- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 13, 2001

NAIROBI, Kenya Thousands of residents streamed out of the capital's Kibera slum last weekend, hauling their gerry cans, bed frames and cooking utensils as they escaped violent clashes that have reportedly claimed 15 lives so far.

Francis Ayuya, waiting for a hired wheelbarrow to help him move his belongings to a different slum across town, said he was not coming back. "This is only the beginning of bad days to come," he said. "I don't want to stay and see more."

The clashes in Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum with half a million inhabitants and just four miles from downtown began escalating last month and have been gathering momentum ever since. Ostensibly just a rent dispute between landlords and tenants, the violence serves as a snapshot of much that is wrong with Kenya today. The problems range from poverty to intractable ethnic tensions and the divisive behavior of politicians who take advantage of these issues.

President Daniel arap Moi sparked the clashes when he visited Kibera at the end of October and suggested that some landlords were oppressing the poor with unreasonably high rents.

In Kibera, a history of tensions runs between the landlords and tenants. Mr. Moi's comments were dynamite in a camp where most landlords are Nubian (a predominantly Muslim group originally from Sudan), and the tenants are ethnic Luo (a large tribe from western Kenya).

Within days, tenants refused to pay their rents, and scuffles broke out. Last week, Energy Minister Raila Odinga, a senior minister and a Luo, visited the slum to repeat Mr. Moi's remarks. The next day Luos and Nubians faced off, rampaging through the dusty footpaths wielding machetes, rocks, chairs and flower pots.

Mr. Moi's comments are generally seen here as a clumsy attempt to secure popularity among the Luo. After 23 years in power, the president is being forced by the Constitution to step down next year.

Before he relinquishes power, however, Mr. Moi wants to ensure the success of his party the Kenyan African National Union (KANU) and his own future standing and place in history. In a country where voting is still done, for the most part, along tribal lines, Mr. Moi a member of the small Kalanjin tribe knows he must form enough alliances with other tribes to bring in the necessary votes.

"Moi wants to cling onto power. Hence, his strategy is to try and play one group against another. In Kibera, he is siding with the Luo, the second largest tribe after the Kikuyu, in an aim to shore up his power," said Joseph Ayee, head of the political science department at the University of Ghana. "Moi also knows that his position is tenuous because his government is accused of massive corruption. So this is also about diverting attention from the real problems facing Kenya and instead hitting away on the 'tribal nerve.'"

This is not the first time that Mr. Moi has tried such divisive tactics. His supporters were accused of inciting tribal clashes during the last two election campaigns, in 1992 and 1997. Hundreds of people died and thousands were displaced in the violence.

According to the United Nations, the flow of rural people looking for work in Africa's cities is happening at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world. Half of Nairobi's 2.5 million population is estimated to be living in unofficial slums near the city.

In Kibera, as many as 1,200 people may live on 2.5 acres. It is often said that there are more churches than toilets in the slum, where 400 people sharing a single outhouse is considered normal. Rents range from 300 to 2,000 Kenyan shillings a month (U.S. $4 to $25), but during the current recession, even this is becoming difficult.

"The people laying their lives on the line in the rent battle are already the poorest of the poor. Why complicate their lives further with political rhetoric?" asked the Daily Nation newspaper in an editorial.

"I don't care about leaving Kibera," said Mr. Ayuya as he gathered a broken chair, blankets and a framed picture of his children and loaded them on the wheelbarrow that had just arrived.

"It is all the same. I had nothing in Kibera, and I will have nothing in Kangeme [the slum he is moving to] but at least I have less chance of being killed there."

Mr. Ayuya said he plans to vote for KANU in the next election "because Raila [Odinga, currently the energy minister] is there, and Raila will work for us."

Mr. Odinga, meanwhile, brushed off the clashes and his and Mr. Moi's role in them, saying the violence was just part of a "cycle" of tension between competing interest groups. "These events will soon blow over," he said.

Others, however, are not so sure. John Githongo, head of the local chapter of the nongovernment organization Transparency International, argues that careless words from Mr. Moi and Mr. Odinga may end up costing more lives.

"The president's populist gimmick seems to have gone horribly wrong," said Mr. Githongo. "He simply wanted to get some support out of the Luo. Now we can't say where it will lead."

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