/ 19 February 2008

Kenya crisis negotiations stall

Kenya’s rival parties were stuck on Tuesday over how to share power despite pleas from home and abroad for quick resolution to a crisis that has killed 1 000 people and wrecked a 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 the East African 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 more than 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 her trip to Kenya to push for a power-sharing deal.

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

But Tuesday’s resumption of negotiations, at a plush Nairobi hotel, yielded no breakthrough on the crucial issue of how Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU) and Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) can come together in government.

The government team is resisting calls by Rice, mediator Kofi Annan and other Western powers to allow a power-sharing deal or ”grand coalition”. The opposition wants a virtually 50/50 arrangement, with a powerful job like a new prime minister’s post for Odinga and a new vote in two years.

‘This is not America’

Government negotiator Mutula Kilonzo bristled when reporters quoted Rice to him as he walked into the afternoon session.

”Those are her own views. This is not America, this is Kenya. We have a Constitution,” he said, noting a sub-committee was formed to discuss the issue of ”structures of governance”.

”We have a system of laws. I believe we are going to come to a reasonable arrangement.”

In a pointed statement, Kibaki’s office said he was ”willing to work together and share responsibilities in government” with ODM, but any solution ”must be in tandem with the current Kenyan Constitution”.

”President Kibaki pointed out that the current negotiations had reached a critical stage and gave his assurance to Kenyans that he would follow through the remaining stages,” it added.

The government’s insistence on sticking to the Constitution — a colonial-era treaty that all sides agree is long overdue for reform — could block any special new arrangement to accommodate ODM, such as a premier’s post for Odinga, analysts say.

The deadline set by former UN boss Annan for a political deal by mid-February has passed, even after last week’s trip to a secluded safari lodge to focus minds. But the Ghanaian has vowed to stay until mediation reaches an ”irreversible point”.

Kenyan political pundit Macharia Gaitho said Kibaki was caught between pressure from abroad to give way, and pressure from his own hardliners not to let ODM take too much power.

”The US, Britain and other major Western powers all seem to have come to the conclusion that the Kibaki government is becoming the impediment,” he wrote.

”A siege mentality is creeping in as hardliners in government prevail with the view that the mediation process has become a device which the opposition, backed by the West, is using to force its way into what would amount to a virtual takeover of government.” — Reuters