A government minister pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to charges he had incited violence in a dispute over land and water in Kenya’s coastal region in which over 100 people have been killed, but was later sacked from the cabinet anyway.
The scale and intensity of the unrest over the past month has left many Kenyans convinced it was instigated for political reasons and has raised fears of serious tribal unrest ahead of elections next March.
More than 100 people have been shot, hacked and burnt to death as the Pokomo and Orma tribes have fought one another in a deadly dispute over Orma-owned cattle grazing on land the Pokomo say is theirs.
After pleading not guilty, assistant livestock minister Dhadho Godana was freed on bail. He is due to reappear in court on Oct. 2 and magistrate Lucy Nyambura ordered Godana to refrain from making any public comments about the violence.
Godana, whose constituency is located in the Tana Delta where the violence erupted, had accused a political rival, acting internal security minister Yusuf Haji, of whipping up the unrest, according to local media.
President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga sacked Godana from the cabinet later on Wednesday.
"Following investigations that have linked… Godana with violence that has rocked the Tana River Delta, I have today in consultations with… Odinga relieved… Godana of his duties as assistant minister," Kibaki said in a statement.
The charge sheet said that Godana, "without lawful excuse, uttered words to the effect that ‘I am sure… that you are yet to see more if Haji is not sacked from that docket (his security ministry)’ — words which were meant to cause deaths or physical injury to residents of Tana Delta."
Local media alleged that Godana had made the comments in the village of Kilelengwani a day after hundreds of attackers had killed at least 38 inhabitants and torched houses.
Haji, who is also the defence minister, represents another constituency flanking the Tana River and is from a different tribe to Godana.
Settled Pokomo farmers and semi-nomadic Orma pastoralists have clashed intermittently for years over access to grazing, farmland and water in the coastal region. An influx of weapons in past years has upped the stakes.
Earlier this week, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the Tana Delta violence was a "grim reminder" of the nationwide inter-ethnic fighting that ripped through Kenya after a disputed presidential election in late 2007.
Two contenders in next year’s presidential election are among four high-profile Kenyans accused of crimes against humanity and are due to face trial in April at the International Criminal Court in connection with the 2007-08 violence.
In response to the coastal region bloodshed, Kibaki imposed a curfew on Monday and sent extra security forces to the area. He has pledged to deal "firmly and decisively" with those behind the violence.
— Humphrey Malalo writes for Reuters from Nairobi, Kenya.