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Despite Power-Sharing Accord, Ethnic Division in Kenya Runs Deep


On Tuesday, Kenya's parliament put in place a power-sharing accord hammered out last month between President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga. The move has boosted hopes that the nation can begin to heal, following two months of unprecedented post-election violence that killed nearly 1,500 people and uprooted nearly 600,000 others. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu reports that some areas of Kenya, such as the Rift Valley region in the west, remain deeply divided over ethnically-charged land disputes that are threatening to cause further unrest.

Until two months ago, Julie Wanjiko, 50, had not considered leaving Eldoret, a bustling town in the heart of Kenya's breadbasket region of the north Rift Valley. Eldoret was where she grew up and raised a family. She says it was unthinkable for her to live anywhere else.

But on the morning of January 1, a mob of ethnic Kalenjin youths set fire to her house and threatened to kill her if she did not leave Eldoret by nightfall.

As she sought shelter at a nearby police station, she says she heard the cries of her neighbors and friends as their homes were also set ablaze.

"If I flash back, I only cry," said Wanjiko. "It was so painful because we were chased away, killed. I lost a lot of friends, who were so close to me."

Wanjiko and tens of thousands of ethnic Kikuyus were the main victims of the violence that ripped apart Eldoret and other towns in the north Rift Valley, following the re-election of President Mwai Kibaki in Kenya's disputed presidential election last December.

Before the election, around 20 percent of Eldoret's 500,000 or so residents were ethnic Kikuyus. Now, less than two percent of them remain, most squeezed into an internally-displaced camp on the outskirts of town.

Kalenjin elders say ethnic Kikuyus in this area were targeted because they were members of President Kibaki's tribe. They say many ethnic Kalenjins, as well as ethnic Luos and Luhyas, vented their anger at the Kikuyu community after it appeared that the president had stolen the election from ethnic Luo Raila Odinga, the opposition leader supported by many non-Kikuyus.

But ethnic Kikuyus say unresolved land issues, not the disputed election, caused much of the violence here.

In December, Solomon Marianjugu Wachira fled his burning house in Eldama Ravine, a small town about 100 kilometers southeast of Eldoret. The ethnic Kikuyu farmer echoes charges by human rights groups that opposition parliament members and elders in the Rift Valley paid young men to carry out attacks against ethnic Kikuyus.

Wachira says ethnic Kalenjins, who regard the Rift Valley as their ancestral land, view ethnic Kikuyus as outsiders. The farmer claims that ethnic Kalenjins were determined to evict all ethnic Kikuyus from the Rift Valley, and that the election dispute was used as an excuse to justify ethnic cleansing.

"On top is Kibaki and Raila," said Wachira. "But the grassroots is not good. The grassroots belong to the MPs [members of parliament]. The MPs bring the clashes to this area. If you burn one house, he is given one thousand shillings [about $16]. If you kill one person, he is given 2,000 shillings."

Ethnic Kikuyus first arrived in the region at the turn of the 20th century, when white settlers moved a large number of ethnic Kikuyus from their traditional homelands in Central Province to work in the Rift Valley as domestic servants and farm hands.

Many others came after Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963. On the orders of the government, the Kikuyus were moved out of Central Province and resettled in the Rift Valley as landless peasants.

As Nairobi-based journalist Amboka Andere explains, the Kikuyus were told to leave so that a handful of government leaders and political elites, including Kenya's first president ethnic Kikuyu Jomo Kenyatta and his ethnic Kalenjin successor Daniel arap Moi could grab vast tracts of land for themselves.

"These people were taken to the Rift Valley and this is where the resentment begins," said Andere.

In December, 2002, Mwai Kibaki took power in Kenya, heading a multi-ethnic coalition that promised to institute land reform. President Kibaki appointed an independent commission to investigate allegations of land-grabbing and other shady deals.

Local political commentator and writer Barrack Muluka says the commission issued a report that listed members of political families, ministers, judges, and other high-ranking officials, including President Kibaki, as being involved in illegal land grabs.

"President Kibaki chose to bury his head in the sand," said Muluka. "The findings were far, far, far, too harsh. Remember that people in government and in other high places decried the report. They postponed the problem."

Opposition leader Raila Odinga campaigned on promises to implement land reform, and there are expectations here that the man tapped to become Kenya's first prime minister under the power-sharing deal will be sympathetic to the grievances of ethnic Kalenjins.

A senior Kalenjin community leader in Eldoret, Issac Maiyo, says he hopes Mr. Odinga will support and implement what Maiyo believes is the best long-term solution.

"I think the Kikuyus should be given the money the Americans and the United Nations have given us," said Maiyo. "They should be used in loaning [to] these people to buy land. Others should be given their land [back]. The Kikuyus are very good in business. So, they should be coming here to do business and then go back to their home."

After President Kibaki and Raila Odinga signed a historic agreement to share power in February, Julie Wanjiko, whose house was burned by a mob, ventured back into Eldoret and began a cautious search for work and a new place to live.

But she says that given a chance to begin a new life among ethnic Kikuyus in Central Province, she would leave the Rift Valley for good.

In a clear sign that the ethnic divide is far from healed, the names of some farms in Eldoret, until recently owned by ethnic Kikuyus, have already been changed to reflect the ethnicity of their new owners, the Kalenjin.

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