When the Balloting Leads to Bloodshed

The late-December election was expected to reflect Kenya's democratic maturation.

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A Kenyan family flees the post-election violence in a Nairobi slum.

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They were seeking shelter in a village church from a tribal and political storm swirling all around them. But the house of worship proved no sanctuary when a furious mob of Kenyans from other tribes set upon the Assemblies of God church in Kiambaa jammed with women and children. The attackers lit up gasoline and killed at least 35. The horror at Kiambaa, though, was but part of a violent backlash against a dubious election result returning Kenya's current president to power. Within days, more than 300 were dead.

It appears that few had seen it coming. The late-December election was expected to reflect Kenya's democratic maturation. Instead, a country celebrated as a relative bastion of stability in a conflict-wracked region was plunged into a deadly political standoff. And foreign diplomats, fearing that another African nation might succumb to ethnic cleansing, called on Kenyans to conduct a genuine recount and consider patching together a unity government.

The pathology behind what is very likely Kenya's gravest political crisis since its independence from Britain in 1963 is sadly familiar on a continent still struggling to join in the global democratic advance of the past two decades. A once elected leader now apparently refuses to cede power. Have-nots observe the fruits of rising prosperity but find themselves left out. A mosaic of tribes trumps any overriding national identity. Those who feel robbed of their turn in power give in to rage.

The anger was fed by independent reports of election fraud. The beneficiary, President Mwai Kibaki from the long-dominant Kikuyu tribe, wasted no time in being sworn in for another term. His main rival, Raila Odinga, a member of the Luo tribe who won support from other disaffected communities, is calling for resistance until the election outcome is reversed. Reconciling them—and averting a cataclysm—may prove immensely difficult. Meanwhile, the world gets an unwanted reminder of democracy's fragility in the face of communal resentments—and of the unending lure of power.