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Africa

Coming polls reignite unrest along Kenya's Tana River

© Denis Bouclon

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2013-02-24

From restive towns near the Somalia border to delta villages wracked by deadly ethnic strife, Kenya’s Tana River flows through hotspots that are threatening to explode with the March 4 polls.

The mighty Tana, Kenya’s longest river, makes its way from its highland source to the restive town of Garissa near the Somalia border, before plunging south into the Tana Delta where, burdened by its rich alluvial silt, it fans out in a last lazy lap to the Indian Ocean.

Along the way, the 1,000-kilometer-long river slides through some of Kenya’s most troubled spots, from border towns gripped by the violence spilling over from neighboring Somalia, to delta villages struck by deadly ethnic conflict.

As the country heads for the critical March 4 elections, these pockets of unrest – some old, some new – are exploding or re-exploding, threatening Kenya’s status as a beacon of East African stability.

Months after he was shot and badly wounded in an attack on a Garissa church, James Kosima, a 28-year-old electrician, still doesn't know who was responsible for the July 2012 church attack that killed 15 people at a Sunday service.

“People say it’s al Shabaab,” he noted, referring to the al Qaeda-linked militant group that was ousted from the Somali capital of Mogadishu in 2011 by an African Union force that includes Kenyan troops.

“They always say they will attack Kenya. But who are they? They are just people. They are mixed-up people. There are many young people with no jobs and unemployed youths can be used by the rich people. But who is financing them? Someone is paying them, someone is planning this. I don’t know who they are,” said Kosima.

Is there a man-with-a-plan behind the violence?

“Someone is planning this.” It’s a refrain being heard across the country amid widespread fears of electoral violence.

From impoverished villages where ill-conceived developmental schemes lie abandoned, to overpriced coffee shops in the capital of Nairobi, the discourse is dominated by rumors of unnamed political figures arming unemployed youths to take to the streets in the event of an electoral defeat.

Like most rumors, they are hard to corroborate. But Kenya has a track-record of political leaders implicated in electoral violence. One of the leading presidential candidates, Uhuru Kenyatta, is facing an International Criminal Court (ICC) trial for his alleged role in orchestrating murder, rape and violence after the disputed 2007 polls. More than a 1,000 people were killed and over 600,000 displaced in the inter-tribal post-electoral violence.

Garissa, the capital of Kenya’s North Eastern province which lies just 140 kilometers from the Somali border, has been wracked by a series of attacks since a 2011 Kenyan military invasion into Somalia. Following the invasion, al Shabaab vowed to conduct attacks in Kenya and has threatened more violence around the 2013 election.

A once thriving town, Garissa these days looks like a garrison town with a heightened security presence. Ahead of the polls, campaigning screeches to a stop around sundown as residents hurry home in the fading light, leaving empty streets guarded by overnight sentries on the bridge over the river.

And quite indifferently flows the Tana.

Ethnic violence in the delta

Further downstream, in the fertile Tana Delta region, a centuries-old conflict between the traditionally sedentary Pokomo cultivators and nomadic Orma herdsmen has flared up in a postcolonial tussle for power and resources, with more than 200 people killed over the past few months.

Osman Dube, a primary school headmaster, was rudely woken up on December 21, 2012, when attackers stormed his native Kipao village. (Photo: Denis Bouclon)

Days after his village was attacked on December 21, 2012, Osman Dube, a primary school headmaster, attributed the attack by armed Pokomo youths on his Orma community to the upcoming polls.

“The elections are near,” explained the pensive headmaster. “We, the Ormas feel there is a plan to reduce our numbers. With the new constitution, the system has changed – may be the other tribe [the Pokomo] want the seats, we don’t know. We can’t understand why neighbors are killing neighbors.”

The March 4 elections are for the presidency and parliament, as well as for regional gubernatorial posts and local councils, under a new constitution designed to devolve power from the centre to Kenya’s marginalised regions.

But while the devolutionary reforms of the 2010 constitution have been widely welcomed, it has also unleashed old grievances over land and resources as well as new political fights.

In the Tana Delta, county elections have seen new political alignments contest local seats.

The Pokomos currently have the political edge, holding all three Delta constituency seats.

But a new dynamic has been emerging in the multi-ethnic Delta in recent months, with pastoralists, such as the Orma, Waradei, Malakote and other groups banding together to form a bloc against the minority Pokomo.

“It looks like power is shifting to certain clans and the other clan feels that if it loses power, then it’s the end for them,” said Hassan Abdille, regional coordinator for the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR). “The Pokomos feel they are going to lose power and if they lose power, they lose land. The politicians in turn are using this to instigate trouble since they want to gain the political advantage.”

In September 2012, following a particularly bloody of attacks and counter-attacks, a leading Pokomo politician, who was an assistant minister, was arrested and accused of incitement. But the case was soon dropped.

Chief justice receives a ‘poison-pen’ letter

Click to enlarge letter
Scan of letter threatening Kenya's chief justice, Willy Mutunga.

Following the deadly 2007 elections, it was hoped that a newly reformed judiciary would be able to handle electoral disputes. But the recent startling disclosure by Kenya’s chief justice that he had received a threatening letter has underscored the pressures confronting the judiciary.

At a press conference in Nairobi last week, Chief Justice Willy Mutunga said he received a “poison-pen” letter threatening him with "dire consequences" if the courts barred the ICC-charged Kenyatta from contesting next month's election.

Kenyatta’s campaign has denied responsibility for the letter and maintains it’s an attempt by the candidate’s political rivals to smear him and threaten Kenya’s security.

As Kenyans prepare to head to the polls, the threats to the country’s stability is acutely felt across regional, class, ethnic and tribal lines. Virtually every day, its vibrant free press features self-questioning columns and editorials.

“This election brings out the worst in us,” noted a recent column in The Daily Nation. “All the tribal prejudice, all ancient grudges and feuds, all real and imagined slights, all dislikes and hatreds, everything is out walking the streets like hordes of thirsty undeads looking for innocents to devour.”

For centuries, the Tana’s crocodile-infested waters have nurtured life and sometimes fueled violent death along its 1,000-kilometer course to the sea. As Kenyans head to the polls, it is hoped that this river of life will not become a river of blood.

Date created : 2013-02-24

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