Veteran of East African Missions Warns of Civil War Threat in Kenya

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Recent killings along the coast of Kenya could signal a slide toward civil war unless political reforms are enacted soon, according to the regional superior of Maryknoll's 25 priests and brothers stationed in the East African nation.

Fr. Carroll Houle, a 35-year veteran of East African missions, said in a phone interview with NCR that he was "prayer-fully optimistic" that the political and economic crises behind the recent killings could be addressed in time to avert disaster. He added that constitutional reforms to ensure that upcoming elections are free and fair are essential to stabilizing an explosive situation. Houle was in New York state for a meeting at Maryknoll headquarters.

A coalition of the ruling KANU-Kenya African National Union--and members of opposition parties in Parliament have emerged to look at preelection reforms. The coalition was formed as a result of pressure from the international community and from the leadership of both Catholic and mainline Protestant churches inside Kenya.

"Some of the Catholic bishops have asked if it was possible to have this election postponed," Houle said, "to put a bill through Parliament to delay it for a few months so that there is a period of peace and tranquillity before the elections. People are fearful and have not returned to their homes. Many have fled --10,000 people on the coast, where much of the violence was. If they're not there, they can't vote, because you have to vote in your home area."

Observers inside and outside Kenya have charged that the deaths in mid-August of some 50 people, including six policemen, at the hands of large, well-armed gangs along Kenya's Indian Ocean coast, are a replay of the government-instigated violence in advance of Kenya's first-ever multiparty elections in 1992.

President Daniel arap Moi, who has held office since 1978, was re-elected in 1992 with 37 percent of the vote amid charges of voter fraud and of stirring up ethnic violence to create a state of emergency.

Kenya's 18 Catholic bishops have long been vocal critics of the ruling party. They criticized Moi in 1992, saying that because of the violence he had no legitimate claim to remain in power. Again in 1995, the bishops issued a pastoral letter denouncing corruption and government use of intimidation, harassment and ethnic strife to stifle political opponents.

While Moi has not been directly accused of orchestrating the recent violence, Archbishop Zacchaeus Okoth of Kisumu, the tribal region of most of those killed on the coast, issued a statement Sept. 17 in which he used the ouster and death of Zaire's President Mobutu Sese Seko as a warning to those responsible for the killings in Kenya. "President Mobutu had much power and wealth, and yet how did he die? He died isolated and despised by his own people and the international community," Okoth wrote. "It would be regrettable if a similar fate were to happen to the evil masters of violence in Kenya and elsewhere."

Houle said the bishops are concerned about the rise of private militias, a common prelude to civil war in the surrounding East African countries of Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda and Burundi.

"These same militias now exist in Kenya," Houle said. "Who controls them and who pays them? Nobody knows. Like the people who did the violence recently on the coast in the Mombasa area. A couple of hundred people move in, and they are obviously well-coordinated, even with walkie-talkies and modern weapons. So there has to be some training.

"If a number of these spring up, then they get out of hand. Oftentimes they take on a life of their own" and begin fighting each other, he said. …