By Helen Nyambura-Mwaura
NAIROBI, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Kenya is a land of stark contrast: the rich drive gleaming luxury cars, can afford to enrol their children in top British schools and in the case of one local magnate, send suits to London for dry cleaning.
But most live a hand-to-mouth existence and some Kenyans believe the bloody post-election crisis that has exposed the east African country’s tribal divisions could also inflame the gulf between classes and further exacerbate instability.
Although long seen as one of Africa’s most promising economies, Kenya has a huge wealth gap, with 10 percent of people controlling 42 percent of the economy and the poorest 10 percent holding less than 1 percent, according to U.N. figures.
"If this issue is not resolved, the worst thing we would hear or see is a class war where these people, men and women, say they have nothing to lose," Abbas Gullet, secretary general of the Kenya Red Cross, told business leaders recently.
Opposition leader Raila Odinga used the argument that many Kenyans have not shared in economic growth under President Mwai Kibaki -- averaging 5 percent a year -- to win support in impoverished areas ahead of the election in December.
The dispute over Kibaki’s re-election, in a vote that Odinga says was stolen, became the spark for bloodshed that has killed at least 1,000 people in ethnic clashes and battles between police and poor slum dwellers.
Chief mediator Kofi Annan, the former U.N. Secretary General, hopes for a political solution this week but nobody expects the wounds opened by the crisis to heal so soon.
While Kenya’s most obvious divisions follow tribal lines, those killed on both sides tend to have much more in common as peasant farmers or slum dwellers than they do with the ultra wealthy Kibaki and Odinga.
STRUGGLE TO SURVIVE
Almost half of Kenya’s 36 million people live on a dollar a day and most struggle to put their children through school or pay for decent health care. Cabinet ministers take home more than 1 million shillings ($13,820) a month.
"All these politicians are using us. We fight one another and die like animals but their children are not on the streets like other Kenyans," said Ouma, a security guard in a middle-class Nairobi suburb. "The people dying are young men who should be working not dying."
During the worst fighting, ethnic gangs erected roadblocks and beat up or killed those they caught from rival communities.
But some of the thugs also harassed or robbed people from their own ethnic groups if they seemed wealthier.
Around 500,000 young Kenyans join the job market each year, but many fail to find work, swelling the number of disaffected youths ready to seize on any chance they can to profit.
"Some of them see us riding in our Mercedes or in our Hummers and they want that, just as we want the same thing for our children. This is the reality we are dealing with today," Steven Smith, chairman of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, told the meeting of business leaders.
Aid workers in Kenya’s slums say they have to consult with so-called "emerging informal leadership" for their safety.
Simply put, they have to deal with ethnically-based gangs that control slums where police and other normal government services rarely reach. Poverty is a driving force behind high levels of crime that affect both rich and poor Kenyans.
In Nairobi’s Mathare slum, the murderous Mungiki criminal gang has long ruled, carrying out extortion rackets and providing illegal water or electricity connections.
Politicians have long used such groups as campaign muscle-for-hire, and did so during the election violence.
"They have a huge say and sway on the ground in these major slums and they are establishing their own leadership," Gullet said. "I say to many politicians ... today it is quite clear that they do not have the proper control over these people."
A local daily columnist wrote recently that it was naive to expect that pro-Kibaki and pro-Odinga gangs would only fight against each other forever.
"If there’s no political settlement soon, at some point, the gangs will unite ... together attacking, without discrimination, the homes of Kibaki and Raila’s middle-class supporters," Charles Onyango-Obbo wrote in the Daily Nation.
He cited the example of rival gangs fighting for political godfathers in Congo Republic in the 1990s who sometimes called a temporary truce when their battles led them to a rich suburb. They would then loot it together, before going back to war. (Editing by Bryson Hull and Matthew Tostevin)