Neighbors Kill Neighbors as Kenyan Vote Stirs Old Feuds

Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times, February 21, 2013


Ever since vicious ethnic clashes erupted between the Pokomo and Orma several months ago in a swampy, desolate part of Kenya, the Tawfiq Hospital has instituted a strict policy for the victims who are trundled in: Pokomos on one side, Ormas on the other. The longstanding rivalry, which both sides say has been inflamed by a governor’s race, has become so explosive that the two groups remain segregated even while receiving lifesaving care. When patients leave their rooms to use the restroom, they shuffle guardedly past one another in their bloodstained smocks, sometimes pushing creaky IV stands, not uttering a word.

“There are three reasons for this war,” said Elisha Bwora, a Pokomo elder. “Tribe, land and politics.”

Every five years or so, this stable and typically peaceful country, an oasis of development in a very poor and turbulent region, suffers a frightening transformation in which age-old grievances get stirred up, ethnically based militias are mobilized and neighbors start killing neighbors. The reason is elections, and another huge one—one of the most important in this country’s history and definitely the most complicated—is barreling this way.

In less than two weeks, Kenyans will line up by the millions to pick their leaders for the first time since a disastrous vote in 2007, which set off clashes that killed more than 1,000 people. The country has spent years agonizing over the wounds and has taken some steps to repair itself, most notably passing a new constitution. But justice has been elusive, politics remain ethnically tinged and leaders charged with crimes against humanity have a real chance of winning.

People here tend to vote in ethnic blocs, and during election time Kenyan politicians have a history of stoking these divisions and sometimes even financing murder sprees, according to court documents. {snip}

Now, the country is asking a simple but urgent question: Will history repeat itself?


But in places like the Tana River Delta, where the clashes between Pokomos and Ormas have already killed more than 200 people, the new emphasis on local government has translated into more spoils to fight over. And there are nearly 50 governor races coming up across Kenya, many of them quite heated.

“The Orma are trying to displace us so we can’t vote,” said Mr. Bwora, the Pokomo elder. “They have burned our villages, even our birth certificates. How are we supposed to vote then?”

The Orma accuse the Pokomos of doing precisely the same thing, right down to the burning of birth certificates.

On the national stage, two of Kenya’s most contentious politicians—Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto—are running on the same ticket for president and deputy president. Both have been charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity stemming from the violence last time. Mr. Kenyatta, a deputy prime minister and son of Kenya’s first president, is accused of financing death squads that moved house to house in early 2008, slaughtering opposition supporters and their families, including young children.

He could quite possibly be elected Kenya’s next president and find himself the first sitting head of state to commute back and forth from The Hague, potentially complicating the typically cozy relationship between Kenya and the West.


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