The world saw a ray of light this week that may help Kenya avoid a violent abyss. Mediator Kofi Annan got the two political rivals in this tragedy to sign onto negotiations. But much more is needed to halt ethnic cleansing in this latest African trouble spot.
After the initial eruption of violence brought on by a disputed Dec. 27 election, killings abated. But they surged again in recent days with brutal tribal clashes in Kenya's scenic Rift Valley, the assassination of an opposition member of parliament, killings of several foreigners, and more melees in Nairobi slums.
The police, according to news reports, are either overwhelmed or part of the problem, siding with President Mwai Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe.
The government has mostly hesitated to deploy the military, reportedly because many of its members favor the opposition, led by Raila Odinga, of the Luo tribe. Mr. Odinga says the election that returned Mr. Kibaki to power was rigged and he must go.
In the absence of reliable security forces, more than 850 Kenyans have been killed, and more than 250,000 have been displaced. America's top envoy for Africa this week described the Rift Valley killings as "ethnic cleansing" against Kikuyus, and Rwanda's president said Kenya should bring in the Army to prevent further escalation. Indeed, many in Kenya now fear civil war.
The 1994 genocide in Rwanda left an estimated 800,000 dead in three short months. That tragedy can't be far from the mind of Mr. Annan, who headed UN peacekeeping forces in the run-up to that atrocity and later served as UN secretary general. The world stood by – and Annan himself was criticized for inaction.
Hopefully, he can get the two rivals to jointly bring the instigators of violence under control (those, that is, that they can control).
The international community, meanwhile, should apply maximum pressure on Kenya's political elite, including the threat of international prosecution and targeted sanctions (wisely, the US says it is reviewing all aid to Kenya).
It is Kenya's responsibility to protect its own population, and its business and other leaders are pressing the political rivals to reach agreement.
But in 2005, members of the UN signed on to a responsibility to intervene if "national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."
Is Kenya there yet? That's not clear, but the international community should be making plans now.
Annan is right to think short- and long-term about the talks ahead. The election debacle can't be put off. A recount is not technically possible. That means a power-sharing agreement until new, fair elections can be held.
Beyond that, Kenya must address the political and economic imbalance that has favored the Kikuyu for decades. This can't happen without a rewrite of the Constitution, which indulges a presidency with impunity. And there must be a trustworthy process to settle land disputes, which are at the heart of the Rift Valley turmoil.
Annan's task is not impossible. But it will be greatly aided if he can bring the two adversaries to realize that this is not about them anymore, but rather, their country.