NAIROBI, Kenya — A leading human rights group said Monday that Kenyan political and business leaders plotted much of the country's recent ethnic violence, and it urged the new coalition government to bring the organizers to justice.
New York-based Human Rights Watch found evidence that hundreds of people were killed in planned ethnic attacks following the disputed presidential election in December. In many cases, the group said, the attacks were planned and financed by prominent civic leaders, although the group didn't directly implicate any top national politicians.
In a report titled "Ballots to Bullets," the group also charged that Kenyan police used excessive force to break up demonstrations in opposition strongholds, fatally shooting hundreds of people, including children.
More than 1,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced by more than two months of fighting, which destroyed Kenya's reputation as a stable democracy. Last month President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga — who claimed that Kibaki stole the election — agreed to form a coalition government and a commission to investigate the violence.
"For the new government to function well and earn the people's trust, it needs to first heal the wounds by prosecuting those behind the violence," said Human Rights Watch's Africa director, Georgette Gagnon.
The fighting, centered in the western Rift Valley region, had its roots in tribe-based grievances over land that date from before 1963, when Kenya won independence from Britain. Tribes native to the Rift Valley have long complained that Kikuyus, Kenya's dominant tribe, were illegally granted large parcels of land, and Kibaki's Kikuyu-led government has failed to address the land question since coming to power in 2002.
Ethnically charged rhetoric marred the 2007 election campaign, a tightly fought race that saw Kikuyus overwhelmingly favoring Kibaki while a smattering of smaller tribes backed Odinga.
Researchers found that leaders of the Kalenjin tribe, which backed Odinga, planned attacks on Kikuyu homes before the election. One Kalenjin elder said he attended a meeting in the town of Eldoret where elders "said that if there is any sign that Kibaki is winning, then the war should break."
In most of the Rift Valley, Kikuyus fled to ancestral lands in central Kenya. But Kikuyu gangs struck back in the lakeside tourist town of Naivasha, where several witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Kikuyu businessmen called a meeting at a local hotel on Jan. 23 to plan reprisal attacks.
"This was not done by ordinary citizens; it was arranged by people with money," said one young man who attended the meeting. "We were paid 200 shillings (about $3) for going to the meeting, and we were told we would get the rest after the job. It was like a business."
Leading politicians on both sides have denied playing any role in the attacks. But many Kenyan activists say that top officials allowed the violence to carry on by not appealing more forcefully to their supporters to back down.
The government commission also must investigate the police response, Human Rights Watch said. While police admitted to following "shoot-to-kill" orders in the western opposition stronghold of Kisumu — killing more than 30 people — officers "made little attempt to intervene at all" when pro-government mobs went on rampages in Naivasha and the Rift Valley town of Nakuru, the report said.
"The commission has to ask why the police were ordered to shoot (in Kisumu) and not in other places," said Ben Rawlence, co-author of the report. "There must have been different orders in different places."
A police spokesman said the department had no comment because it hadn't read the report yet.
(McClatchy special correspondent Munene Kilongi contributed.)