/ 21 February 2008

Kenya’s Wangari Maathai sees war on the horizon

Kenya’s political rivals are haggling over a settlement to the crisis sparked by disputed elections, but if the squabbling doesn’t bear fruit, the ordinarily stable East African country risks being plunged into war, a Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize laureate warned on Thursday.

Wangari Maathai, who was awarded the prize in 2004 for her environmental and gender-based activism, has long been a critic of Kenya’s dictatorial leaders and has voiced her dismay with the politicians embroiled in the current conflict.

Violence that convulsed Kenya in the weeks after President Mwai Kibaki was declared winner of the December elections saw supporters of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) chase out and attack Kikuyus, Kibaki’s tribesmen, with machetes and bow and arrows.

Kikuyus then sought revenge on their neighbours.

”With that kind of venom inside people, it’s very easy to nurture a spirit of vengeance and that’s what feeds civil wars — the desire to avenge,” Maathai said from her office in downtown Nairobi. ”The worst is yet to come.”

Echoing a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) conflict think tank saying militias were arming themselves, the peace activist said guns were readily available because of Kenya’s troubled neighbours, such as Somalia and Sudan.

”The biggest problem could be Kenyans deciding they won’t use bows and arrows but they will use guns,” she said.

Teams representing Kibaki and ODM leader Raila Odinga have been thrashing out a political solution to the conflict, with a power-sharing deal seen as the best way to calm the nerves of supporters of either side.

And the trigger for a worse conflict: more mass action promised by the opposition if it doesn’t get the power-sharing deal it wants, or the breakdown of the negotiations.

Maathai puts much weight in the talks mediated by former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, stressing he cannot afford to fail to bring the two sides together.

”I have been unable to envisage collapse. I cannot envisage collapse because it will be such a devastating thing for Kenyans,” said the 67-year-old, who has met Annan twice about the talks.

Maathai said the conflict runs deeper than the current political stalemate, with a controversial land-resettlement scheme after independence from Britain in 1963 bestowing plots of land to Kikuyus, the tribe of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta.

Beyond the tribal tensions that were born out of the land conflict, Kenya has one of the world’s largest gaps between rich and poor, and the ”warriors” who have sought to cleanse their homelands of Kikuyus are either unemployed or poor pastoralists.

”This conflict has been in the pipeline as far back as colonial time. It’s a very long process of injustices, of unwillingness to create a situation where more communities feel included,” she said.

The gap between ordinary Kenyans and their politicians is even more deplorable, Maathai said. She said Kibaki is ”shielded” from what was happening on the ground, unable to accept that the rift in the country is not any ordinary political disagreement.

”The battle is really between the ruling elite, but it is fought at the ground. It’s the little people who are losing and dying; the rulers are having a cup of tea in a beautiful hotel.”

Maathai, who gained international recognition when she prevented development on a downtown park by bringing a mass of women there — some who stripped naked — has received numerous death threats for her views on the election aftermath, accusing Kibaki of being stubborn and unwilling to cede ground.

But she insists the threats will not stop her from helping, as best she can, resolve the crisis in Kenya, which has left more than 1 000 people dead and turned communities who have lived side by side for decades against each other. — Sapa-dpa