/ 22 February 2008

Africa’s top diplomat pushes Kenya rivals to agree

Africa’s top diplomat was meeting Kenya’s feuding parties on Friday to push for a deal after the government agreed in principle to create a prime minister’s post to help end a deadly post-election crisis.

The opposition has demanded a powerful role as executive premier for their candidate, Raila Odinga, who accuses President Mwai Kibaki of rigging the December 27 poll.

Kibaki’s team says he won fairly, and accuses the opposition of instigating riots and ethnic violence that killed 1 000 people, displaced 300 000 and wrecked Kenya’s image as a stable business, tourism and transport hub.

The government agreed on Thursday to set up a new post of prime minister. Both sides have yet to thrash out the most contentious issue — how much power it will have — but local media were guardedly optimistic.

”The consensus so far is no small matter,” the opposition-leaning Standard newspaper said in an editorial.

Chief mediator Kofi Annan said on Thursday that he was beginning to see ”light at the end of the tunnel”.

Hoping to build on the possible breakthrough, the new chairperson of the African Union Commission, Gabon’s Jean Ping, met officials from Odinga’s party on Friday and was due to meet Kibaki later.

Ping, elected at an AU summit in Ethiopia earlier this month, is the latest in a succession of high-powered visitors who have pushed Kenyan leaders towards common ground.

Local pressure

Pressure has mounted on both sides of the political divide to reach a lasting deal to end turmoil that has horrified locals, neighbouring states and world powers alike.

”The most effective way to get these issues solved is for the leaders to feel pressure from their own people,” United States President George Bush said late on Thursday as he flew home from an Africa tour where the crisis was on high on the agenda.

”We’ll help. We send people over and we’ll stay engaged.”

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who visited Nairobi on Monday, said the problems were not ”unbridgeable”.

Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement had threatened to resume street demonstrations next week if Kibaki’s Party of National Unity did not meet its demands.

Though the East African nation has been relatively calm for a fortnight, the ultimatum stoked fears of a resumption of the post-election bloodshed.

Earlier protests often descended into looting and tribal attacks, and were met with an uncompromising police response.

The crisis has laid bare issues of land, ethnicity, wealth and power that have plagued Kenya since British colonial rule, and have often been exploited by politicians since then.

Both sides have agreed on the need for changes to Kenya’s 45-year-old Constitution, which many criticise because nearly all the powers rest with the president. — Reuters