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Kenya Unrest Points to Deeper Underlying Issues

Since December 30, Kenya has been plunged into a crisis that has cost the lives of hundreds of people and led to the destruction of property and loss of income. More than a quarter of a million people are said to have fled their homes, creating internally displaced persons and refugees fleeing to neighboring countries. Many are asking what could have led to a breakdown in a country once known as a bastion of stability and economic progress.

The issue is at the top of the agenda as the African Union holds its summit in Addis Ababa. David Masai, a university student in Nairobi, says life in Kenya since the crisis began has been terrible. He says goods coming from the port in Mombasa have slowed because of possible danger, leading to high prices for commodities such as food and fuel. Even neighboring countries, which often depend on the ports of Kenya, have been affected by a crisis that doesn't seem to let up.

Gaterestse Fredric, an Africa security analyst based in Washington, says there is more to Kenya’s post-election violence than politics; he says, “Other underlying conflicts and tensions are coming into play.” Fredric says tribal animosity finds its roots in the unequal distribution of resources in Kenya and it is “all manifesting itself now.”

Kenya has more than 40 tribes and many believe the crisis has taken on an ethnic face. Vicent Makori is a Kenyan journalist who works for the Voice of America in Washington, D.C. He blames Kenyan leaders for using tribal affiliations over the years to serve their political ends. “This is a failing of the leaders, because in as much as they preach nationalism, at the time of elections, they do fall back to their ethnic base during election campaigns.”

The largest loss of life occurred when 200 people took shelter in a church that was set alight by rioters, burning 35 of them to death. Most of the victims were Kikuyu. Such incidents have led to comparisons with Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

Most of the protestors in Nairobi’s slums like Kibera and other impoverished areas places belong to the Luo and Klenjin tribes. They are targeting Kikuyus, who they say have had the lion’s share of the country’s resources since Kenya’s independence. Makori says the crisis demonstrates the historic patterns of uneven resource distribution in Kenya, starting with Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, who gave land belonging to other tribes to his fellow Kikuyus. “There are age-old grievances being played out in this crisis…mainly the question of land ownership.” Makori says.

He says there are lessons that other African countries can take from the crisis in Kenya, including the need to build strong institutions that protect citizens against the “excesses of the executive branch.” He adds, “What we are witnessing now is where the laws and the constitutions of the land have been manipulated by the politicians to serve their interests.”

Both David Masai and Vincent Makori say that for there to be any lasting solutions to this crisis, there has to be willingness for both warring parties to compromise.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern and sadness over the violence but said he is "reasonably encouraged" by President Kibaki and opposition leader Odinga’s pledge to resolve the crisis.