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Kenya's Muslim Leaders Throw Support to Opposition


Muslim leaders in Kenya say they are unhappy with the policies of the current government and want a new president. That is what the chairman of Kenya's National Muslim Leaders Forum tells VOA, following the group's announcement it is supporting opposition leader Raila Odinga in the upcoming presidential elections in December. Arjun Kohli reports from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.

The chairman of the National Muslim Leaders Forum, Abdullahi Abdi, speaks on behalf of 25 Muslim organizations in Kenya.

In a telephone interview with VOA, Abdi said the current government, headed by President Mwai Kibaki, has failed to address key issues faced by the Muslim community.

One of the most contentious issues is the question of land ownership along Kenya's coast.

Since Kenya gained independence from Britain in the 1960s, many Muslims in Kenya, who live along the Indian Ocean coastline, have complained that government leaders illegally reallocated their ancestral lands to members of their own tribes.

Coastal Muslims, who first settled in the area several hundred years ago, say land-grabbing has continued, and in some cases accelerated, under President Mwai Kibaki.

"If you look at the coastal strip of Kenya, first of all, it is only the Muslims who have their land taken by force by the government," Abdi said. "Eighty percent of all the land close to the sea has been taken by force. This happened under the previous regime, but currently it is being accelerated by the current regime. As I am talking to you, there are preparations to settle 4,000 families on the main land in Lamu district."

Abdi says Kenyan Muslims are also angry with the Kibaki government because of its close cooperation with the United States and other allies in the U.S.-led war against global terrorism.

Muslims accuse the government of supporting the controversial practice of transferring terror suspects to another country for interrogation, a policy known as rendition.

Since an Ethiopia-led military campaign ousted Islamists in Somalia in January and sent a flood of Somalis fleeing into neighboring Kenya, human-rights groups have accused Kenya of transferring dozens of people to Somalia and Ethiopia, where they say human-rights violations are rampant.

Early last month, Muslim organizations in Kenya called for the release of people they say were seized illegally and deported in chains to Somalia, Ethiopia, and Guantanamo Bay as terrorism suspects.

The Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Lands and Internal Security were unavailable to comment on these issues.

Abdi says President Kibaki has failed to live up to the promise he made when he was elected in 2002 to protect the rights of all Kenyans.

"As you are talking to me today, 27 Muslim youths have been renditioned from Kenya to Somalia to Ethiopia. Their status is not known," Abdi said. "The Kenya government has rejected that they are Kenyan citizens. All evidence has been produced that actually these are Kenyans that they ignored."

Political observers say presidential hopeful Raila Odinga's chances of becoming Kenya's next leader could improve considerably with the support of more than two million Muslim voters across at least four of Kenya's eight provinces.

A member of his party, Najib Balala, tells VOA about the significance this vote has for Odinga and the Orange Democratic Party, which is competing for votes to oust the current regime in the December presidential and parliamentary elections.

"It is 2.4 million people who are voters and the Muslim population in general is about 10 million," Balala said. "North Eastern and Coast Province is the base and then western province and Nyanza has big pockets of Muslims and Rift valley as well. We have solidified the Muslim vote as a block vote now."

Muslim leader Abdi says one reason he has faith in Odinga stems from the fact that Odinga was detained three times in the previous government of Daniel Arap Moi. Moi announced that he will be backing President Kibaki in the December election.

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