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How can Kenya avoid ethnic war?

Former UN chief Kofi Annan launched formal peace talks Tuesday as a fresh round of reprisal killings swept the country.

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At least half a dozen high-level mediators – from Archibishop Desmond Tutu to African Union chief John Kufuor – have come to Kenya in the past four weeks. Each of these efforts failed to end the crisis, although former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's current visit achieved a meeting and handshake between Mr. Kibaki and Odinga last week.

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Annan launched formal talks Tuesday saying he hoped immediate political issues could be resolved within four weeks and the broader, underlying issues within a year.

Odinga claims that the election was stolen from him through massive rigging of the voter tallies. Kibaki calls himself the "duly elected" president, and calls on Odinga to take his complaints to court.

Observers close to the negotiations say that both sides came close to agreeing to a settlement two weeks ago during Mr. Kufuor's visit. During that mediation effort, both sides contributed to a document that spelled out a powersharing agreement. But insiders say that hard-liners in Kibaki's camp persuaded the president to reject the document in the final hours.

Previous mediation efforts haven't provided breakthroughs, but they contributed to the process of softening the two sides, Mr. Grignon adds. "Both parties are revising their options of what they are ready to accept," says Grignon, adding that there is still a long way to go. "Right now, the government says to the opposition, 'Go to the courts and shut up.' And [Odinga's party] says, 'Step down, or we're burning the country.' "

Such hardened stands, meant to project strength ahead of negotiations, may not convey the degree to which Kibaki and Odinga are willing to compromise, Grignon and others say. And while an actual agreement may not come in the current round of negotiations, the very fact that the two sides have met in person, and are continuing to talk, is itself a sign of progress.

But a political settlement is just one of many steps required for Kenya to return to the stability it once enjoyed.

Hate-speech investigations?

Even before an actual agreement, Kenya's political leaders need to send a signal to their people that the violence must end, says Jacqueline Klopp, an Africa expert at Columbia University in New York. Both parties must then agree to an independent investigation, carried out by international or Kenyan human rights agencies, of which parties and which individuals broke election laws, and who prompted the violence. The social impact of such an investigation would be immense, says Ms. Klopp, adding that evidence of vote-rigging or hate speech, by either or both sides, would help end the culture of impunity in Kenyan politics.

"Stabilization has to be the next step," says Klopp. "You have to end the fear of violence, so people can think clearly." An independent investigation into hate speech and the use of political rallies and news media to fan the flames of ethnic hatred will help to "refocus minds of the victims of different communities that they are all victims of this violence," says Klopp. "We have to make people realize there is culpability across the board."

Whether because of disenchantment with their political leaders, fear of police brutality, or simple fatigue with the political impasse, the crowds who used to join political marches for the opposition have been diminishing noticeably in recent days. Protests that once numbered in the thousands have dropped to a few hundred and are generally dispersed in a matter of minutes with a few canisters of tear gas.

With fewer supporters to call into the streets, political leaders may be more ready to compromise at the negotiation table. Many observers say the next step is for the major parties to agree to some form of caretaker government, with a limited mandate, for a set period of perhaps two years.