Land Rift

Jan. 9, 2008

Desire for land driving post-election violence in western Kenya


KIAMBAA, Kenya (AP) _ In village after deserted village across Kenya's fertile Rift Valley, the story is the same. Rampaging mobs have chased away Kenya's most powerful tribe, the Kikuyu, burning homes to the ground and killing hundreds in the worst ethnic bloodletting in 15 years.

The violence erupted amid accusations President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, stole the Dec. 27 vote. But for many here, it's all about one thing: land.

"They think all of Kenya is theirs," Felix Biwot, an ethnic Kalenjin, said of the Kikuyus. "But this land belongs to all of us."

Biwot spoke near Kiambaa, where dozens of Kikuyus were burned alive in a church last week by Kalenjin mobs. The atrocity was the worst in a week of mayhem that killed 500 people and displaced 250,000.

The tensions trace back to Kenya's colonial era, when white settlers seized land in the Rift Valley of West Kenya. The Kikuyus who lived there were dispersed throughout the country, and the British ruled by keeping the ethnic groups divided.

At independence in 1963, Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, took over. Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, helped Kikuyu families buy land from white settlers, including territories across the Masai- and Kalenjin-dominated Rift Valley. He also packed top government posts with his ethnic kinsmen.

The Kikuyu quickly prospered, growing into the most powerful ethnic group in the country, running business and politics. The favoritism shown to Kikuyus fueled a simmering anger among the nation's 41 other tribes. Kikuyus make up the largest tribe, but still only about 22 percent of Kenya's 34 million people. The Kalenjin make up 12 percent, and the Luo _ the tribe of presidential challenger Raila Odinga _ about 13 percent.

Now the old bitterness is erupting over the land, which stretches golden with corn to the horizon, dotted with flat-topped acacia trees.

"Many people were disposed of their land during the colonial era, and these historical injustices were not addressed until now," said Odenda Lumumba, national coordinator of the Kenya Land Alliance.

Kenya suffered similar clashes during its first multiparty elections in 1992.

Then, as now, there were tribal killings and home burnings. And then, as now, the desire for land _ and the economic power and security it brings _ stoked the anger.

"Kenyans romanticize land," said Ken Ouko, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Nairobi. "They use the land as identity because the Kenyan nation has failed to rally the people together as one."

President Kibaki paid a visit to thousands of displaced Kikuyus Wednesday in Burnt Forest, about 20 miles south of Eldoret. The Kikuyus here were chased away from their villages by mobs armed with machetes, sticks and arrows.

Kibaki promised he would rebuild their homes and said the government would protect them and their property.

"Nobody will be chased away," Kibaki said to roaring applause. "Anybody who owns land here, who bought land here, has a right to that land. That is Kenya. That will never change."

But healing the newly opened wounds will not be easy.

The overflowing morgue in Eldoret, the closest town, offers gruesome testimony to the bloodletting: at least 100 corpses _ hacked, shot and burned _ have been dumped onto the floor of four rooms. At the casualty ward, the wounded wince in pain under makeshift tents outside. Inside, dozens of men, women and children lie two to a bed.

At least 13 of the wounded are from Kiambaa, including Stephen Mburu, 43, the pastor of the church that was torched on New Year's Day. He was pulling children out of a back window when mobs beat his skull with clubs, knocking out 11 teeth, and left him for dead. He awoke hours later in a pool of blood, and lay Monday in a hospital bed in Eldoret.

Asked if Kalenjins and Kikuyus could live together in Kiambaa again, Mburu thought for a moment.

"It will require the intervention of God," he said. "I can forgive (the attackers), but it will be hard for people to forget what happened."

On Monday, 60-year-old Godfrey Karanja Ndungu helped Mburu's wife cart away their furniture from a nearby building that survived the attack.

At the church's gate, a red jacket covered with dried blood lay in the grass. Inside a stick-walled compound, a few discarded clubs, arrows and machetes lay in the black patch of scarred earth where the church once stood.

"It's hatred," Ndungu said. "Kikuyu are hard workers. These Kalenjin are just jealous. They just want our land."

Kiambaa was home to several thousand Kikuyu and a few dozen Kalenjins. But the only people left now are those who have come to retrieve belongings or identify dead relatives whose bodies are scattered around the fields.

Even Kiambaa's tiny Kalenjin minority has fled, fearing reprisal attacks, but they plan to return.

As for the Kikuyu, "We don't need them here," said Biwot, the Kalenjin farmer. "They've controlled too much of Kenya for too long. It's our turn now."

Copyright 2008 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.