Kenyans for Hillary? Even U.S. Election Seen Through Tribal Eyes

In Kenya, Obama's connections can bring suspicion.

NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb. 4, 2008 — -- On the eve of Super Tuesday, the whole world watches to see who will emerge as the Democratic front-runner, and possibly the next president of the United States. Here in Kenya, people are especially excited, given Barack Obama's family roots.

His father, Barack Obama Sr., was a prominent Kenyan academic who studied in the United States, pursued a doctorate degree from Harvard, and came back to Kenya, to work in government and academia. When I first arrived in Kenya four months ago, most Kenyans I'd come in contact with hoped that the junior senator from Illinois would be America's next president.

"He's one of us," they would tell me. "He's a Kenyan."

But in the last month, something has changed. Since the ethnic violence that has gripped the nation after the disputed presidential election in December, not everyone I speak to supports Obama. I now hear surprising comments such as, "A black man will never be president." I meet Kenyans who say they support Hillary, but can't articulate why.

"I don't think Kenyans have supported Obama so much," Evans K. Kamba, a businessman from Nairobi, told me. "I think it's only one tribe that supports him here, but not other tribes."

"Kenyans, we are a tribal people," he added.

When I asked specifically why he didn't support Obama, he looked down and sheepishly said, "I don't want to tell the media why."

Kamba is a Kikuyu, and even though he didn't vocalize it, the rabid tribalism that has spawned the ethnic violence that's killed nearly 1,000 people, and left hundreds of thousands more displaced in Kenya, has crept its way into the debate over American politics.

Obama's father was a Luo, the tribe of opposition leader Raila Odinga. But the animosity exhibited today between the Kikuyu and Luo, two of Kenya's biggest tribes, is as old as Kenya's independence, over 40 years ago. When the country gained independence from the British, Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, and Kenya's first president, named Oginga Odinga (Raila Odinga's father) as his vice president. But differences in how the country should be led resulted in a split that became so nasty, at one point, Kenyatta had Odinga arrested and detained.

The stereotypes that were established more than 40 years ago — Kikuyus are thiefs, they steal land, they are corrupt; Luos are wild, uncivilized, unclean — are words I am hearing, sometimes subtly, and others blatantly, today.

There are reports that, in Kikuyu strongholds prior to the election, ethnic propaganda went out — flyers and talk radio, in the local language, warning, "We will never be ruled by a Luo," and "Raila will kill all Kikuyus if he wins." Last weekend, Kikuyu gangs went on a rampage of revenge attacks in two major Rift Valley towns, and in the Nairobi slums.

In the Rift Valley, where most of the worst ethnic violence has taken place, it's not Luos targeting Kikuyus in the area, but a tribe called the Kalenjin, who have land grievances also dating back to independence.

One of the only times in history when Kikuyus and Luos banded together was to oust former president Daniel Arap Moi, a Kalenjin, known for pitting tribes against each other, either by politics or by violence, to hold onto power for 24 years.

Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations have documented evidence that much of the violence in the Rift Valley was organized and premeditated. Flyers are emerging that warned Kikuyus to "get out of Kalenjin land," and there are reports of text messages of hate, ordering violence against Kikuyus in the region, and meetings called by local leaders and opposition politicians on how and where to target Kikuyus.

In fact, the use of tribal gangs or militias by politicians, particularly during elections, is not new to Kenya, says Dan Juma, acting director of Kenya's Human Rights Commission.

"Since independence, it has always been, once an elite is in power, then the immediate receptacle, and the beneficiaries of that power and resources, are normally the tribes and their ethnic communities," said Juma.

Malcolm X once said about oppression, "The chickens come home to roost."

The tribalism exploited by Kenya's leaders throughout history — the militias, the propaganda — have exploded in the leaders' faces and left the country spinning out of control. Endless tales of hacking next door neighbors with machetes, of mobs chasing innocent people of different tribes into churches and homes, and burning them alive, and clashes using poisoned bows and arrows, are almost daily headlines.

Even this reporter has to be careful. Though I am black American, I am constantly mistaken for a Kikuyu. I have to always wear press credentials (which have been checked by rioters before), and scream that I am American, with my accent, to get people to believe me. I don't even say "asante sana" — "thank you" in Swahili, the national language of Kenya — for fear someone will mistake me as being Kenyan from the "wrong" tribe.

"The political crisis has unleashed historic grievances that will need to be addressed," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged on Friday, while lending his hand to the mediation talks being conducted by his predecessor Kofi Annan, in Nairobi.

But so far, addressing those grievances has consisted primarily of leaders of both sides, accusing each other of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

They have agreed to come up with a plan to end the violence within the next two weeks, but there are daily squabbles in the mediation. On Monday, the opposition objected to a statement by Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki, that the opposition should challenge the results of the elections in court, and the government rejected the lead mediator chosen by Annan, because they deemed him as having business dealings with Odinga, a charge both deny.

And while they continue mediation, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans have lost their homes, their possessions, and some, their lives. As Nancy Wanjeri, a displaced Kikuyu, whose husband was savagely attacked by her neighbors before their home was burned down, said, she wishes all Kenyans could see this as a political problem, instead of by tribe.

Wanjeri and her family were from the Mathare slum, living as poor as the Luo neighbors who attacked them. "I am not Kibaki, I don't even know Kibaki," she said in frustration. "You don't know Raila. Why are you fighting me? We're all Kenyan."