Washington Post -- In Ethiopia, 46 demonstrators died in a series of clashes with security forces as they protested reported rigging of national elections. In Uganda, a senior opposition leader was arrested, touching off riots in one of the continent's most tranquil capitals. In Tanzania, nine people died when security forces fired into protesting crowds during elections on the island of Zanzibar.
This has been a turbulent season across East Africa, a region that has been struggling for well over a decade to consolidate emerging democratic systems against a backdrop of persistent poverty, simmering civil conflict and past dictatorial leadership.
In recent weeks, political violence in several countries has suggested a widening loss of confidence in elected leaders who arrived in the 1980s or 1990s as part of Africa's new wave of democracy -- often replacing brutal dictatorships -- but who have clung to power or been accused of corruption.
"Times are very fragile in this part of the continent, and frustrations were boiling for some time now over political freedom, over promises made and . . . over extreme poverty levels," said Abdel Mohammed, a conflict expert with the African Union. He spoke this week from his office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as young men burned tires and police fired tear gas outside. "You feel like sometimes if there is going to be war in these countries, it's going to be huge," he said.
Even in Kenya, a relatively stable society, violence tends to flare during elections. In the past several weeks, five people were killed during political rallies as the country prepared to vote in a constitutional referendum scheduled for Monday. The teenage son of a police inspector died Oct. 29 when police fired live ammunition into unruly crowds in the lakeside town of Kisumu. Another 44 people were injured in the rioting, officials said.
"Kenyans don't know what real full-blown war is really is like," said Richard Obwaya, 35, a Kenyan aid worker in Sudan's Darfur region. "We have suffered too much economically. Things could really fall apart. But I really hope we, too, don't turn to the bullet to put things right. It would be so horrible to see Nairobi on fire."
Obwaya is one of thousands of Kenyans who regularly cross their borders to provide food and medical aid to neighboring countries with more serious problems of internal conflict. But in recent weeks, the tensions stirred by the proposed constitutional changes at home have sparked street disturbances in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital.
The changes, if approved, would strengthen the powers of President Mwai Kibaki, a member of the dominant Kikuyu tribe. Members of the second-largest Luo tribe, led by a politician Kibaki once promised to make his prime minister, have staged angry rallies marked by hateful harangues and slurs against the Kikuyu.
Church leaders and newspaper columnists in Nairobi have called for calm, while the U.S. Embassy advised Americans on Wednesday not to travel to Kenya because of fears of mounting political violence as the referendum approaches.
"At a time when . . . Sudan next door is yet to realize genuine peace and Somalia yet to become a nation again, we should be concerned at these hate speeches," columnist Jerry Okungu wrote this week in the Standard newspaper. "Need we forget Rwanda so soon?" he asked, referring to the ethnic hostilities that led to mass slaughter in 1994.
Although Kenya is far more prosperous than many of its neighbors, the seeds of unrest are buried in shallow soil. While tourists jet in for safaris and vacations, 70 percent of Kenyans are jobless, and many survive by selling fruit on the street, filling potholes or begging for part-time work as gardeners and cooks.
When Kibaki won the presidency in late 2002, he brought hope for the working poor and pledged a corruption-free government that would develop roads, hospitals and schools so all Kenyans could enjoy a better quality of life. Since then, however, charges of corruption have halted a variety of public projects, enraging many people.
Obwaya said he wished he could return home to vote against the proposed constitution but must remain in Darfur to distribute food to residents displaced by new fighting between government forces and rebel groups. "I really will pray that Kenya doesn't join our neighbors," he said.
The most explosive recent violence in East Africa has occurred in Ethiopia, where 46 people have been killed since June and more than 1,000 arrested in protests by government opponents. The demonstrators claimed that elections in May were rigged to favor the ruling party led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who was elected president in 1991, after years of repressive rule, and became prime minister in1995. This week, under intense international pressure, at least 800 people were released.
Uganda has been shaken by violent demonstrations this month following the arrest of the main opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, on treason charges. Besigye returned from a long exile last month and has mounted the strongest-ever challenge to President Yoweri Museveni, who seized power nearly 20 years ago. He pushed through broad reforms of Ugandan politics but has since been accused of seeking to cling to power indefinitely.
Both Meles and Museveni were rebel leaders turned statesmen, praised by Western officials for their committment to democracy and economic development. But as their years in power have passed, both men have lost their appeal by crushing political opponents and using heavily armed police to silence protesters.
"During every change of regime in Africa, people expect life is going to improve and it doesn't. We make two steps forward and then we slip back into the same social ills of bad leadership and intolerance of dissent," said David Makali of Kenya's Media Institute, speaking from Nairobi. "Lacking all hope, people turn to violence and rebel groups. What we lack as Africans is real hope in our leadership. This really has to change."
Sudan continues to be wracked by violence in the western Darfur region, where attacks by anti-government rebels and counterattacks by government forces and their allied militias have left villages in charred ruins. A peace pact was reached early this year in a separate, long-running conflict between the north and south, but officials fear it could be undermined by the persistent Darfur conflict.
In Tanzania, nine people died late last month in clashes leading up to elections in the semi-autonomous island archipelago of Zanzibar. Security forces fired live ammunition and beat opposition supporters in the streets, and 200 people were injured. Zanzibar is a strongold of the country's major opposition group, the Civic United Front, which lost the two most recent national elections despite wide popular support.
Somalia has been plagued by political violence and tribal clashes ever since its longtime dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, was ousted in 1991. The transitional government formed in 2004 is facing violent opposition from warlords, and on Nov. 6 gunmen attacked the convoy of Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi, killing at least five bodyguards.
"No one wants to see any of these countries end up like Somalia," said El Tayeb Haj Ateay, director of the Peace Institute of the University of Khartoum, which promotes civil society and conflict resolution. "People feel they trusted this last round of leaders, but years have passed and they still have no real democracy . . . and a horrible lack of economic power.
"You have to be realistic about what happens next," he said. "You hope no one goes the way of the gun. You just really hope."