instant, with former friends from across the political divide retreating from each other into ethnic identities that mattered less before. Under threat from vigilante gangs, landlords in the bustling capital have started throwing out tenants if they belong to the wrong ethnic group.


Mr Annan, after weeks of mediation efforts, has at least secured agreement from rival negotiating teams on a putative agenda for reform. This would include revision of the constitution and an independent review of the electoral process. It would also address inequities in the distribution of land, power and wealth.

On paper, this tackles some of the issues that have turned once-peaceful Kenya into a powder keg. Yet there are few precedents in Africa for a transition to more equitable rule led by the very politicians who have most to lose. Moreover, in the slums of Kisumu and Nairobi, in camps for the internally displaced and among the pro-opposition tribes at the forefront of ethnic cleansing, grievances that predate the elections have been magnified tenfold since.

With the economy in freefall, the means to address these grievances have also diminished. Official estimates suggest 50,000 Kenyans have lost their jobs in a month. The real number, given that 12 times as many have been uprooted, may be far higher. In Kisumu, a city of half a million, the consequences are stark.

The city's other main employers were Kikuyus, who owned hotels, transport businesses and shops, and also staffed the hospitals and schools. Some are still hiding with friends. But the majority have fled. Their houses have been looted so comprehensively that there is no longer evidence they were anything but empty plots. As the price of food rises and crime picks up, wealthier members of the Luo community fear they may be next.


"There has been no boom here. Enterprise in the town is owned by very few people. Most of them are Indians. The Kikuyus owned the retail and transport businesses," says Joshuah Nyamori, who hopes to become the town's mayor in a council vote next week. "This was unsustainable. With almost nil ownership among the local population and wages below the official lowest government rate, they did not see the economy's relevance."

Each region in Kenya has its own dynamic, and large parts of the country have remained calm. But such inequities are mirrored everywhere.

In the four decades since independence, successive constitutional amendments have concentrated power in the presidency, which became the anchor for a system oiled by patronage and graft. Mr Kibaki pledged to reform this. In his first term, the economy was doing better - growing at close to 7 per cent. But grand-scale corruption was still rife and for most Kenyans little changed.

In a climate seething with frustration, it was easy for the opposition coalition led by Mr Odinga to crystallise resentment around ethnicity. His campaign spoke of devolution but for many, it now seems, this was understood as kicking the Kikuyu out.

There have been 81 military coups in sub-Saharan Africa in just over half a century and at least 125 further failed attempts. But apart from six hours in 1982 when Hezekiah Ochuka, a private in the Kenya Air Force, tried and failed to overthrow the government, Kenya has been spared this scourge, write William Wallis and Matthew Green.

Its army has built a reputation for professionalism, especially in the period since Ochuka's attempt to drag it into politics claimed 145 lives. Over the years it has insulated Kenya from wars across its borders in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia and Uganda, and led Africa in peacekeeping training.

Partly to guard this reputation, senior commanders have been reluctant to be dragged into the crisis sparked by December's flawed elections, which has claimed more than 1,000 lives. According to separate sources close both to the government and the military, President Mwai Kibaki has considered imposing a state of emergency at least once since December when violence seemed to be spinning out of control. But the army resisted, fearing that if it takes a position in the deadly rivalry pitting Mr Kibaki against Raila Odinga, the opposition leader, their own ranks will split.

"The role of the military is to set and sustain the stage for political action. The question the army has been asking is, is this a legally elected government? If not, and they deploy, are they supporting a 'civilian coup?'" says one person close to the senior command.

Instead the army has played a low-key role, distributing food and opening up blocked transport links. On at least one occasion, however, it did step into the fray: according to witnesses in the Rift Valley town of Nakuru, the army last month intervened and prevented a fight between hundreds of ethnic Kalenjin and an equal number of armed Kikuyus.

If negotiations towards a power-sharing government fail and violence escalates, an interim military administration ahead of fresh elections might also be seen in opposition circles as a possible last resort.