Kenyans hope to avoid second round of ethnic violence

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived in Nairobi Tuesday for talks.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In Kenya's parliament building, freshly elected representatives traded heated accusations during their first meeting since the disputed Dec. 27 election. That vote touched off a wave of ethnic violence that left more than 600 dead and more than 200,000 displaced.

In the streets of Kenya's capital, Nairobi, riot police and paramilitary forces took up positions at major intersections and occupied city parks, ahead of three days of mass protest called for by populist opposition leader Raila Odinga and expected to start Wednesday.

And at Nairobi's airport, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived with a team of African elder statesmen to meet with Mr. Odinga and President Mwai Kibaki in hopes of easing a political crisis that shows no signs of stopping.

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Kenya's future depends largely on which path its leaders take in the coming days: toward parliamentary government, continued violence, or mediation.

"[Mr. Kibaki] controls the powers of repression," says Achille Mbembe, a history professor at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. "Odinga, with a large party representation in Parliament, could control the parliamentary process. If the main protagonists don't start moving toward some form of dialogue, we are geared for a dangerous conflict, which could dramatically affect the region."

The crisis in what has until now been East Africa's most stable and prosperous country has severely affected Kenya's economy, including its billion-dollar tourist industry.

On top of this, there are signs donors may rethink key development aid. "It's difficult to continue the same level of budgetary support if we see that the election has not been fully respected," said Louis Michel, the European Union's Development and Humanitarian Aid Commissioner.

Kenya has already seen separate mediation efforts by US Undersecretary of State Jendayi Frazier, African Union head John Kufuor, and Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Now, Mr. Annan will give it a shot. But on Monday, John Michuki, President Kibaki's minister for roads, struck a hard line, announcing that Annan's mediation bid was not needed nor asked for.

"If Kofi Annan is coming, he is not coming at our invitation," Mr. Michuki said. "As far as we are concerned, we won an election."

The opening day of Parliament offered little sign of hope, either. Frequent arguments led to frequent calls for recess, and the simple but crucial act of choosing a speaker of Parliament proceeded at a snail's pace.

Meanwhile, leaders of all parties called on Kenyans to remain calm and avoid another round of deadly clashes.

While recent rallies by Odinga supporters have tended to be peaceful – with hundreds of protesters carrying leafy branches instead of weapons to show that their protest is nonviolent – observers say that opportunistic gangs take advantage of the tension to loot slums and villages, evict certain ethnic groups, and burn whatever they cannot carry away. It is this ethnic violence that observers say is the hardest to control once it is unleashed, both by the government and by the opposition.

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