/ 3 June 2008

Kenyan post-poll coalition wobbles over amnesty

Kenya’s prime minister openly dissented with the president on Tuesday in a row over amnesty for post-election crimes, showing the fragility of the coalition running East Africa’s largest economy.

In another sign of the lack of unity in the government, newspapers splashed pictures of the pair’s security guards scuffling in an embarrassing dispute on a national holiday.

President Mwai Kibaki’s government and Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s opposition came together in April to form a ”Grand Coalition” after violence that killed at least 1 300 people and uprooted 300 000 in the wake of a disputed December election.

The coalition steadied the economy and ended the worst violence. But it has been characterised by rivalry, high running costs and slow momentum to carry out reforms.

On one of the most contentious issues — a proposed amnesty for those involved in post-election violence — Kibaki vowed at the weekend that nobody would be spared.

”Those who took part in wanton acts of violence by engaging in senseless murder of innocent citizens, destruction of property or rape will face the full force of the law,” he said.

But that brought a lengthy riposte on Tuesday from Odinga, who wants an amnesty and says most people police are targeting are supporters of his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM).

”The vast majority of youths who are in custody killed or raped no one. They were defending democracy and electoral justice in the only manner available to them: demonstrations,” he said in a statement, calling for their release.

”The protests turned bloody primarily because of a grossly disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force by security agents, who had been given orders to shoot to kill.”

‘Too naive’

Police say 137 people have been charged with capital offences, while 4 600 petty crimes like theft and looting have also been dealt with by Kenyan courts since the violence that paralysed the nation during January and February.

One policeman, caught on TV shooting a protester as he lay down, has been charged.

The amnesty issue has laid bare wide political differences in government between Kibaki’s Party of National Unity that is dominated by Kikuyus, Kenya’s largest tribe, and Odinga’s ODM drawn from his Luos and an array of other ethnic groups.

A scuffle between Kibaki’s and Odinga’s security details at a weekend event commemorating Kenya’s 1963 attainment of self-governance was widely photographed in Tuesday papers, prompting an apology from Kenya’s police chief.

Analysts and diplomats generally believe the coalition will hold both in the interests of peace and, more pragmatically, because it has given so many sides the chance to grab a piece of the national cake by participating in government.

”Kenyans are desperate to see this coalition survive,” wrote commentator Macharia Gaitho in the Daily Nation newspaper.

”They now know that the consequences of failure could be a meltdown that plunges this country into the list of hellholes.”

But while a coalition meltdown does not look imminent, endless squabbles appear a fact of life, analysts say, with politicians now more focused on the 2012 vote than pressing issues like a new Constitution or infrastructure repairs.

”Maybe we were too naive,” Gaitho added of early euphoria over the coalition. ”A skunk cannot conceal its stench whatever perfume it splashes itself in.” – Reuters 2008