Amid Kenya clashes, growing calls for calm

International mediators are arriving in Kenya to help end the political standoff after last week's disputed vote.

By , Staff writer

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    Talks: In hopes of ending postelection violence, South African Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu (c.) arrived Thursday in Kenya for talks with opposition leader Raila Odinga.
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    Break it up: Kenyan police used water cannons Thursday to disperse supporters of populist leader Raila Odinga in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya.
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In the center of Kenya's capital, Nairobi, police dispersed opposition protesters Thursday with water cannons and tear gas.

Out in the suburbs, a growing number of newly arrived African statesmen – from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Sierra Leone's President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah – met with Kenya's two top leaders to help find a peaceful resolution to the ethnic violence that has killed more than 300 people since last week's disputed presidential vote.

And in their respective headquarters, populist opposition leader Raila Odinga and incumbent President Mwai Kibaki continue to dig in their heels and demand that their rival step aside.

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Yet, amid the ethnic clashes, there are a few signs of hope that the crisis that followed Kenya's Dec. 27 national elections might be moving toward resolution.

The very fact that police used water cannons, rather than live ammunition as in the past, shows a restraint in the government's use of force. And the presence of potential mediators gives both leaders a face-saving way to soften their positions and seek middle ground, experts say.

"We want [Mr. Kibaki] to own up to the fact that the elections were not right, they were rigged, and even the chairman of the Election Commission Samuel Kivuitu [said] that they were rigged," says Najib Balala, an opposition member of Parliament. "So we must sit down and negotiate. We are ready to negotiate, if Kibaki and his people can admit the elections were rigged. So far they refuse."

This might seem like an impasse, but François Grignon, director of the Africa program for the International Crisis Group in Nairobi, sees them as a "display of strength" on the way to the negotiation table.

Signs of cooperation

"The government is on the defensive," says Mr. Grignon, and the fact that they used water cannons and tear gas and fired in the air shows that "the government knows it is being watched and it doesn't want to lose all political legitimacy. They don't want to be shown on international TV shooting at crowds holding green branches."

The opposition, despite its tough words, "has made a very strong appeal for mediation," says Grignon, and has even given up its previous demand that the president resign his post before beginning negotiations.

Both sides, in short, seem to realize the limits of their power, he says. "There is a growing feeling of a need for a caretaker government that could rule the country."

Kibaki appealed for calm Thursday, saying: "I am ready to have dialogue with the concerned parties once the nation is calm and the political temperatures are lowered enough for constructive and productive engagement."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Odinga Wednesday night and Kibaki Thursday, urging both of them to work toward a political solution.

Mr. Tutu met with Odinga Thursday and announced that the fiery leader was ready for the "possibility of mediation." Tutu also said he hopes to meet Kibaki.

Meanwhile, African Union (AU) chair Ghana worked the phones for a consensus among key African nations on a basis for mediation.

Working on a path to peace

It is still too early to tell what any negotiations will produce, but experts say that past political impasses give lessons for a possible path out of the present violence.

Ayesha Kajee, an elections expert and head of the International Human Rights Exchange at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa, says that a road map to peace might look like this: Since parliamentary elections seem largely to have been carried off with fewer irregularities, the largest party in Parliament could be allowed to form an interim government for a limited period of time, in order to carry out the necessary tasks of government, such as running schools and health programs, and paying government salaries and contracts.

Will the African Union intervene?

In the meantime, Ms. Kajee says, the AU could be invited to send a fact-finding mission to study the Kenyan election results – a procedure that every AU member except Egypt has agreed to in the AU's new charter on elections and governance. Then the AU mission could be allowed to recommend whether to retally voter counts in disputed areas, hold new elections in disputed areas, or the most expensive option, hold new elections nationwide.

"Kenya is a country that can be an indicator for the political health of the entire region, so why not use this election as a test case," says Ms. Kajee. "It is certainly within the AU's interest and its mission to intervene in a case like this, especially in the name of ending ethnic conflict before it spreads."

Kenya's attorney general called Thursday for an independent body to verify the vote tally. But Wafula Okumu, an African security analyst for the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa, says that conducting a retally of the Dec. 27 results will be time-consuming and difficult, given that much of the documentation has either been doctored or has disappeared since election night.

"Just to tally one constituency would take a month, and to do it for the whole country would take 2-1/2 years," says Mr. Okumu. "We are far from the solution, but we are also running out of time.

"What is happening in Kenya is now affecting Uganda, southern Sudan, Burundi, and Rwanda," says Okumu, noting that arms are now starting to flow into Kenya from its neighbors, as ethnic communities and mere gangs prepare for the next round of fighting.

Tensions are also rising for Kenya's neighbors, who depend on Kenya's port of Mombasa to obtain fuel. The UN World Food Programme said Thursday that the violence was delaying key humanitarian supplies to war-torn countries in the region. "It is time for the AU, the East African Community, and the European Union to come in," Okumu says. "They have a stake."

• Muchiri Kioi contributed to this report.

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