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Kenya's slums: new political battleground

Tribal fighting continued this weekend over high rents.

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Thousands of residents here streamed out of the Kibera slum this weekend, hauling their gerry cans, bed frames, and cooking utensils as they escaped violent clashes that have claimed a reported 15 lives so far.

Francis Ayuya, waiting for a hired wheelbarrow to help him move his belongings to a different slum across town, says that he is not coming back. "This is only the beginning of bad days to come," he says. "I don't want to stay and see more."

The clashes in Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum with half a million inhabitants - and just four miles from downtown - began escalating last month and have been gathering momentum ever since. Ostensibly just a dispute between landlords and tenants over rent, the violence serves as a snapshot of much that is wrong with Kenya today. The problems range from poverty to intractable ethnic tensions - and the divisive behavior of the politicians who take advantage of these issues.

President Daniel arap Moi sparked the clashes when he visited Kibera at the end of October and suggested that some landlords were oppressing the poor with unreasonably high rents.

In Kibera, a history of tensions runs between the landlords and tenants. Mr. Moi's comments were dynamite in a camp where most landlords are from the Nubian tribe (a predominantly Muslim group originally from Sudan), and the tenants come from the Luo (a large tribe from Western Kenya).

Within days, tenants refused to pay their rents and scuffles broke out. Last week, energy minister Raila Odinga, a senior minister and a Luo, visited the slum to repeat Moi's remarks. The next day Luos and Nubians faced off, rampaging through the dusty footpaths while wielding, machetes, rocks, chairs, and flower pots.

Moi's comments are generally seen here as a clumsy attempt to secure popularity among the Luo. After 23 years in power, the president is being forced to step down next year by the Constitution.

Before he leaves power, however, Moi wants to ensure the success of his Kenyan African National Union (KANU) party, and as such, his own place in history and future standing. In a country where voting is still done, for the most part, along tribal lines, Moi - a member of the small Kalanjin tribe - knows he must form enough alliances with other tribes to bring in the necessary votes.

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