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Elections stir tribal tensions in Kenya

MALINDI, Kenya — In a room by the stairs, Shukrani Malingi, a Pokomo farmer, writhed on a metal cot, the skin on his back burned off. Down the hall, at a safe distance, Rahema Hageyo, an Orma girl, stared blankly out a window, a long scar above her thimble-like neck. She was nearly decapitated by a machete chop — and she is only 9 months old.

Ever since vicious ethnic clashes erupted between the Pokomo and Orma several months ago in a desolate part of Kenya, the Tawfiq Hospital has instituted a strict policy for the victims who are trundled in: Pokomos on one side, Ormas on the other. The longstanding rivalry, which both sides say has been inflamed by a governor’s race, has become so explosive that the two groups remain segregated even while receiving lifesaving care.

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‘‘There are three reasons for this war,’’ said Elisha Bwora, a Pokomo elder. ‘‘Tribe, land, and politics.’’

Every five years or so, this stable and typically peaceful country, an oasis of development in a very poor and turbulent region, suffers a frightening transformation in which age-old grievances get stirred up, ethnically based militias are mobilized, and neighbors start killing neighbors. The reason is elections, and another huge one is barreling this way.

In less than two weeks, Kenyans will line up by the millions to pick their leaders for the first time since a disastrous vote in 2007, which set off clashes that killed more than 1,000 people. The country has spent years agonizing over the wounds and has taken some steps to repair itself, most notably passing a new constitution. But justice has been elusive, politics remain ethnically tinged and leaders charged with crimes against humanity have a real chance of winning.

People here tend to vote in ethnic blocs, and during election time Kenyan politicians have a history of stoking these divisions and sometimes even financing murder sprees, according to court documents. This time around, the vitriolic speeches seem more restrained, but in some areas where violence erupted after the last vote the underlying message of us versus them is still abundantly clear.

Now, the country is asking a simple but urgent question: Will history repeat itself?

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‘‘This election brings out the worst in us,’’ read a column last week in The Daily Nation, Kenya’s biggest newspaper. ‘‘All the tribal prejudice, all ancient grudges and feuds, all real and imagined slights, all dislikes and hatreds, everything is out walking the streets like hordes of thirsty undeads looking for innocents to devour.’’

As the election draws nearer, more alarm bells are ringing. Seven civilians were ambushed and killed in northeastern Kenya on Thursday in what was widely perceived to be a politically motivated attack. The day before, Kenya’s chief justice said that a notorious criminal group had threatened him with ‘‘dire consequences’’ if he ruled against a leading presidential contender. Farmers in the Rift Valley say that cattle rustling is increasing, and they accuse politicians of instigating the raids to stir up intercommunal strife.

Because Kenya is such a bellwether country on the continent, what happens here in the next few weeks may determine whether the years of tenuous power-sharing and political reconciliation — a model used after violently contested elections in Zimbabwe as well — have ultimately paid off.

‘‘The rest of Africa wants to know whether it’s possible to learn from past elections and ensure violence doesn’t flare again,’’ said Phil Clark, a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. ‘‘With five years’ warning, is it possible to address the causes of conflict and transfer power peacefully?’’

Spurred on by Kenyan intellectuals and Western allies, Kenya has overhauled its judiciary, election commission, and the nature of power itself. Dozens of new positions, like governorships and Senate seats, have been created to ensure that resources flow down more equitably to the grass roots, an attempt to lessen the winner-take-all system that lavished rewards and opportunities on some ethnic groups while relegating others to the sidelines.

On the national stage, two of Kenya’s most contentious politicians — Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto — are running on the same ticket for president and deputy president. Both have been charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity stemming from the violence last time. Kenyatta, a deputy prime minister and son of Kenya’s first president, is accused of financing death squads that moved house to house in early 2008, slaughtering opposition supporters and their families.

He could quite possibly be elected Kenya’s next president and find himself the first sitting head of state to commute back and forth from The Hague, potentially complicating the typically cozy relationship between Kenya and the West.

Many nations in this region depend on Kenya, as demonstrated by the economic chaos caused downstream during the last election when mobs blockaded Kenya’s highways and sent fuel prices spiking as far away as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Another safety valve may be the courts, which are now considered much more independent. Kenya’s new judiciary is led by a former political prisoner and widely respected legal mind, Willy Mutunga, the chief justice, who said he was threatened this week.

The hope is that if any election disputes arise between Kenyatta and the other front-runner, Raila Odinga, Kenya’s prime minister, who says he was cheated out of winning last time, Mutunga will step in — before people on the streets do.

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