In Kenya, Obama's election adds fuel to heated tribal rivalry

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NAIROBI, Kenya -- Harun Owade, an auto mechanic in Kibera, an expansive slum on the south side of Nairobi, lives in a small wooden shack with no running water or electricity.

A "matatu" or minivan taxi mechanic, Mr. Owade, 32, his wife and 4-year-old daughter barely get by on his earnings of about 7,000 Kenyan shillings or $100 a month.

But he, like many Kenyans these days, has put high hopes in U.S. President-elect Barack Obama.

"I strongly believe in [Mr. Obama's vision] for America, for us Kenyans and for the rest of the world," Mr. Owade said on Thursday, which was declared a public holiday in Kenya -- Obama Day -- following Tuesday's presidential election in the United States.

On a mostly quiet day after, victory parties and parades in honor of Mr. Obama spread across the country, Mr. Owade said his optimism was rooted in the fact that Mr. Obama, who last visited his father's homeland two years ago, knows something about the brutish nature of life in Kibera.

"And after walking on these dusty roads of ours, I know he will do something about Kibera because he knows how hard life can be here," Mr. Owade said.

Hidden behind much of the raised hopes and public celebration following Mr. Obama's victory, however, is a real fear that his election might have tapped once again into the historical animosity between the country's two biggest tribal groups -- the Kikuyu and the Luo.

Victory for the Luo?

With 42 tribal groups in Kenya, the struggle for power since the country gained its independence on Dec. 12, 1963, has been concentrated in these two groups. For the most part, it is the Kikuyu who have ruled Kenya since then; no Luo has ever ascended to the highest office in the land.

Because Mr. Obama's father, a Harvard-educated economist who died in 1982, was a Luo, the majority of his tribesmen see the U.S. election as the first true victory they can claim over the Kikuyu.

"The Luo feel that we have been sidelined in this country for many years. We may have been denied in Kenya, but now we have a Luo sitting in the White House," said Seraphine Odongo, 52, a businesswoman who operates a garage on the West Side of Nairobi.

Among the Luo, Mrs. Odongo, a mother of five, said she is not alone in her view that this American election is a symbolic victory over the Kikuyu.

"When Obama came to Kenya two years ago, he was very well received in the western part of the country, but not many people on the east were that excited about him," she said. Mr. Obama's father's tribesmen hail mostly from Nyanza Province in western Kenya,

And in some respects, that is how this election is being seen in Kenya. On Obama Day, for example, much of Nairobi's business district was closed, but a few sections remained open.

Luo- and Indian-owned businesses in town were mostly closed to celebrate Mr. Obama's victory, but the open secret in town was that the Kikuyu opened their businesses in spite of a Luo victory.

The two tribal groups have been in a fight for power that dates back to the Mau Mau Rebellion and the march toward Kenya's independence when two men, Oginga Odinga, a Luo, and Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, were the two most powerful men in the land.

Mr. Kenyatta became president and Mr. Odinga became vice president. But a few years later, Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga split and Mr. Odinga went into opposition. He later wrote a classic Kenyan book titled, "Not yet Uhuru" or Not Yet Independence.

Since then, no other Luo has achieved a position of power in the government until this year when the Mr. Odinga's son, Raila Odinga, was elected prime minister in a power-sharing government.

So far, Mr. Obama has kept his distance from the tribal and political machinations that helped plunge this country into months of violence after last year's presidential election.

During the violence that lasted from Dec. 29 until Feb. 18, Mr. Obama, who was involved in his own heated presidential primary at the time, called on all sides to settle the power struggle, which had brought the country to the edge of an all-out collapse.

And at the moment, the biggest political story in Nairobi is centered on the release of a report commissioned by the new government to name the ringleaders of the violence that occurred after the election, which most Luos believe was won by Mr. Odinga.

The report, which was published by retired Kenyan High Court Justice Philip Waki, recommends that if the government of Kenya fails to prosecute the perpetrators of the violence, they should be referred for trial to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

So far, Luos see the Waki Report as a witch hunt, yet Kikuyus, many of whom suffered the brunt of the violence that killed thousands, see it as essential to the sustenance of the current government.

Seated in his fourth-floor office at the University of Nairobi, Dr. Adams Oloo, a professor of political science at the University of Nairobi, said this is one area Mr. Obama might tread lightly in his dealings with Kenya and its internal politics.

"Our political climate is stable at the moment, but we don't know for how long," he said.

Will he help Kenya?

What can Obama do?

In the days following Mr. Obama's historic election, the question of what Kenyans expect from the man that they consider a native son is a hot topic of debate.

Some say Kenyans ought to expect nothing from him -- he is an American president and not a Kenyan president, after all. Others, however, argue that he is a Kenyan, and a son of the Luo people first, and as such, he ought to favor Kenya in some ways in his soon-to-be role as the highest-ranking American leader.

For Mr. Owade, in Kibera, that means helping the Kenyan government with funding to extend water and sewer lines to what is easily one of the biggest slums in all of East Africa.

"Imagine, [President-elect Obama] will be a leader of the free world and he has already been to one of the hardest places to live in Kenya. I hope he remembers us," he said.

But Adams Oloo, a professor of political science at the University of Nairobi, contends it would be foolhardy of Kenyans to expect preferential economic and development aid from the United States simply because of a President Obama in the White House.

"The one thing that an Obama presidency will do for Kenya is boost our tourism industry. For years, we have been known for our long-distance athletes, but now, Obama is putting Kenya on the map in a completely new light. People from all over the world will come and travel to western Kenya to see where Obama's family hails from," he said.

In many ways, he added, the Kenyan government realizes that potential. The road leading to Kogelo, the village in western Kenya where his father grew up, has been upgraded and paved, and electric company workers started laying power lines in the village on Wednesday.

But more important than that, said Dr. Adams Oloo, who teaches comparative politics and international relations, the biggest advantage Kenya, Africa and much of the underdeveloped world will have in an Obama administration is the life experience of the president himself.

"He not only understands 'the African problem,' but he has an idea of what it means to see America from outside its walls," he said, adding that in Africa, the continent might see a more progressive economic development agenda like the expansion of the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

In addition, Mr. Obama has consistently talked about the need for a more pro-active American approach to some of Africa's war-ravaged regions like Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

By the same token, however, Dr. Oloo added, Mr. Obama might not be the kind of American leader some African presidents would have preferred to see in the Oval Office.

"Some of our leaders here in Africa might not be impressed by a President Obama because they know he will not turn a blind eye to some of their more dictatorial tendencies," he added.

On his first official trip through Africa in 2006 as a senator, for example, Mr. Obama startled much of Kenya's political elite when he asked the government to do more to deal with the problem of corruption in the higher echelons of government.

He also criticized the Kenyan government for some of its sometimes-heavy-handed ways of dealing with the media. And while on the same trip in South Africa, he criticized the government there for its sometimes-lackluster efforts in dealing with the AIDS/HIV crisis as a public health problem.

Karamagi Ru jumba can reached at .


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