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Kenyan Militias Prepare for Campaign Season - 2002-08-09

In Kenya, an election campaign involves more than recruiting workers to help organize rallies and promote candidates. It often involves hiring militia groups -- commonly known as Jeshis. They're recruited to provide protection -- but critics say they often terrorize opponents, kill civilians and destroy property.

General elections are expected to be called this year in Kenya – and politicians are preparing for the campaigns. So are their militias. Already in Nairobi, ethnically based militias linked to politicians are being blamed for the loss of life and property. They go by many names: In Nairobi Province and in Central province, there are the Mungiki, Kam Jeshi, and Jeshi La Mzee militias. In Western province, there’s the Angola Musumbiji, and in Nyanza Province, which includes Kisumu City -- the Chinkororo and the recently disbanded Baghdad Boys.

Most of the militias are for hire by any candidate or party that need protection – and can pay for their services. But one of the best known – the Baghdad Boys – primarily served the opposition National Democratic Party, or NDP.

The former chairman of the Baghdad boys is Audi Ogada. He says most politicians hire militias because the government fails to protect them during rallies and campaigns: "Initially as the chairman of the Baghdad Boys -- the first group to be initiated in this country -- our role was purely to support the opposition leader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Our objective was clear to give protection to Jaramogi. We were acting as his police officers (and) we would just give protection during rallies."

Mr. Ogada says his group was peaceful, unlike other groups today -- including Mungiki, Kamjeshi and Jeshi La Mzee -- which he says are violent. Those groups deny the charge – and in turn point an accusing finger at the Baghdad Boys, who were reported to have fought pitched battles with the police.

The Baghdad Boys group was formed in 1991, when Kenyans were trying to eliminate section 2A of the constitution, which had kept the country from being a multiparty state. The Gulf War was underway at the time, and the group was named after the capital of Iraq. The group was recently disbanded after an opposition party – the NDP – merged with the ruling party – KANU –to form a party they call New KANU. The leader of the Baghdad Boys decided that with the merger, it was time to break up the group – although some of its members have joined New KANU and its own militia. As the ruling party, the original KANU enjoys the protection of the police force, and relies less on militias for protection than do opposition parties and their candidates.

The recruits from the Jeshi La Mzee – and from most of Kenya’s militias -- are largely young men without jobs. Some observers say as long as joblessness is a problem, politically inspired violence by youth will be a problem as well.