Kenyans once prided themselves as being one of the most peaceful African nations [AFP]
Relative calm has returned to most towns across Kenya after last week's post-election violence, but danger still looms as the country's political woes reveal deep-rooted ethnic conflict.

As Kenyans count their losses, they have started to debate whether the genesis of the recent violence is rooted in purely political issues or a socio-ethnic outburst triggered by a political blunder.

One issue that troubles many is how potent tribalism still thrives in Kenya. 

People from the tribes that were seen to have voted for Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent president and announced winner of the election, were targeted and cut down in the streets.

Their homes and businesses were reduced to ashes.

Kibaki's tribal supporters who lived in regions of Kenya considered opposition turfs fled to safety, precipitating what aid agencies are calling a looming humanitarian crisis.

Kenyans belonging to the more than 40 tribes once prided themselves as being one of the most peaceful nations on a troubled continent despite their differences. They are now both shocked and aware of how easily the social fabric unravelled and the country plunged into war.

Cause and effect

"I could not believe this was happening to me, let alone to Kenya," one displaced woman said on local television.

"Kenya has managed to stay peaceful all this time, and I find it hard to believe that a neighbour I have lived with for years could loot my house in my presence and drive my family out – people who had been my friends only the previous day."

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Ken Ouko, a leading sociologist at the University of Nairobi and a social commentator, sees the election as a catalyst for something that was waiting to happen. 
 
"What happened would have happened at some point in time, with or without the elections," Ouko said.

He said Kenyans should blame themselves and the politicians for rising up against one another.

"As sad as this is, the election was only a perfect excuse to make ‘social adjustments’. It was something that had been simmering in the society and only found its way out now. It is a sign that something was wrong within our society."

He points to land ownership issues in the Rift Valley province where ethnic communities from other parts of the country own huge tracks of land leaving the local ethnic community feeling short changed.

Not surprisingly, most of the displaced persons in Kenya are located in this region.

Predictable rifts

But Mutahi Ngunyi, a political scientist, insists that simmering social tensions have been created by the political standoffs and therefore require political solutions.

Kibaki supporters comprised mostly members
of the Kikuyu tribe [GALLO/GETTY]
He said: "Kibaki's inner circle has been dominantly [comprised] from one community - the Kikuyu - which became too arrogant and ill-advised that they would go it alone."

During the constitution review referendum held in 2003 and the just concluded elections Kibaki was almost exclusively voted for by his community in Central Kenya and the neighbouring Meru and Kamba communities in the Eastern Province.

"We should have seen the problem coming soon after the referendum in 2003. It was rather evident that the voting would clearly be anti-Kikuyu – the president's ethnic group and the largest in Kenya. The referendum was a shadow of what was to be expected."

When the Kikuyu tribe set itself apart from the rest of the country and effectively created a voting bloc supporting Kibaki, the rest of the country seemed to unite against it.

Seeking solutions

However, Ngunyi warns that tribalism and ethnic tensions should not rule out the efficacy of a Western-style democracy in Kenya.

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He said: "The problem is not democracy itself or the practice of democracy in Kenya and Africa. Rather our problem is that we lack institutions that are able to handle the stress and to uphold the practice of democracy. In this case, the electoral Commission of Kenya failed the test in not living up to the expectations and fulfilling the mandate that had been given to them."

While he blames the pre-independence mentality of African leaders to hold on to power at any cost, he does believe Kenyans have a number of options.

One is to nullify the election results and hold new elections in a few months, but the president’s Party of National Unity has already rejected that as an alternative.

Barring the use of the military to stage an overthrow, Ngunyi thinks a civilian coup is viable and would be entrenched within the tenets of the constitution.

He suggests that parliament could pass a vote of no-confidence against the president and he  would have no option but to dissolve parliament within three days. Then the country would have to head to the polls again.

Ouko nevertheless says a political solution should be viewed as only the beginning of Kenya's road to reconciliation. "It would take more than a political solution to heal and bridge the rift created between communities. People would need to also heal and embrace each other," he said.

"Community and religious leaders would greatly facilitate the healing and reconciliation process."

Source: Al Jazeera