The Roots of Kenya's Chaos

Violent ethnic cleansing stems from tensions over land, class, and tribe.

With Kisumu almost completely ethnically cleansed of Kikuyus and mobs still roaming the town, criminality is on the rise and many are enacting vigilante justice.

With Kisumu almost completely ethnically cleansed of Kikuyus and mobs still roaming the town, criminality is on the rise and many are enacting vigilante justice.

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NAIROBI, KENYA—The chaos set off by the disputed December 27 election, which returned President Mwai Kibaki to power, has gained a momentum independent of the polling results. Long-standing tensions over land, class, and tribe are acting as a catalyst for the spreading bloodshed. "The violence now is not about politics; it's about targeting specific ethnic communities," says Linda Ochiel of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.

The descent of Kenya, which has East Africa's largest economy, into a spiral of ethnic strife began after Kibaki, who comes from the Kikuyu tribe, was sworn in despite widespread criticism of vote rigging and irregularities in ballot counting. The first wave of violence was attributed to Luos and allied tribes— pposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga is a Luo—who ransacked Kikuyu homes.

It has since rippled into a broader conflict amid reprisals by Kikuyus and subsequent revenge attacks. Ochiel has seen anonymous E-mails threatening several of Kenya's 42 tribes. Kenyans can generally determine a countryman's tribe from a name or physical features.

At least 800 people have died in the fighting, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced from or lost their homes. In a marked escalation of tactics, two opposition parliamentarians were murdered in the last week, sparking further recriminations and protests.

Outside the capital, Nairobi, the conflict was originally centered on the cities of Eldoret and Kisumu in the west of the country. Within the last week, though, it has spread to Nakuru and Naivasha, two towns in the scenic Rift Valley. Near some of the country's famous national parks, the fighting inflicted a further blow to the country's devastated tourism industry.

Naivasha is also the center of Kenya's cut-flower industry, a major source of exports. While virtually all sectors of Kenya's economy have seen losses, a U.K. group representing the flower industry said its members linked to farms and suppliers in Kenya have not experienced production problems at their greenhouses. For security reasons, trucks full of flowers have been traveling in convoys to Nairobi's airport.

Speaking from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Wednesday, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer, said the fighting in the Rift Valley constituted "ethnic cleansing" against Kikuyus. (The State Department notably failed to back her up on that politically sensitive language, with a spokesman saying that she was speaking for herself.)

Also in Ethiopia, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he would make an emergency trip to Kenya to assist in mediation efforts. But it's unclear what can stop the violence.