/ 29 February 2008

Deal brings hope that Kenya’s dark chapter is over

Kenyans moved to put one of their country’s darkest chapters behind them on Friday after the president and opposition leader agreed to power-sharing aimed at ending a bloody post-election political crisis.

President Mwai Kibaki and his rival Raila Odinga signed the deal setting up a coalition government on Thursday after a month of often bitter negotiations punctuated by riots and ethnic violence around the east African nation.

The two men had come under huge pressure from world powers and Kenya’s 36-million people to find a solution to forestall more bloodshed and help repair the country’s reputation as the region’s business, tourism and transport hub.

As word of the deal spread, overjoyed residents danced, sang and ululated in the streets, while messages of praise and offers of help flooded in from overseas.

”The signing of the agreement is a shining example of how Africans themselves can find peaceful resolution to their political challenges,” said South African President Thabo Mbeki.

South Sudan’s leader Salva Kiir said more unrest and uncertainty could have destabilised the entire region.

”Now we again can recognise our neighbour Kenya,” he said.

A United States State Department spokesman applauded the deal, adding: ”We want to see this agreement implemented.”

He said Washington would be watching carefully and Kenyans who promoted bloodshed still faced potential US visa bans.

The deal was a major breakthrough for mediator Kofi Annan, who had suspended stalled negotiations on Tuesday in frustration and demanded the two leaders end the standoff themselves.

1 000 deaths

Kibaki’s disputed re-election after the December 27 poll triggered protests and tribal clashes that killed at least 1 000 people and forced 300 000 more to flee their homes. It also badly dented East Africa’s biggest economy.

Under the deal, a new prime minister’s position will be created for Odinga, who has sought that role since he first helped elect Kibaki in 2002. He claims the president reneged on an agreement to give him the job after that vote.

It will also allocate Cabinet posts based on each party’s strength in Parliament and create two deputy prime ministers’ jobs, one for each side of the coalition. Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement has the largest number of seats.

Later, there will be a full review of the country’s Constitution, a 45-year-old document which many Kenyans have pushed to change since the 1990s because it awards the president almost unchecked authority over the affairs of state.

Many Kenyans want a new charter to help resolve deep rifts over land, ethnicity and wealth that have plagued the nation since before its independence from Britain in 1963.

Kibaki has ordered Parliament to meet next Thursday to pass a constitutional amendment to push through the changes.

The crisis erupted after Kibaki was sworn in on December 30 and Odinga claimed the election was rigged. Kibaki said he won fairly and blamed his rival for instigating violence and unrest instead of going to court to challenge the result. – Reuters