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NAIROBI, Mar 12 2002 (IPS) - Tuesday’s state opening of parliament marked the end of an era for Kenya.
It was the last time President Daniel arap Moi will address the House as the country’s leader ahead of his retirement and he used the occasion to emphasise the need for peace during this critical transition period.
Before the end of the year, Parliament is due to be dissolved and elections held. President Moi, who has ruled Kenya for the last 23 years, is constitutionally bound to step down. Moi first entered the house in 1955, when he was just 31 years old.
In his opening speech, Moi emphasised the need to maintain peace in Kenya throughout the 2002 election period.
“This being an election year, I want to urge all Kenyans to foster peace and unity everywhere and at all times. We must demonstrate to the world that although throughout this year we will be staging a lively democratic contest for national leadership. We are one, united and peaceful people, with hearts both strong and true.
“Leaders in particular should avoid making outrageous and inflammatory statements, which are likely to create division and fuel tribal hatred amongst our people. As I have said time and again, tribalism is a cancer that has destroyed many nations in Africa.
“We in Kenya have always recognised that our strength as a nation lies in our unity of purpose. I urge honourable members and all leaders and political activists to pursue peace and unity for the success and prosperity of our nation,” he said.
Kenya’s last two multiparty elections, in 1992 and 1997, have been plagued by ethnic violence. In both cases, ethnic clashes erupted, often over land, several months ahead of the polls. The end result was usually that opposition voters were driven out of pro-government areas.
Rights groups blame the government for instigating the clashes in which hundreds were killed and thousands left homeless. In 1997, the Kenya Human Rights Commission report on the violence that rocked the Coast province — that left up to 170 people dead and brought the tourism industry to its knees — pointed accusing fingers at key Coast politicians, backed by their own well-trained private militia.
Judging from recent events, similar militia-led ethnic clashes are likely this time round. In December, thousands fled from Nairobi’s Kibera slums as a war broke out between ethnic Nubian landlords and their mostly Luo tenants.
The violence was triggered by speeches by political leaders, such as Raila Odinga, a Luo, of the National Development Party, calling for rents to be halved. Odinga is the parliamentarian for Kibera, and many interpreted his attack on the landlords as an attempt to increase his popularity among Luo voters.
Residents alleged that buses full of Odinga’s supporters were ferried into Kibera, and then started attacking people at random in their homes and on the streets.
There was an even more chilling outbreak of violence last week, when several hundred members of the Mungiki sect, which is dominated by the Kikuyu ethnic group, killed 23 people in Nairobi’s Kariobangi slum.
Most of the victims were Luos, long-time political enemies of the Kikuyu. Again, busloads of aggressors were delivered into the area, ready-armed with machetes and other crude weapons.
Opposition politicians charge that such violence is aimed at destabilising opposition strongholds ahead of the elections. Many believe that powerful political sponsors back the Mungiki – and a dozen other militia groups, which are wreaking havoc across the country.
“Just who is behind these militia groups and what are they meant to achieve eventually? Why are they allowed to operate as if they are above the law?” asks journalist Otsieno Namwaya.
“There is a genuine sense of concern when massacres take place not once or twice but several times with the security agents looking clearly beaten, even as senior political figures sound like they know more than they are willing to disclose,” he says.
Namwaya warns that the “emergent militia culture” is “setting the country aflame”.
In Parliament, President Moi said he has instructed the police to stamp out all such violent crimes.
“Cases of robbery with violence, drug trafficking, cattle rustling, banditry, conflict are of great concern to my government. In this connection, the law enforcement agencies have received renewed instructions to track down and bring to justice all those engaged in criminal activities,” he said.
One of the reasons there is so much tension and uncertainty in Kenya is because President Moi has not nominated a successor. The ruling KANU party is deeply divided with various factions — many of them ethnically based — jostling to take over the reins of power.
There is a lot at stage with the impending change of regime. Right now, the Old Guard seem to be increasingly sidelined, with Moi showing a preference for the so-called Young Turks.
The Old Guard are extremely worried about their future prospects if they are pushed out of power. There is the possibility that Kenya’s new leaders – either the opposition or the Young Turks — will go on a witch-hunt and prosecute them for crimes committed while in power, particularly relating to the theft of public resources.
At the state opening of parliament, Speaker Francis ole Kaparo sought to reassure such fears.
“This House has effectively displayed the spirit of tolerance, which is a prerequisite to expressing contrary opinions in civilised society. We must collectively as elected leaders of our people encourage this spirit so that Kenya continues to be a citadel of peace.
“This House should seize the first opportunity to assure our people that it does not matter who wins the next elections, that Kenya is big enough to accommodate all of us, winners and losers in the impending elections.
“The debate should demonstrate to the whole world that our democracy has come of age and should reassure everyone that victors will protect the rights of losers and treat them as citizens with rights and privileges under the constitution,” he said.
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