Fresh protests as Kenya crisis grinds on

Opposition supporters began what they said would be three days of nationwide demonstrations Wednesday.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Fed up: Opposition supporters chanted their grievances Wednesday near a burning barricade in the western city of Kisumu.
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Police in cities throughout Kenya used tear gas and batons Wednesday to quell opposition supporters on the first day of a three-day nationwide strike against the government of President Mwai Kibaki.

Kenya's political crisis – now in its third week after a disputed Dec. 27 election touched off a wave of ethnic violence that killed more than 600 people and displaced more than 250,000 – shows few signs of ending soon.

Populist opposition leader Raila Odinga maintains that Mr. Kibaki stole the election, and numerous mediation efforts by top global statesmen have failed to bear fruit. Yet the solution may come from a combination of internal fatigue and international pressure on Kenya's two top political leaders who, until now, have seemed unwilling to budge.

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"There's no doubt Kenya needs a constant internal dynamic and international pressure to get these two sides to the negotiation table," says Francois Grignon, head of the Africa program for the International Crisis Group in Nairobi. "Had it not been for a robust statement of the US, the EU, and international election observers, and the similar reports of domestic observers, we might have a situation like under the days [of former President Daniel arap Moi], where there was blatant rigging, but there was no strong stand by the international community."

High-level mediation efforts by US Undersecretary of State Jendayi Frazier, Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and African Union head John Kufuor may not have provided a quick end to the crisis, but they were not without results either, Mr. Grignon says. Shuttle diplomacy between the president and the opposition, during the Kufuor mission, did produce a draft document that discussed many of the major political issues. In the end, hard-liners around Kibaki persuaded him not to sign the agreement.

It's an impasse, and with former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan canceling his expected trip this week, due to illness, Kenya's crisis appears set to last for some time.

Waiganjo Kamotho, a Nairobi lawyer and political analyst, says he's skeptical about the opposition's ability to sustain pressure on the government over time and he's equally skeptical about the international community's willingness to keep up pressure on Kibaki. Kenya plays host to a number of UN and other aid organizations for operations in Africa.

"The political class will reach an accommodation whether the problems have been solved or not," Mr. Kamotho adds. But the only lasting peace will come if moderates from both main parties abandon their hard-line leaders and seek common ground in the middle. "The troops on the ground have legitimate grounds for feeling disillusioned. They experience disillusionment not because of stolen elections, but because of their stolen futures."

While much of Kenya's violence in the past few weeks has been ethnically based – and evidence is mounting that much of the violence in Eldoret, Narok, and other parts of the Rift Valley has been organized by high-level members of Mr. Odinga's opposition party – longtime observers say that the scale of the violence this year suggests a deeper upwelling of anger by the large numbers of unemployed youth.

On Wednesday morning, the Nairobi slum of Kibera was quiet under heavy rainfall. But by 11 a.m., scuffles broke out between Kenya's Israeli-trained General Service Unit paramilitary forces and opposition supporters. Many of the opposition's fiercest supporters are those who have no jobs, little education, and nothing to lose. At night, angry young gangs prowl the streets of Kibera and other Nairobi slums, all too eager to destroy the lives of those perceived to have more.

Pastor Churchill Malimo, head of the Friends Church (Quakers) in Nairobi, says that churches have fallen down on their responsibility to halt the violence.

"Churches must rebuke leaders who don't want to provide rule of law," says Pastor Malimo. "We can speak with one voice and tell our leaders we want justice, but not by fighting. We must resist attempts to allow our people to be misused by people in power." Unfortunately, all Kenyans come from one tribe or another, and "some pastors are taking sides, so the church is not speaking with one voice."

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