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Kenyan Government Accused of Fanning Flames of Tribal Violence - 2001-12-05

Violent clashes continued Wednesday in Kenya's largest slum in a dispute over rent. More than 10 people died in the bloodshed, and over 50 have been arrested. The government is being accused of instigating tribal violence ahead of elections next year.

Police spokesman Peter Kimanthi said houses were burned and people arrested Wednesday in Nairobi's sprawling Kibera slum, the largest in East Africa. Mr. Kimanthi has put the total death toll at seven, although press reports say it is closer to 15.

Violence erupted 10 days ago, following a call from President Daniel arap Moi for rents in Kibera to be lowered. The situation took a dramatic turn for the worse on Monday night, after a local member of parliament, Raila Odinga, visited the area and told landlords to cut their rents by half. The current rents are around $20 a month.

On Tuesday, riot police were sent in to break up clashes between rival groups armed with knives and machetes. Mobs looted and burned houses as residents fled. The fighting pits the landlords, many of whom are Nubians, against tenants, who are mostly Luo.

The Nubians originate from neighboring Sudan. They first settled in Kibera after fighting for the British in Sudan in World War I.

Large numbers of Luo began moving in to the area in the 1970s, in search of work. Politically, they are firm supporters of Mr. Odinga, their fellow tribesman.

Ismail Ramadhan, a spokesman for the Nubian community, has said Mr. Odinga is trying to drive the Nubians out of Kibera to boost his standing with the Luo and secure his seat in next year's elections. He estimated that more than 10,000 Nubians have fled their homes so far this week.

"This came from a statement made by the minister for energy who happens to be the MP for the area. That is what has given rise to all this. You know the political situation is very fluid now. Somebody has to safeguard his own position and he has to trust the people that he knows will deliver the votes to him. The Nubians do not belong to his ethnic group. So for him to get their vote he has to convince them that he is there for all of them. But he cannot be sure. But if he were to bring his own people into that area, people he knows well, he'll be sure that he will be voted in," said Mr. Ramadhan.

In a statement released Wednesday, Kenya's Roman Catholic Church has compared the violence in Kibera to the tribal clashes that regularly erupt in Kenya ahead of national elections.

The statement from the Catholic Church says, "One cannot fail to notice the predictable pattern that has preceded all these ugly incidents, first careless political utterances and then the violence." The Church says Kenyan President Moi and Energy Minister Raila Odinga are quote, "wholly to blame for the deaths and destruction that Kibera is now witnessing."

So far there has been no comment from the government about the ethnic clashes.

Mr. Ramadhan has called on President Moi to stop the violence against what he claims is the most marginalized ethnic community in Kenya. Mr. Ramadhan has said the Nubians already face a great deal of discrimination and harassment from Kenyan authorities.

"Our case is not political. We think we have a moral issue here. We have a human rights issue. A people who have been transplanted from their original home and brought in to a place suddenly find themselves in a situation where they have no rights. They are being called all sorts of names. Their nationality is dubious. Yet they have lived in this country, they have paid taxes in the country, they have shed blood in this country, they have helped in the development of this country. This is a very real case of human rights," he said.

The name Kibera originates from the Nubian word Kibra, meaning jungle, which is what the area was when it was allocated to Nubian soldiers in the 19th century. Today, the sprawling slum is home to some 700,000 people.