Until hundreds of people lay dead in the streets or burned to death in a church where they had taken refuge, Kenya was a poster child for African democracy, frequently referred to as an “Island of Stability.” But Kenya became awash in a sea of conflict in December, the waves of rage unleashed after a disputed election that brought President Mwai Kibaki back for his second term in office.

In the violence sparked since the December 27 election, more than 600 people have been killed—wounded by countrymen with machetes and arrows, burned alive inside torched homes, or shot by police guns. Many forced out by enraged mobs, 250,000 have fled their homes. Although the initial rash of violence has declined, the fighting has not stopped entirely. On January 10, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan agreed to take over mediation talks between feuding political leaders, but leaders rejected the offer. As protestors continue to rally against the election results, violent clashes have persisted throughout the country. The bloodshed has revealed a not-so-secret secret: the fabric of the multiethnic society, stitched together for 44 years after independence from colonial rule, has been fraying at the seams for years now.

There is the argument that, even though he managed to grow the economy up some seven percent, President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, mostly favored his own ethnic group, doling out privileges, economic muscle and state power to them. The Kikuyus are the country’s largest ethnic group. “The rich have been getting richer, and the poor poorer,” said Patrick Motau of the Africa Institute of Southern Africa. “And the anger is building up in the slums,” he said adding that violence has mostly been directed at the Kikuyu. “Why? Anger at leadership,” he said. One Kenya-born journalist told me ,“We are resorting to our tribal instincts as never before. It’s frightening as hell.”

Nowhere has it been more frightening than in the fertile Rift Valley, where the competition for land and water has led to tensions that have occasionally erupted since the Kikuyus settled there during the colonial period and after independence in 1963. The indigenous Kalenjin ethnic group and the nomadic Masaai, the area’s other inhabitants, have instigated violence against the Kikuyu, demanding they return to their ancestral lands.

In the Rift Valley, radio programs have demanded that the Kikuyu return to where they came from. The Kalenjin call the Valley “our land,” recalling shades of Rwanda, where hate radio fueled the 1994 genocide. Fearful Kikuyus are fleeing in massive numbers, often with just what they can carry.

It was in this region that the church was torched, and scores of Kikuyu who had taken refuge there burned to death. The Kenya-born journalist, who has roamed the country talking to people on the run from violence, told me, “It wasn’t about the election; it was about the land.”

Whatever it was about—and it appears to be about a complex array of things—the destabilization of Kenya has affected other countries as well. “It casts a dark cloud over democracy, not only in Kenya,” said the Africa Institute’s Patirck Motlau. “Africans are watching across the continent.”

Many say it will take a long time and hard work at reconciliation to put this country back on track. But Kenya needs to get it right this time around, for the sake of itself and the growing number of African countries taking their first steps to democracy—and watching Kenya to see if the next steps are worth it.

Credit: AP Photos