NAIROBI Kenya kicked off a population census that includes asking people their ethnic group, a thorny issue in an east African nation that was polarised by post-election tribal violence.
The region's biggest economy boasts more than 40 groups with distinct linguistic and cultural differences. They usually vote in blocs for politicians from their own communities, regardless of any ideological issues.
Analysts say the census that began late on Monday is an important tool for policy and planning. But they say that asking Kenyans to state their ethnicity comes too soon after last year's post-election turmoil, in which at least 1,300 people were killed.
"We still have a lot of healing and reconciliation to do," Peter Aling'o, executive director at the Institute of Education in Democracy, told Reuters.
"We've begun to chest-thump around ethnicity again, not remembering that that was the problem in our elections. I don't think we have learnt our lessons as Kenyans, we are burying our heads in the sand."
Rights groups say some smaller groups were not counted in the last census 10 years ago, meaning they then received less than their fair share of access to development resources or political representation.
For the Ogiek, a tiny group of forest-dwelling hunters and gathers numbering about 20,000 people, the census will ascertain their number and make them more visible to policymakers.
"It is a good thing for us because the government can now make better decisions about us," said Daniel Kobei, chairman of the Ogiek People's Development Programme.
But some analysts fear politicians will use the results to manipulate policy and plot their return to power at the next election, which is scheduled for 2012.
GOVERNMENT DEFENDS PLAN
The government has been creating new districts to bring its services closer to citizens.
But a motion put forward in parliament seeking to turn those administrative districts into political constituencies has some Kenyans worried that smaller communities, or those living in remote regions, will be marginalised further.
"While Kenyans are rightly proud of their ethnic identity, the fear, however, is that this data would be manipulated for political interests," the Kenya Human Rights Commission said in a statement that urged Kenyans not to disclose their tribe.
The government has tried to assuage fears.
"We have to follow the internationally accepted standard and according to the United Nations, (stating the) tribe is one of the requirements when carrying out census," Planning Minister Wycliffe Oparanya told journalists. "The fact that Kenyans are stating their ethnic group does not mean they are tribalist."
Before the December 2007 election, most ethnic communities voted against President Mwai Kibaki. Kibaki's Kikuyu people and a few other groups that rallied behind him bore the brunt of the violence that followed claims of ballot rigging.
Kibaki formed a grand coalition government with opposition leader Raila Odinga, now the prime minister, to end the bloodshed. Now, the alliance that Odinga had formed to try to oust Kibaki is showing signs of cracks.
Disputes over land allocated in the Mau forest, Kenya's biggest forest and a major rainfall catchment area, have alienated Odinga from allies including his former right-hand man and agriculture minister William Ruto.
Ruto's Kalenjin community was the main beneficiary of the allocations during former president Daniel Arap Moi's era. Odinga says land handed out illegally should be returned.
"The moment the census is tied very closely to ethnicity ... we begin to become very jittery that this is another way of strategising for 2012," Aling'o said.