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Government Accused Of Instigating Tribal Violence

NAIROBI, Dec 5 (IPS) - Kenya's government is being accused of instigating tribal violence ahead of elections next year in clashes in Nairobi's sprawling Kibera slum, the largest in East Africa.

Police spokesperson Peter Kimanthi says three houses were burnt and nine people arrested Wednesday in a dispute, ostensibly over rent. Kimanthi puts the total death toll at five, though press reports say it is closer to 15.

Violence erupted 10 days ago, following a call from President Moi for rents in Kibera to be lowered. Events took a dramatic turn for the worse on Monday night, after local member of parliament, Raila Odinga, visited the area and told landlords to halve their rents, which are around 20 U.S. dollars a month.

On Tuesday, riot police were sent in to break up clashes between thousand-strong rival groups, armed with knives and machetes. Mobs looted and burnt houses as residents fled.

The fighting pits the landlords, many of whom are Nubians, against tenants, who are mostly Luo. The Nubians originate from neighbouring Sudan. They first settled in Kibera after fighting for the British in Sudan in the First World War.

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

Ismail Ramadhan, a spokesperson for the Nubian community, believes 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 estimates that more than 10,000 Nubians have fled their homes so far this week.

''This [violence] 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.What he was saying was that the tenants, most of whom happen to be from his own ethnic area, should not pay rent for the property that is there because that is government land. So the tenants are now saying they are not paying a cent to the landlords,'' he says.

''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,'' he says.

Kenya's Catholic Church agrees with Ramadhan. In a statement released Wednesday, the Archdiocese of Nairobi, compares the violence in Kibera to the tribal clashes that regularly erupt in Kenya ahead of national elections.

''One cannot fail to notice the predictable pattern that has preceded all these ugly incidents, first careless political utterances and then the violence,'' says the statement.

The Church says Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi and Energy Minister Raila Odinga are ''wholly to blame for the deaths and destruction that Kibera is now witnessing.''

Wangari Maathai, leader of the environmental group the Green Belt Movement, says the whole issue is about grabbing public land.

''The welfare of the poor in the slums was the last thing in his [Moi's] mind. What was in the leader's mind was the extensive land, which is still officially government land, and which is therefore, available for grabbing,'' she claims.

Maathai says it is the poor who will come out worst. ''Unfortunately, and as in other situations where leaders instigate tribal clashes, the poor are only used to fight each other, further impoverish each other and even kill each other.

''After the fight they will be flushed out and the land will be declared a no-go zone as the Minister for Lands rushes to issue letters of allotment and title deeds to the beneficiaries. Those fighting are the footmen, the generals will soon arrive and divide the loot," Maathai says.

Ramadhan is calling on President Moi to stop the violence against what he claims is ''the most marginalised ethnic community in Kenya''.

Nubians already face a great deal of discrimination and harassment from the authorities, according to Ramadhan.

''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 says.

Ramadhan says the police sent in to quell the violence are only making the situation worse. ''Last night [Tuesday], in enforcing law and order under the cover of darkness, the police apparently did not know who they were after and appeared to be beating everybody indiscriminately. I have heard cases of rapes,'' he claims.

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, it is home to some 700,000 people. (END/IPS/AF/IPKS/SM/01)