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Kenya’s Red Cross Urges End to Ethnic Fighting Ahead of Election

Kenya faces increased ethnic violence ahead of elections in March unless people with political agendas stop instigating clashes that have killed 250 people so far this year, the Kenya Red Cross Society said.

The vote will be the first since December 2007, when a disputed election sparked two months of fighting in which more than 1,100 people died. The violence slashed economic growth and led to a probe by the International Criminal Court. Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, a member of the Kikuyu ethnic group, is one of four Kenyans facing charges at the Hague-based court for directing murder, displacements and clashes that pitted his ethnic supporters against the Luo and Kalenjin communities. All four men deny the allegations.

At least 64 people died this month when communities in the Tana River delta and in the districts of Mandera and Wajir fought over water and grazing land. The United Nations said evidence suggests the violence is politically motivated.

“We have been warning Kenyans since January that unless something is done we will see more and more pre-election violence,” Abbas Gullet, secretary-general of the Kenya Red Cross, said by phone yesterday from Nairobi, the capital.

Tensions are escalating over the way constituency boundaries are being re-drawn and as ethnic groups and clans try to undermine each other’s political power. “It’s clear this election is being driven by ethnic politics, not policies or individual candidates, and it shouldn’t be supported,” Gullet said.

Mombasa Riots

A separate outbreak of violence this week in the second-largest city of Mombasa, site of East Africa’s busiest port, may also shape the outcome of elections, Clare Allenson, an Africa analyst with Eurasia Group, said in an e-mailed note.

Riots erupted in the city on Aug. 27 after the fatal shooting of Aboud Rogo Mohammed, a Kenyan Muslim cleric accused by the UN and U.S. of fundraising and recruiting for al-Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia.

Demonstrators described the murder as an execution by security forces, although the police deny involvement in extra-judicial killings. Three prison guards died in a grenade attack on a truck carrying security personnel to calm protests at a church that had been set on fire, the Associated Press reported. Another person was hacked to death by a mob.

A measure of calm has returned to the city as security increased for the arrival of President Mwai Kibaki today to attend an annual agricultural fair.

Odinga Support

Faced with poor delivery of essential services and high unemployment, voters in Mombasa, situated in Kenya’s Coast province, may reconsider their support for presidential front-runner Raila Odinga, prime minister in Kenya’s unity government, Allenson said. Kibaki has to step down after his second term.

“Odinga carried the Coast in 2007, but as local leaders lay blame on the current coalition leadership over slow-moving reform, especially of the police force, a space could open for other candidates to gain ground,” she said.

Odinga is the preferred candidate for president with 34 percent support, according to an opinion poll of 2,000 Kenyans by Ipsos-Synovate between April 6 and April 17. Kenyatta and lawmaker William Ruto, who is facing charges at the ICC, are also bidding for the presidency.

Investors in Kenyan financial markets gauging the situation aren’t panicking about the violence, Duncan Kinuthia, a dealer at Nairobi-based Commercial Bank of Africa Ltd., said in a phone interview on Aug. 28.

Stronger Currency

“If investors felt this was a big risk the shilling would go into a steep slide,” Kinuthia said. Kenya’s shilling extended losses to a fourth day, declining 0.1 percent to 84.35 by 3:49 p.m. in Nairobi, on track for its lowest close in more than five weeks.

Still, sentiment may change, Allenson said. “Should instances of violence continue as elections near, key investment projects will face increasing delay as investors, both domestic and foreign, take a wait-and-see approach,” she said.

Inter-clan rivalry in some of Kenya’s most remote and sparsely populated regions has been rife since colonial rule by Britain, which ended in 1963, sparking attacks and reprisals mainly over grazing land and water. Politicians have routinely exploited long-standing tensions to gain power. A new constitution adopted in a public referendum in August 2010 has created more political seats, including county government representatives and senators, for Kenyans to potentially fight over, Gullet said.

“What we have seen in Tana River, Mandera, Wajir, it has shocked the nation,” Gullet said. “These people have died as a result of ethnic-politics. We need to bring temperatures down.”

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