Opposition Parties Build Bridges among Tribes ETHNICITY IN AFRICAN POLITICS. ETHNIC Nationalism Has Emerged as a Powerful Factor in World Politics as Communist or Authoritarian Governments Have Collapsed in Places Such as the Former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Somalia. but It Remains Little Understood, Especially in the Afircan Context, Where the Tribalism Label Leads to Easy Misperceptions. Here, and on the Opinion Pages, the Monitor Explores the Relationship between Ethnicity and African Politics. KENYA

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THROUGHOUT his 14 years in power, President Daniel arap Moi has justified one-party rule by arguing that a multiparty state would disintegrate into tribe-based power struggles.

At first glance, the year-long run-up to tomorrow's democratic elections - the first multiparty ballot since 1966 - would seem to support this contention.

Since last December, when President Moi bowed to domestic and international pressure to lift a ban on opposition parties and allow multiparty elections, hundreds have died and thousands been displaced by tribal fighting. About 35 people died earlier this month in tribal attacks about 150 miles north of here. At least eight people were killed in tribal clashes near Eldoret in the west.

But Kenya has not seen the kind of mass proliferation of tribe-based opposition parties that Moi once predicted. In fact, one of the main emergent opposition parties has attempted to build a coalition between two of Kenya's major tribes.

Politicians "are primarily to blame, and not their followers," for stirring tribal tensions, says Arthur Eshiwani, senior law lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

Kenya has more than 35 tribes, Dr. Eshiwani says. The 1983 report, edited by Harold Nelson, "Kenya: A Country Study" listed the top five, and their percentages of population, as: Kikuyu (21.2 percent); Luhya, consisting of 16 groups (14 percent); Luo (12.9 percent); Kamba (11.4 percent); and Kalenjin, consisting of about seven groups (10.9 percent). …