Kenya talks focus on easing violence

The country's two political rivals agreed to help ease distribution of humanitarian aid, but not to a power-sharing government.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
Peace effort: In Nairobi, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (l.) met with government and opposition leaders.

Since his arrival in Kenya on Jan. 22, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has deftly given the impression of steady success in mediating between Kenya's two main rivals, President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga.

But in talks this week, President Kibaki's Party of National Unity (PNU) apparently rejected a transitional government that would share power with Mr. Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), according to an ODM source with knowledge of the ongoing discussions.

Few details of the talks have emerged. The emphasis still appears to be on preventing the violence and breaking the leaders away from their intransigence, rather than the makeup of any kind of power-sharing government. Kibaki still claims he won the disputed Dec. 27 vote, while Odinga maintains that Kibaki stole the election at the last minute.

ODM negotiators are insisting that the disputed elections be re-run and a transitional government be set up in the meantime. Kibaki's team says that is a nonstarter. The only agreement so far is that the discredited Electoral Commission of Kenya be disbanded.

Last Friday, however, the two sides also agreed to end the violence and work together to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid. But the agreement coincided with fresh clashes in the western Rift Valley following the murder of an opposition parliamentarian.

"Since then, in the past three or four days, things have calmed down," says Abbas Gullet, executive director of the Kenya Red Cross. "Whether that's down to the Annan talks or other factors it's difficult to say. What I can say is that there's huge, huge hope among Kenyan people that things are moving in the right direction and settling down."

But the western Rift Valley has seen a series of flare-ups since President Kibaki was sworn in for a controversial second term, and the toll continues to tick upwards; more than 1,000 have died and more than 300,000 were forced from their homes.

"Ever since Kofi Annan emerged with those two men for the handshake, everyone thought that a solution was possible," says Wafula Okumu, a Kenya expert at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, or Tshwane, as the South African capital city now calls itself. "Then I started hearing that because of the higher expectations, if these talks fail, the consequences will be more dire than" what we've seen before.

As if to focus the minds of the two rivals, the UN Security Council Wednesday condemned the "ethnically motivated attacks" in Kenya, and also expressed "strong concern at the continuing dire humanitarian situation in Kenya and [called] for the protection of refugees and internally displaced persons."

Applying further pressure, United States Ambassador Michael Rannenberger announced travel bans against 10 members of parliament, reportedly from both the president's party and the opposition, for their participation "in the instigation of violence, violation of human rights and breaking of democratic practices." The travel bans apply against the politicians as well as their families, including children attending school in the US.

The challenges facing Kenya's leaders have deep and personal roots. Rulers who awarded land to their cronies and favored their ethnic kin would be reluctant to give up that tangible lever of power, unless forced. Rulers would be even more loath to give up the absolute powers – of apportioning budgets, choosing members of the judiciary, and clamping down on opposition and press freedoms at will – that Kenya's liberation-era Constitution gives its office of presidency.

Yet analysts, both in Kenya and across Africa, say that Kenya's only hope for peace is if it addresses those very issues now.

"Kenya sits as an indication of a broader problem, the African problem of how to organize the political state," says Francis Kornegay, a senior analyst at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. With men like Kibaki and Odinga and their respective entourages, "We are dealing with a political class that has come from years of dictatorship. These habits die hard."

In a Kenyan context, political leaders typically have drawn their support primarily from members of their own tribes. Odinga's biggest supporters come from the Luo tribe who live in the western part of the country, and he has forged alliances with a "Pentagon" of opposition leaders representing other ethnic groups. Mwai Kibaki's supporters come from the Kikuyus of central Kenya.

This means that any political dispute can quickly transform into ethnic violence. Immediately following the announcement on Dec. 29 that Kibaki had won the polls, violence broke out against Kikuyus in areas where the opposition ODM vote was strongest. In recent days, members of Odinga's Luo party have been chased from their homes in villages in Central Province, the traditional Kikuyu homeland.

François Grignon, Africa program director of the International Crisis Group think tank, says the talks still have a long way to go if they are to help ordinary Kenyans. "Progress has been made because they are meeting, they are talking to one another, they are making commitments to the reconciliation process," he says. "But as far as the political issues go, they are still a long way apart."

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