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In Kenya, Much Of The Election Chaos And Violence Stems From Tribal Divisions


Kenyans are scheduled to go to the polls on Thursday. This is a rerun of presidential elections that were held in August and that were subsequently annulled by the courts. The electoral season has been full of chaos, violence and discord, much of it stemming from the country's deep tribal divisions. NPR's Eyder Peralta explains.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: I'm in the western Kenyan city of Kisumu, the heart of the opposition in this country and where ethnicity is ever present. Protests are constant, and politicians, including opposition leader Raila Odinga, talk of Luo lives mattering. After the August vote, police went door to door, killing at least a dozen people, according to Human Rights Watch. Joseph Abanja says police threw tear gas into his house. His wife was behind him, holding his 6-month-old baby, when he opened the door to get out. He remembers being hit on the head and then hearing his wife screaming that they killed their baby.

JOSEPH ABANJA: When I woke up, she gave me the kid in my arms. Looking at my kid, the foam was coming outside the month. But her head was swelling. So I started screaming, why have you done this?

PERALTA: Baby Samantha died at a hospital five days later. Abanja says, before this, he had never attended a political rally. He had never felt that his tribe put him at risk.

ABANJA: After the incident, we feel like we're left out, see? They don't care about us no more. Even if they kill us, they don't care.

PERALTA: Across the country, I've heard educated Kenyans say they can't get jobs because they're not of the ruling Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes. Human rights groups have pointed out that almost all people killed by police during the protests earlier this year were Luo. Historians agree that tribal divisions were hardened by the British during Kenya's colonial era. They printed tribe on identification documents and divided Kenyans by ascribing stereotypical traits. Owaahh, a writer who goes by one name and runs a history-focused blog, says the Kenyan elite had a perfect opportunity to walk away from those divisions at independence in 1963. But...

OWAAHH: They didn't change it. They didn't want to. For them, they saw people. They saw numbers. They saw ways to remain in power.

PERALTA: Instead, every administration since, he says, simply perfected the system. And if you look at an elections map, the votes break down neatly by tribe.

OWAAHH: It's just gotten worse and worse and worse. And now it's just this bubbling thing.

PERALTA: It's this thing that underscores all of Kenyan society, from the economy to friendships. In Gatundu in central Kenya, I find myself in a place with opposite sentiments. This is Kikuyu territory, where President Uhuru Kenyatta is from and where his father, Kenya's first president, was born. I walk the town and don't find a single opposition supporter. When I ask Samuel Ngugi why he supported the president, he says he has no other choice.

SAMUEL NGUGI: You know I cannot choose another. Only I can choose Uhuru for president. He is a man (laughter).

PERALTA: He's a man. That's an ethnic slur. Kikuyus circumcise their boys to mark passage into adulthood. Luos do not. Following the 2007 presidential elections, this tribalism exploded onto the streets. Neighbors turned against neighbors. And more than a thousand people were killed. A truth and reconciliation commission aired out all the historical injustices, but its recommendations were never implemented, in part for fear that they would open old wounds.


PERALTA: Back in Kisumu, I find a group of friends having beers by the lakeside. They're Kisii, another of Kenya's 44 tribes. They were arguing about fairness in Kenya.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We're not comfortable with the system. We're not comfortable...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, we're not comfortable. But if you're not comfortable, you go to court.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The thing is we want peace.

PERALTA: All of them expressed concern that Kenya is deeply unjust. But Johnson Oginbo was trying to convince his friends that it's not worth dying for.

JOHNSON OGINBO: At the end of the day, if justice cannot be prevailed, your life moves on as a citizen.

PERALTA: Ultimately, he says, the elite politicians in Kenya are friends. So why should they get in the middle of their mess? Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Kisumu.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOGS' "THREE-TWO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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