/ 23 February 2008

AU boss pushes for deal in Kenya

African Union Commission chief Jean Ping pushed on Friday for a quick resolution of Kenya’s political crisis, but there was no sign that a power-sharing deal was imminent.

”I am confident [of success],” Ping told reporters after meeting chief mediator and former United Nations chief Kofi Annan, President Mwai Kibaki and opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) lawmakers.

”We hope that next week we will have something which would be agreed,” Ping said, adding that the weekend would be crucial in deciding whether the power-sharing issue could be resolved.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga, however, insisted he was Kenya’s rightful leader and refused to rule out further mass protests planned for next week. ”I’m the one who won elections,” he said in Lagos.

He expressed his willingness to negotiate with the president nonetheless, but said ”the ball is in Kibaki’s court … it depends on how far he is ready to go”.

Annan urged both Kibaki and Odinga to make firm decisions over the weekend to reach a deal when talks resume next week.

”While we made some progress today in the discussions on governance structures, the parties felt that there were still some issues on which they needed to consult their principals,” he said in a statement. ”I have asked them to do so over the weekend and to return on Monday prepared to conclude an agreement.

”I urge the principals to now take definitive decisions and to give their negotiators clear instructions so that we can move swiftly to a conclusion when talks resume on Monday,” Annan added.

Kenya descended into crisis when Kibaki (76) was declared the winner of the disputed December 27 presidential vote, which Odinga (63) maintains was rigged.

Rioting swiftly turned into tribal fighting and claimed at least 1 000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands, mainly in the capital’s slums and in western Kenya.

Call for ‘sacrifices’

Kenyan newspapers on Friday urged the feuding leaders to drop ”sideshows and rhetoric” and make ”sacrifices” at the Annan-mediated talks.

”Time is of the essence. Patience is running out and the people are becoming restive,” the Daily Nation said in an editorial. ”This is why we ask the negotiators of the two parties to think of Kenya and make sacrifices to save a great nation that has every potential of being greater still.”

Both sides have tentatively agreed to create the post of a prime minister, but are bogged down on the exact details. The ODM insists on a powerful premier while the government has offered a non-executive office.

The ODM parliamentary group renewed a threat of resuming protests next week — in defiance of a fresh police ban — if the Annan team fails to clinch a deal. ”If by Wednesday … no tangible outcome is achieved from the mediation process, then the party members are hereby called to prepare for mass civil disobedience,” the party said in a statement.

Odinga, who is expected back on Saturday, said the threat was ”still valid” but that he hoped violence could be avoided.

Attempts to hold protests last month ended in a bloody police crackdown across the East African nation, sparking condemnation from rights groups.

The crisis has tapped into simmering resentment over land, poverty and the dominance of the Kikuyu, Kibaki’s tribe, in Kenyan politics and business since independence from Britain in 1963.

Kenyan and UN officials warned on Thursday that the unrest and the large amounts of displaced people risked encouraging a new wave of HIV/Aids infections.

Of the displaced population, about 15 000 are HIV/Aids patients, of which about 2 400 are receiving antiretroviral therapies, according to the state-run National Aids Control Programme (NACP).

”Aids likes crises,” said NACP chief Professor Miriam Were. ”People are on the move, people are restless, people are worried and the danger of the spread of Aids is very serious.” — Sapa-AFP