/ 8 April 2008

Kenya opposition halts talks, protests flare

Kenya’s opposition suspended talks with President Mwai Kibaki’s party on Tuesday and police fired tear gas to scatter opposition supporters protesting at deepening deadlock over a power-sharing Cabinet.

Kibaki and rival Raila Odinga delayed naming the new Cabinet on Monday after disagreeing over how to share out ministries and traded blame over who was responsible. The Cabinet is central to a deal on ending Kenya’s post-election crisis.

Anyang’ Nyong’o, secretary general of Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), said talks would be suspended until Kibaki’s party ”fully recognises the 50/50 power-sharing arrangement and the principle of portfolio balance”.

As he spoke, Nairobi’s sprawling Kibera slum was convulsed by the biggest protests since both sides signed a power-sharing deal in February to end turmoil that killed at least 1 200 people after Kibaki’s disputed re-election in December.

Residents said youths looted shops and burned tyres. Some ripped up railway lines connecting the Kenyan port of Mombasa, the region’s largest, with Uganda.

”Police are firing tear gas and also firing in the air,” said witness Justine Mokua.

Protests spread to the western opposition stronghold of Kisumu, where police closed in on angry crowds. ”They’re saying, ‘No cabinet, no peace,”’ one witness said by telephone.

The shilling currency fell by about 4%, its biggest one-day fall since January 2, at the height of the violence. ”These politics can do real harm to our economy,” said Friday Mwafuga, head of trading at Cooperative Bank. ”Until this problem is solved, we are in for a rough ride ahead.”

‘Suffered enough’

Kenya, East Africa’s biggest economy and an important regional trade, transport and tourism hub, suffered heavily from the post-election riots and ethnic violence — the worst turmoil since independence in 1963.

Nyong’o said the opposition was demanding that a partial Cabinet already named by Kibaki be dissolved before any more talks took place. He said the opposition would no longer respect an earlier agreement to a 40-member Cabinet and wanted it to have 34 posts.

But some analysts believe that while Odinga’s party is clearly stepping up the pressure to get what it wants, it has little room for manoeuvre.

”They can accept the offices offered, withdraw from the coalition or resort to mass action,” said Kenyan political analyst Mutahi Ngunyi. If they withdrew, that would hand all power back to Kibaki, he said, but ”mass action does not make sense at this time” because of the bloodshed it provoked in January.

Most of the recent disagreement centres on a handful of ministries that Odinga, the prime minister-designate, says Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU) had promised to give up. The PNU denies that, and Kibaki said on Monday he was ready to conclude the process of forming the Cabinet as soon as possible.

One post not in dispute is finance, which means current Finance Minister Amos Kimunya is almost certain to keep his job.

Duncan Kimani, a senior currency trader at Bank of Africa Kenya, hoped the dispute would not degenerate further. ”Already the country has suffered enough in terms of tourism and the supply chain being cut off,” he said. ”So a prolonged deadlock would mean that even the 4% or 5% growth target we’re looking at might not be achievable.”

Wangui Mbatia, who works with families displaced by the post-election bloodshed, said many Kenyans feared both sides were most focused on taking control of lucrative portfolios.

”If there is a corruption-free government, it shouldn’t matter who has what,” she said. — Reuters