Kenya govt, opposition face off in Parliament

Kenya’s new government and opposition clashed in Parliament for the first time on Tuesday in a bad-tempered session reflecting deep bitterness over the disputed re-election of President Mwai Kibaki.

Despite demands for urgent action to end a crisis in which hundreds have been killed, opposition and government legislators argued for an hour before eventually deciding the poll for a new speaker should be secret.

”We went through [national] elections with a secret ballot, and you stole the vote,” said William Ruto, of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), which says it was robbed of victory in a rigged December 27 presidential ballot.

Government legislators called for calm, saying the rowdy behaviour was dishonouring those who have died.

”This is the 10th election of a speaker. It has always been by secret ballot,” Justice Minister Martha Karua told the house.

”Some people with the title ‘Honourable’ in this house are planning murder and instituting murder.”

Roads were closed and riot police ringed the building as Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga entered Parliament at the same time, without looking at each other. It was the first time they had been in the same room since the election.

In the 222-seat Parliament, ODM commands the highest number, 99, after many of Kibaki’s former ministers and supporters were swept away in the election. ODM hopes to elect its candidate, Kenneth Marende, as speaker.

Meanwhile, former United Nations chief Kofi Annan postponed his mission to Kenya ”for a few days” after being taken ill with severe flu, the world body said Tuesday.

Protests planned

Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU) won 43 seats but it believes it can garner enough support from other parties to control the law-making body and overcome ODM obstruction.

The Parliament sitting began a new period of high tension after a lull in the crisis, with the ODM planning to stage a wave of banned street demonstrations from Wednesday.

Turmoil since the presidential and parliamentary elections has dismayed foreign donors, jeopardised Kenya’s democratic credentials and hurt one of Africa’s brightest economies.

Western powers, and Kenya’s East African neighbours, have complained of irregularities in the presidential vote count.

In the toughest action from the West since the crisis began, the European Union threatened late on Monday to cut aid.

Foreign diplomats want Kibaki (76) and Odinga (63) — a former political prisoner — to meet and agree on a power-sharing arrangement or new vote.

Though the presidential vote was widely perceived to be flawed, the parallel parliamentary ballot on December 27 was given a relatively clean bill of health by most independent observers.

After Parliament’s opening, the opposition plans three days of nationwide anti-Kibaki protests from midday on Wednesday.

Police have banned the rallies and many expatriates are leaving Kenya in anticipation of trouble. The UN’s 4,000 staff in Nairobi were on a phase-two alert — of three levels — meaning only essential staff were at desks.

In Nairobi’s Mathare slum on Tuesday, crowds shouted ”No Raila, no peace!” and taunted policemen on patrol. Some shouted ”kesho”, tomorrow in Swahili, in reference to the rallies.

About 250 000 Kenyans are refugees from the violence — an irony in a nation long used to receiving the homeless from neighbouring hot-spots like Somalia and Sudan. — Reuters

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