/ 8 January 2008

Crisis-hit Kenya pins hopes on AU

African Union chief John Kufuor was due in Nairobi on Tuesday on a crucial mission to broker talks between Kenya’s rival leaders and end the political turmoil that has claimed hundreds of lives.

Ahead of Kufuor’s arrival, President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga jousted with various proposals that would allow the two men to sit down together for the first time since violence erupted 10 days ago.

The unrest, triggered by Kibaki’s hotly contested victory over Odinga in December 27 presidential election, has left about 600 dead and displaced a quarter of a million people.

Kufuor, the Ghanaian president, is bidding to build on an intense diplomatic effort that has already prompted visits by top United States Africa envoy Jendayi Frazer and a clutch of former African presidents.

Attempts to bring Kibaki and Odinga together have so far failed, although the president extended an invitation to his rival on Monday for face-to-face talks.

Odinga had previously made any negotiations conditional on the president acknowledging that last month’s election was rigged, but his spokesperson said on Tuesday a meeting could take place under AU auspices.

”He will not meet Kibaki for negotiations unless Kufuor is there,” spokesperson Salim Lone said.

Tanzania’s Benjamin Mkapa, Mozambique’s Joachim Chissano, Botswana’s Katumile Masire and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda all travelled on Tuesday with US Assistant Secretary of State Frazer to western Kenya — the region worst hit by the recent violence.

They visited about 1 000 people who sought shelter in a cathedral during tribal killings that swept the region after the announcement of Kibaki’s re-election.

”There can be no excuse for violence,” said US ambassador Michael Ranneberger, who also travelled with the group.

”The Kenyan people can count on the continued support of the US,” he added.

‘Justice must be rendered’

The US is a key Kenyan ally and donor and President George Bush has urged the government and opposition to hold ”good faith” talks and end the violence.

The Kenyan government said it was seeking an international probe into the unrest, which a United Nations-backed panel has likened in manner to genocide and ethnic cleansing.

”Justice must be rendered. And that is why we are arresting the ringleaders,” said government spokesperson Alfred Mutua. Both sides have traded accusations of vote-rigging and inciting violence.

Newspapers reflected public relief at the increasing diplomatic activity, a day after Odinga cancelled nationwide protest rallies that many feared would reignite the clashes.

But the Standard warned: ”Apart from the temporary disruption, the ongoing crisis will cast a shadow over the economy for years to come.”

The Finance Ministry said the economic slowdown after the unprecedented wave of politically linked violence would cost close to one billion shillings ($15,4-million).

”This includes a wide range of disruptions including actual damage, loss of business, failure to turn up for work [and] tourist cancellations,” a ministry spokesperson said.

According to the UN, 250 000 Kenyans have been displaced by the violence and aid groups have warned of a potential health emergency in makeshift camps in schools, hospitals and churches in the isolated and still tense Rift Valley region of western Kenya, as well as in Nairobi’s slums.

UN aid agencies said on Tuesday that the unrest had not yet disrupted aid efforts in the wider region, but calm and stability were needed to safeguard Kenya’s role as a humanitarian hub.

”There is movement, there is progress” in transporting food aid from Kenya to Uganda, southern Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, World Food Programme (WFP) spokesperson Christiane Berthiaume said.

Inside the country, the WFP said it had been able to deliver food aid to thousands of people in the western region, but its convoys still require police escorts on some stretches due to security concerns. — AFP