NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenya always thought of itself as special, and the United States considered it a reliable ally in a dangerous neighborhood.
As the rest of East Africa endured political and ethnic upheaval over the past decade, Kenya opened its doors to tens of thousands of refugees and built its economy into the powerhouse of the region. With its teeming wildlife, sparkling beaches, kind weather and hardworking people, it was a friendly face in a rough neighborhood.
It also became a hub for everything from fighting Islamic terrorism to AIDS research, drawing the ire of Muslim groups who say the government is trampling on human rights in the name of counterterrorism. With U.S. backing, Kenyan troops have hunted for and arrested terrorism suspects along the country's border with Somalia, where U.S. officials think al Qaida affiliates are hiding.
Now a week of ethnically driven clashes after a disputed election has left more than 300 people dead, turned neighbors of different tribes against one another, reduced vast tracts to smoldering ruins and raised questions about how stable Kenya — with 37 million people, 42 tribes and a stubborn tradition of corruption — really was.
"We must ask ourselves, was the peace an illusion?" said Shaban Abwao, 37, as he surveyed the wreckage in Nairobi's sprawling Kibera slum, where he lives and where mobs burned three churches this week in attacks that residents said targeted the Kikuyu tribe, the main victims of the violence.
"Kenya's value and effectiveness as a partner of the U.S. depends a lot on it being a stable and open society," said Mark Bellamy, who served as U.S. ambassador to Kenya from 2003 to 2006. "And if the Kenyan government is preoccupied with containing domestic unrest and . . . using its intelligence services and police and military to manage its internal problems, then it's going to be a less effective partner."
International pressure is mounting on President Mwai Kibaki to reach a compromise with opposition leader Raila Odinga, who charges that Kibaki stole last week's election. The Bush administration, after quickly congratulating Kibaki last Sunday on his victory, reversed itself Monday after credible reports of fraud in the vote-counting. Now Washington is withholding recognition of the result. Kibaki, a Kikuyu, had himself sworn in for his second term immediately, triggering attacks on his group by rival tribes.
Nairobi's ethnically mixed slums were mostly quiet Friday, with residents trekking to markets rather than cowering in their homes. But even if the violence eases, many Kenyans fear that the tribal divisions are beyond repair.
The most serious allegations of vote-rigging came from Kenya's central Kikuyu heartland, which is also the source of Kibaki's strongest electoral support. The post-election violence has pitted supporters of Odinga's Luo tribe and various smaller tribes against the Kikuyu, who compose less than a quarter of the population but, according to other groups, have long monopolized economic and political power. The Luo have never had such a good shot at the top office in the land as in this election.
Not long ago, tribal differences were the stuff of barroom jokes, not often discussed in polite company. That's changed, especially after a mob torched a church this week in the rural Rift Valley region, killing dozens of Kikuyus who'd taken shelter inside and stunning the nation.
In a Nairobi hospital this week, 22-year-old George Onyango's lips quivered as he described what a gang of young Kikuyu men had said to him before they beat him with sticks and opened two gashes in his head with machetes.
"They said, 'You are black — too black. We don't like your black skin,' " recalled Onyango, a Luo, referring to the perception that Luos have darker skin than other tribes. They left him with a swollen eye, damage to the hearing in his left ear, bruises everywhere and a purple pool of blood under his nose.
Many Kenyans said that the election, which was certified by an election commission packed with Kikuyus, has shaken their faith in the democratic process.
The 2002 election, which installed Kibaki, and the rejection of a new constitution in 2005 — a setback to Kibaki — seemed to reflect the will of the people. That pushed tribal rivalries to the background, but only temporarily, said Maina Kiai, the chairman of the independent Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.
"We were able to live with the tensions between us — uncomfortably perhaps, but we lived with them," Kiai said.
"Now the opposition says, 'Why should we go to court (to challenge the election result)? It's Kibaki's court.' Everything is seen in the prism of ethnicity."
No one knows whether the tensions will subside. In ethnically mixed Kibera, where riot police fired tear gas and water cannons Thursday at opposition supporters who were attempting a mass demonstration, Lawrence Apur Mahura said that politics, not tribal hatred, was driving the clashes.
"It's because people thought the election was rigged," said the 33-year-old member of the minority Turkana tribe, who backed Odinga. "Kenyans don't hate each other because of tribe."
His friend, Nancy Ilamuka, a 34-year-old member of the Luhya tribe, clucked disapprovingly, her face stern.
"Those people," she said, in the way that many non-Kikuyus seem to refer to Kikuyus these days, "they just want power forever. They need to be taught something."
They argued for a few minutes. Finally, Mahura threw up his hands.
"People had those (tribal) feelings, but they didn't want to express them before," Mahura said. "Now they don't want to stop talking about tribe."