Diplomatic efforts accelerated on Wednesday to resolve the crisis in Kenya, where post-election violence has threatened to escalate into tribal war, with tens of thousands displaced and hundreds murdered.
The dispute over last week’s presidential ballot — focused on discrepancies in the counting process — has triggered Kenya’s worst urban unrest in 25 years, claiming more than 300 lives and undermining East Africa’s largest economy.
The head of the African Union, Ghanaian President John Kufuor, was expected in Nairobi later on Wednesday to lead a joint mediation effort with the Commonwealth, represented by the head of its observer mission, former Sierra Leonean president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.
President Mwai Kibaki’s narrow re-election and his swearing in on Sunday sparked violence across the country — much of it along tribal lines that has led to mutual accusations of ethnic cleansing.
Defeated opposition challenger Raila Odinga, who claims Kibaki stole the election, plans to hold a mass rally on Thursday declaring himself the ”people’s president”.
Commonwealth spokesperson Julius Mucunguzi said Kabbah had met with the rival leaders and they had ”agreed to his mediation”.
With Kibaki belonging to Kenya’s largest tribe, the Kikuyu, and Odinga to the second largest, the Luo, the violence has taken on a distinctly ethnic hue, with tit-for-tat killings and targeted arson attacks.
”We are seeing that communities are being organised against the other,” said government spokesperson Alfred Mutua, who accused Odinga of orchestrating attacks that ”qualify as ethnic cleansing”.
The worrying echoes of previous conflicts in the region were highlighted by the Kenyan press.
”If no urgent step is taken to arrest the killings, Kenya is bound to sink into the abyss and join the ranks of war-torn countries like Côte d’Ivoire, Somalia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone and others which have experienced genocide on an unimaginable scale,” an editorial in the Daily Nation warned Wednesday.
On Tuesday, at least 35 children and adults sheltering in a church near the western town of Eldoret were burnt alive by an angry mob in one of the worst incidents since the December 27 election.
At least 10 people were killed later in overnight clashes — a far lower toll than the two previous nights.
The overall death toll since election day stood at 316, according to a tally compiled by Agence France-Presse from medical workers, police officials and mortuary attendants across the country.
In a statement issued in London on Wednesday, United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined British Foreign Secretary David Miliband in pressing for a resolution.
”We call on all political leaders to engage in a spirit of compromise that puts the democratic interests of Kenya first,” the joint statement said.
Odinga’s charges of electoral fraud were lent extra weight when the chairperson of Kenya’s electoral commission, Samuel Kivuitu, acknowledged the election result may have been inaccurate.
”I do not know whether Kibaki won the election,” Kivuitu told the Standard, one of Kenya’s leading dailies.
Kibaki (76) has publicly called for consultations with party leaders, but Odinga has insisted he will only negotiate if the president acknowledges he cheated.
On Tuesday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he had spoken to Kufuor and Kabbah and discussed how a joint AU-Commonwealth mission could oversee the process of reconciliation.
”What I want to see is them coming together, I want to see talks and I want to see reconciliation and unity. I want to see the possibility explored where they can come together in government,” he told reporters.
Western Kenya, where Odinga enjoys broad support, has witnessed some of the worst violence, and the director of the Kenyan Red Cross Society, Abbas Gullet, who visited the region, described the situation there as ”unimaginable and indescribable”.
”This is a national disaster,” Gullet told reporters. ”From the area we visited … there are roughly about 70 000 [displaced].”
Ugandan officials also reported hundreds of Kikuyus crossing the border from Kenya, fearing death at the hands of mobs loyal to Odinga.
The level of ethnic violence is unusual in Kenya, a country general considered a beacon of democracy and stability in the restive region. — AFP