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Anxiety grips Kenya's Rift Valley farms over vote

Discussion in 'Kenyan News and Politics' started by The Quonquerer, Aug 4, 2010.

  1. The Quonquerer

    The Quonquerer JF-Expert Member

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    Aug 4, 2010
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    By James Macharia

    Burned FOREST, Kenya — Naomi Kamau, her three children and another woman faced a group of screaming armed men wielding machetes within minutes of President Mwai Kibaki being declared winner of a disputed 2007 election.
    The Kamau's, ethnic Kikuyus, fled their Nyakinyua farm deep in the fertile Rift Valley hounded by Kalenjin youths angry over what they felt was rigging of the vote by Kibaki.
    Tribal tensions fanned by politicians during elections have turned Burned Forest some 300 km (188 miles) northwest of the capital Nairobi into a litmus test of violence in Kenya's polls, and an August 4 referendum on a new constitution is no exception.
    Some Burned Forest residents, mostly Kikuyus, spoke of rising tribal tensions and some, like Kamau, have abandoned their farms and others have sent their wives and children to safe havens.
    "We fled our farm because we are afraid of more killings," 33-year-old Naomi Kamau said at a camp some 150 km south of her farm where families who fled the violence have found shelter.
    "We have been receiving veiled threats. They (Kalenjin) are saying whether the constitution passes or fails at the ballot we will have to go," she said referring to the referendum.
    "They tell us: you can plant, but the maize is ours."
    Kamau said after the fighting in which some 1,300 were slaughtered countrywide, she and her family resumed planting wheat, maize and beans on their farm until last week.
    Kamau said she would not risk her life as during the post-election violence in early 2008, when Kalenjin warriors evicted Kikuyus, torching houses, looting and killing.
    On the night of her escape when Kibaki won the vote, the "other woman" with Kamau was in fact her husband who she had helped disguise himself in skirts, and a headscarf, tossing their two-year old on his back to pass off as a woman.
    Men found by the enraged youths were killed on the spot.
    "RED CARD" ZONE
    Land, an emotive issue in Kenya, is one of the most divisive issues in the new constitution.
    The new law says the state could take back land dished out for political favors over the years, a key reason why many want to shoot down the new law.
    Simon Singoei, a 38-year-old Kalenjin farmer near Nyakinyua farm, said he would vote against the charter because it creates uncertainty over land tenure, but said there was little tension in Burned Forest -- unlike in previous votes.
    "This is a red card ('No') zone. We don't know of any plans to evict those who vote 'Yes', or the Kikuyus," Singoei said. Red is the campaign color of those opposing the new law.
    William Ruto, a cabinet minister based in the Rift Valley and a former ally of Prime Minister Raila Odinga -- who lost the presidential election to Kibaki, sparking the killings -- is spearheading the "No" campaign, along with fellow Kalenjin, former President Daniel Arap Moi, who ruled for 24 years.
    Kibaki and Odinga back the new legal framework.
    Those who support the new charter say it could oversee equitable distribution of land and protects genuine land owners.
    Kamau said before the post-election violence, more than 5,000 Kikuyus farmed at Nyakinyua but only 400 returned when the post-election fighting died down. Now only 50 are left.
    The rest have sold off their farms out of fear, and those left behind are yet to rebuild their ruined homes out of fear they could be razed again during the referendum.
    Authorities said those fleeing are haunted by past skirmishes, but there was unlikely to be violence this time.
    "There has been no public spat of a verbal or physical nature, no case of tension build up, nothing," said Charles Mukele, the area's district commissioner, a government official.
    HOTBED OF CONFLICT
    But the unease in Burned Forest is evident among Kikuyus who have faced forcible evictions and killings at the hands of Kalenjins in three elections -- 1992, 1997 and 2007.
    Many Kalenjins feel the Kikuyu were unfairly allocated communal land in the lush Rift Valley at independence in 1963. The Kikuyus say they acquired the land legally.
    Burned Forest was so named after its evergreen trees were felled and burned to settle Kikuyus on farms in the 1960s.
    "We know Burned Forest is the hotbed of conflicts during elections, but right now, with just days to go to the referendum, everything is peaceful. There are no threats," Margaret Kamar, the member of parliament for the area said.
    Kamar, a Kalenjin, backs the new constitution, testimony that the referendum vote is perhaps less polarized along tribal lines than some polls in the past.
    She said the referendum would pass peacefully because this time Kalenjins and Kikuyus were not voting as blocs for their rival candidates.
    Kikuyu farmers were quick to point out that there were no obvious warnings signs prior to the post-election violence.
    "Some of my friends remained on the Nyakinyua farm, they say they are ready to defend themselves or die if need be," Kamau said. "I have small children and cannot take such a chance."
    Copyright 2010 Reuters.
     
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