Talks fail: Army is Kenya's best hope

Britain on Tuesday said that the Kenyan army is now “by far the best option” to stop a sectarian bloodbath as peace talks in Nairobi between the government and opposition were suspended.

The Foreign Office Minister for Africa, Asia and the United Nations, Mark Malloch-Brown, said that there was a serious risk of renewed bloodshed if talks broke down irrevocably. About a thousand Kenyans have been killed since disputed elections in December and 600 000 have fled their homes after rival gangs, organised largely on ethnic lines, went on the rampage.

The violence has died down recently as the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan has brokered negotiations, but he called a pause to the talks on Tuesday after several fruitless weeks. He said he would now hold direct talks with President Mwai Kibaki and the opposition leader Raila Odinga.

However, Western observers believe that extremists on both sides have used the lull to regroup and prepare for another, and potentially bloodier, bout of violence in Kenya.

“We’re going to have to stop the violence,” Malloch-Brown said.
“The Kenyan military is by far the best option. The question is, can the army be brought in in a non-divisive way?”

He argued that the army is still respected by the Kenyan public as a genuinely national and multi-ethnic institution, unlike the police, but that its generals are reluctant to get involved because they want to maintain its status and unity.

Annan is believed to have issued an ultimatum to Kibaki and Odinga on Tuesday, telling them they were facing their last chance to contain the conflict before it tore their country apart.

“The talks have not broken down,” Annan told reporters later. “But I am taking steps to make sure we accelerate the process and give peace to the people as soon as possible.”

He was backed by coordinated statements from the United States and European Union threatening sanctions against leaders on both sides if they did not agree to share power.

“I want to emphasise that the future of our relationship with both sides and their legitimacy hinges on their cooperation to achieve this political solution,” said Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State. “In that regard, we are exploring a wide range of possible actions. We will draw our own conclusions about who is responsible for lack of progress and take necessary steps.”

The European Union statement emphasised “that a means of effective power-sharing in Kenya must be found and that individuals who obstruct the dialogue process will have to face the consequences”.

Potential sanctions include travel bans aimed at the political elite on both sides, who holiday and send their children to school in Europe and America.

Annan suspended talks between the government and the opposition negotiating teams after it became clear they were going nowhere.

“It was bad on Friday, and it just got worse,” said a diplomat familiar with the talks.

Annan has attempted to broker a solution in which the president maintained control of foreign affairs and defence but devolved control over domestic affairs to an opposition prime minister. One of the reasons for the breakdown has been Kibaki’s insistence on keeping a grip on the finance ministry.

Richard Dowden, the director of the Royal African Society, said the deployment of the Kenyan army could be extremely risky.

“The army has always been non-political. It’s very professional, it does a lot of peacekeeping, it’s trained by the Brits, it’s a regular contingent in UN forces,” Dowden said. “The last thing they would want to do is step in. But the bigger danger to them is that as this gets more ethnic and tribal, a middle ranking officer finds his grandmother has been killed and takes off, and once bits break off, the whole army unravels. The whole army holding together as a non-ethnic entity is the last barrier between Kenya and complete meltdown.” - Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008

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