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What next for Kenya and the Horn of Africa?

As the lone kerosene lamp sputtered, election officials, observers and journalists in the dark classroom realized the situation could get a lot worse…

As the lone kerosene lamp sputtered, election officials, observers and journalists in the dark classroom realized the situation could get a lot worse — it was running out of gas.

Outside, a gang of about 50 men holding sticks peered in through the barred windows.

“We want our right,” they screamed while they smashed panes of glass and shone flashlights on three unopened black ballot boxes inside.

“Counting is going on all over, why not in this room?” yelled one. In the dim light I could only see the intense white of his eye.

“Five minutes without that light and …”. I didn’t want to stick around in the room until he completed his thought.

Rowdy groups were everywhere in the slums when I left Old Kibera Primary School at 9 p.m. on December 27th. That day, unprecedented millions stood in kilometre-long queues to vote.

By night, swarms of opposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga’s supporters watched Election Commission of Kenya officials count the ballots.

Weeks earlier, Odinga said a plot had been hatched to fix the election for incumbent president Mwai Kibaki. And just that morning — at the school that was later engulfed by the gang — he tried to vote, but found “Odinga” and other names from the Luo tribe suspiciously missing in the official registry.

Odinga voted later in the day. But the story became a myth that told many what they already believed. The government, dominated by Kibaki and his Kikuyu tribesmen, are against the people.

It was the first real hint at the potential for violence verging on civil war in Kenya.

As I left Kibera, 50 soldiers sat in a truck clutching assault rifles waiting for something to happen. But as is usual for Kenya, nothing did. December 28th in Kibera was quieter than a small town after church service.

And still nothing had happened by December 29th, when I left a still peaceful Nairobi for a long-planned safari in the Serengeti.

No one had been declared the president and the anticipation was enough to make you smoke. But though sporadic clashes had broken out in a few rural areas there was no evidence the whole country was about to explode.

So, for three days, I looked at lions and giraffes, expecting Kenya to declare its president and get back to business. Then Nga’nga, an editor at the newspaper I work for in Nairobi, called me.

“Kibaki has been declared the winner,” he said, “and now there is ethnic cleansing.”

A church in western Kenya was currently on fire with 50 or so Kikuyu tribe people, including children, trapped inside by a mob, he continued as I listened in disbelief. Some were hacked with machetes as they tried to escape the flames.

“Things are very bad, and I don’t know what will happen,” he said. “Kenya is on fire. I guess we all have to die some day.”

I realized Nga’nga is a Kikuyu.

The peaceful, stable Kenya I left less than a week ago no longer exists.

Shops in downtown Nairobi are closed and the streets are empty. Kisumu, a funky town on Lake Victoria, has been looted and torched. Kibera, the friendly slum where I often hang is “at tribal war” according to several friends.

Kibaki, who I once considered an elder statesman, is defiantly holding on to his contested victory, using the army to suppress Odinga’s supporters who appear primed to fight for months.

Hundreds have died. And nearly 100,000 have been displaced, fleeing to Uganda, Tanzania, or to police stations — and until the fire, to churches.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the head of the African Union have flown to Nairobi to speak to Kibaki and Odinga.

Kibaki refuses to budge, while Odinga is calling for an interim power-sharing government, and then a new election.

All the while, Kenya is slipping from the one hope in the Horn of Africa to the latest basket case.

As I write from the safety of Tanzania (which I’ve yet to leave for Kenya because my host organization says I can’t) Odinga’s supporters are facing police with water cannons and tear gas. They planned to hold a million-man rally today just a few blocks from my downtown apartment but Kibaki declared it illegal.

The newspapers are reporting police have arrested two freshly elected opposition MPs for “inciting violence.”

Odinga is accusing Kibaki of “genocide.” And Nairobi’s Daily Standard has quoted the head of Kenya’s election commission, Samuel Kivuitu, as admitting he was pressured to release results and “doesn’t know” who actually won the election.

Africa is watching.

Fuel and food are running short thanks to vigilante roadblocks, which threatens to add pressure on unstable regimes in Uganda, Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as Kenya is their supply hub.

And yet I saw none of this coming. Or, if I did, I convinced myself it would be a terrible blip before another era of calm.

Ethnic cleansing and civil war just don’t happen in Kenya.

This is the headquarters of the United Nations in Africa, home to hundreds of non-governmental organizations and their expat workers, who frequent chic coffee bars and live in leafy suburbs.

It isn’t Rwanda, it’s Karibu Kenya, which hasn’t had a civil war like all of its neighbours.

But looking with fresh eyes, the signs were there.

In 2002, Kenyans picked Kibaki to lead them into a new era and threw mud at former president Daniel arap Moi’s car after he handed over power. After nearly a quarter century of his kleptocratic, patronage regime, people were fed up.

It was a bloodless coup, a revolution in all but name, which is so very Kenyan.

But over the past five years, as Kibaki guided the economy into nearly double-digit growth and built institutions, many have accused him of playing old African politics by favouring his own tribe in government positions at the expense of others.

People weren’t brave enough to challenge power in the era of Moi. They then peacefully gave Kibaki the reigns and he failed them. Now they’re taking to the streets. This is the final act of the revolution that until now hadn’t caused bloodshed.

The signs that something is amiss with the election results are also quite stark. Half of Kibaki’s cabinet — 16 ministers — were thrown out of power, and the three sons of former president Moi, who was supporting Kibaki, all lost their quest for seats in parliament. Somehow that doesn’t fit with a Kibaki presidential victory.

It took my breath away to see how enthusiastic people were to vote one week ago. That same energy, the desire to have one’s voice heard, is now fueling the violence.

Few trust their government anymore. A victory for Odinga was the peaceful solution for their grievances. But, if the suspicions are true, the old guard has refused to allow it.

The Horn of Africa could be the next domino to fall if Kenya doesn’t go back to its sleepy stability. I’m on a bus headed for Nairobi tomorrow. Watch this space.

Tim Querengesser is a former Yukon News reporter now writing in Kenya.