Defeated Kenyan opposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga was set Thursday to press his claims of vote fraud at a rally declaring him “the people’s president” despite threats of arrest, as the toll from post-election violence climbed above 340.
The government has banned the Nairobi protest rally, one week after the election, over fears of further violence as Kenya has been seized by the worst unrest in 25 years, which has displaced tens of thousands of people.
Odinga said he believed Thursday’s rally, which he urged a million people to attend, would be just the first step in a long struggle to ensure Kenyan democracy.
“Tomorrow [Thursday] is just a beginning, but I think it is going to be a long-drawn process,” Odinga said in an interview broadcast on BBC radio.
“The people want to see our democracy strengthened and expanded rather than democratic space get squeezed by this government,” said Odinga.
The declaration on Sunday of President Mwai Kibaki’s re-election by a narrow margin and his immediate swearing into office, despite concerns over the vote count, sparked violence across the country — much of it along tribal lines, with tit-for-tat killings and targeted arson attacks.
Kibaki belongs to Kenya’s largest tribe, the Kikuyu, and Odinga to the second largest, the Luo.
On Wednesday evening 36 were reported killed in clashes, although missionaries and hospital officials said deaths in rural areas have yet to be declared.
The latest deaths raised the toll since election day to 342, according to a tally compiled by Agence France-Presse (AFP) from medical workers, police officials and mortuary attendants across the country.
Vice-President Moody Awori urged Odinga to cancel the rally due to the risk of the outbreak of violence.
“I plead with you, my friend Raila: overcome your anger, your bitterness and all negative emotions for the sake of our country, which you very much want to lead,” Awori said in a public appeal.
“Please do not risk the lives of Kenyans, encouraging a large crowd of people coming to Nairobi on a working day,” he added.
Kibaki’s Land Minister, Kivutha Kibwana, accused Odinga of orchestrating “well-organised acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing” — a charge Odinga threw back at the government.
“What is happening is genocide at a grand scale. What we are seeing is the security of President Kibaki shooting innocent civilians who are expressing their right of protest,” Odinga told reporters.
Newly elected lawmakers from Odinga’s party — by far the largest in the new Parliament — boycotted a meeting with Kibaki on Wednesday.
Kibaki (76) has publicly called for consultations with party leaders, but Odinga, a flamboyant 62-year-old former political prisoner who led almost all pre-election polls, said he would only talk once the president had acknowledged electoral fraud.
Former president Daniel arap Moi said on Wednesday the unrest had sown irreversible animosity among the 42-plus ethnic groups in what is normally a beacon of democracy and stability in the restive East African region.
“The violent disorder witnessed has engendered a disturbing level of ethnic distrust and murderous hatred … difficult to reverse,” Moi’s spokesperson said in a statement.
Kenyan Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, in an emotional televised message, pleaded for talks and peace.
“In the meantime, we urge Kenyans to desist from acts of destruction against each other and embrace each other with a sense of reconciliation as brothers and sisters of the same nation,” she said.
The head of the African Union, Ghanaian President John Kufuor, was expected in Nairobi on Thursday to lead a joint mediation effort with the head of the Commonwealth observer mission in Kenya, former Sierra Leonean president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.
The government has welcomed dialogue, but said mediation was premature.
“Kenya is not at war and does not need mediators or peacekeepers,” government spokesperson Alfred Mutua said.
Odinga’s charges of electoral fraud were lent extra weight when the chairperson of Kenya’s electoral commission, Samuel Kivuitu, who has already said he was pressured by the ruling party into quickly declaring Kibaki the winner on Sunday, 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. — AFP