/ 3 January 2008

Kenyan police battle Odinga supporters

Kenyan police fired tear gas and water cannon on Thursday at thousands of anti-government protesters chanting ”Peace” and singing the national anthem as they tried to march to a banned rally.

Nairobi became a battleground as shots rang around, crowds ran to-and-fro, riot police thronged the streets and plumes of smoke rose from hot spots like the Kibera slum.

”This is dictatorship now,” protester Julius Akech shouted, in the latest bout of unrest in a week of tribal and political violence in which more than 300 Kenyans have been killed.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga vowed to defy police and go ahead with the rally against President Mwai Kibaki’s disputed re-election in Kenya, East Africa’s biggest economy and a key ally of the West in its efforts to counter al-Qaeda.

Thousands poured out of the pro-opposition Kibera slum and other shanty towns after dawn to head for Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, or Freedom Park in Swahili, for the planned million-strong rally that Kibaki’s government has banned.

When they were stopped by riot police, some protesters — wearing white scarves, waving leaves and singing the national anthem — sat in streets, blocking traffic.

Police used tear gas and water cannon. They also fired in the air as, in one case, the crowd kneeled, shouting ”Kill us all.”

Each side has accused the other of genocide in daily violence that has shocked world leaders and choked supplies of fuel and other goods to a swath of Central Africa.

There have been international calls for reconciliation in a nation that had become known as a vibrant democracy and peacemaker in Africa, rather than a trouble spot.

”This is a country that has been held up as a model of stability. This picture has been shattered,” said South Africa’s Nobel peace laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in Kenya to try and start mediation.

”I don’t think there is anybody who would be unmoved by the pictures that are coming out — of people who burned to death in a church. This is not the Kenya that we know.”

Calling Kibaki a ”thief” who had carried out ”a civilian coup”, Odinga told reporters he would, however, accept international mediation and proposed setting up an interim power-sharing government to prepare for a re-run of the vote.

”The people will not take this vote-rigging by the government lying down,” he said, before meeting Tutu.

Supporters set up barricades on roads around the opposition’s ”Orange House” headquarters.

In rural areas, the unrest has touched off deep ethnic tensions. In an area where 30 members of Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe were killed in a church set on fire by a mob, young men with machetes manned roadblocks and hunted for their enemies.

Tourism, economy hit

The turmoil was likely to hurt tourism, Kenya’s biggest earner worth about $800-million a year.

After stocks took a hit on Wednesday, the Nairobi Stock Exchange closed on Thursday due to the mayhem. The shilling, which slumped 5% in the previous session, bounced 1,3% against the dollar, but in thin offshore volumes only.

Tea and coffee auctions were postponed.

A local and an international rights group accused Kenyan security forces of ”bloody repression” of opposition protests.

Kikuyus, long dominant in politics and business, were targeted in initial clashes but revenge killings — including some by the Kikuyu militant gang, Mungiki — are on the rise.

The government said ”well-organised acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing were well planned, financed and rehearsed” by Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement ahead of last week’s vote.

The opposition accused the government of acts ”bordering on genocide” by ordering police to shoot.

Observers said the vote fell short of democratic standards.

Uganda President Yoweri Museveni became the first African leader to send congratulations to Kibaki. But at the same time, Kampala closed its borders to business due to the violence.

Hundreds of refugees, however, were allowed to cross into Uganda, taking shelter in schools and churches. The irony is not lost on Kenyans, used to taking refugees from conflict zones in neighbours like Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda.

Kenyan media united in pleas for peace, with every major newspaper running the same front-page headline: ”Save Our Beloved Country”.

”Kenya is a burnt-out, smouldering ruin. The economy is at a virtual standstill and the armies of destruction are on the march,” said the Nation.

”In the midst of this, leaders — who are the direct cause of this catastrophe — are issuing half-hearted calls for peace, from the comfort of their hotels and walled homes in Nairobi, where they are conveyed in bullet-proof limousines.”

The Nairobi violence was repeated in other towns, including the opposition stronghold of Kisumu in west Kenya.

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was phoning Kibaki and Odinga to urge both to ”do everything they possibly can in the name of political reconciliation”, a spokesperson said.

Having telephoned Odinga, Ghanaian President John Kufuor was waiting to talk to Kibaki before deciding whether to visit. — Reuters