/ 19 February 2008

Ears ringing, Kenyans return to table

Kenya’s feuding parties resumed talks on Tuesday after a torrent of calls from home and abroad to solve a post-election crisis that has killed 1 000 people and jeopardised the East African nation’s reputation.

Foreign powers and the majority of Kenya’s 36-million people are impatient for President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga to find a political solution to their country’s darkest moment since independence in 1963.

Their dispute over who won the December 27 election unleashed protests and ethnic attacks that have traumatised the population, displaced 300 000 people, and hurt Kenya’s image as a stable democracy and peacemaker in the region.

”The time for a political settlement was yesterday,” United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at the end of a lightning trip to Kenya on Monday to push for a power-sharing accord as the best way to break the impasse.

Apart from hardliners on both sides, a similar message is reverberating around Kenya from businessmen, clerics, grassroots groups and ordinary citizens, who are increasingly angry with the political class.

”Where are the leaders who will put selfish gains aside and accede to the higher commitment to serve and honour a country’s craving for peace?” asked Daily Nation columnist Mildred Ngesa.

Kenya ‘traumatised’

Officials from Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU) and Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) have agreed on principles to end violence and help displaced families.

They also agree in principle that the opposition must be brought into government somehow — but are stuck on the details.

A deadline set by mediator and former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan for a political deal by mid-February has passed.

But the veteran Ghanaian diplomat has promised not to leave until the mediation has reached an ”irreversible point”.

On Monday, he again urged negotiators to hurry up.

”The people are tired. They’ve been traumatised. Some live in fear and they want to see this issue resolved,” Annan said.

The negotiating teams have been meeting throughout February, but broke for a long weekend on Thursday after a trip to a secluded luxury safari lodge failed to bring a breakthrough.

While the government is prepared to give ODM some representation in Cabinet, the opposition wants a virtual 50:50 arrangement with a strong position like a new prime minister’s post for Odinga. It also wants a new election within two years.

Kenyan political pundit Macharia Gaitho said international pressure like Rice’s visit could force Kibaki to give way.

”But it could also force adoption of a laager mentality, especially if perceptions are reinforced that far from being honest brokers, the Western powers are taking sides and trying to enforce a settlement that favours the opposition,” he said.

On the ground, the crisis has produced unprecedented population flows among communities terrified of more violence.

Thousands of members of Kibaki’s Kikuyu group, Kenya’s largest, have been trooping back to their heartland in the central highlands.

Many of Odinga’s Luo community, and people from other tribes deemed pro-opposition, have also been heading in the opposite direction back to their ancestral homelands. – Reuters