NAIROBI, Kenya – Kenya’s president threatened a tough crackdown Monday as rioters rampaged for a third day to protest what they called his sham re-election – a bloody convulsion threatening what has been East Africa’s most stable and prosperous democracy.
At least 135 Kenyans were reported killed in violence that flared from the shantytowns of Nairobi to resort towns on the sweltering coast. Opposition leaders set the stage for more turmoil by calling for a million people to rally against President Mwai Kibaki.
In the slums of Nairobi, rioters waved machetes and shouted “Kibaki must go!” while police beat protesters with clubs, fired off tear gas and shot live bullets in the air. Much of the country was at a standstill, with shops closed and many people hunkered inside their homes.
“We are ready to die, and we’re ready for serious killings,” 24-year-old James Onyango, who lives in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, said as homes and shops around him burned.
While there are no strong policy differences between the two camps, the bloodshed exposed tribal resentments that have long festered in Kenya, where Kibaki’s Kikuyu people – the largest group – are accused of turning their dominance of politics and business to the detriment of others. Political loyalties are often tribal-linked, and ethnic gangs were reported attacking rival groups.
The opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, a member of the Luo tribe, dropped his plan for a mass protest rally Monday after a warning from police. But he called for 1 million people to march Thursday on the capital’s Uhuru Park, where protesters seeking multiparty democracy gathered in the early 1990s.
“We are calling for mass action,” said Odinga, who led Kibaki in opinion polls before Thursday’s ballot as well as in early election returns until his lead suddenly evaporated as official figures came out over the weekend. “We will march wearing black arm bands because we are mourning.”
Kibaki, in a New Year’s message to Kenyans, called “for healing and reconciliation,” but he warned that his government would “deal decisively with those who breach the peace by intensifying security across the country.”
Three police officers independently said that they had been ordered to shoot to kill to stop rioters. A government spokesman denied such an order was given.
Ethnic fighting was evident in Nairobi’s sprawling slums, where the neighborhoods are often divided along tribal lines. Kenya’s Red Cross said that many of the dead were killed in ethnic clashes and that gangs were even checking on the tribal affiliations of Red Cross workers trying to help the injured.