News 2008


In Kenya's peace process, devils in the details

Int. Herald Tribune

By Jeffrey Gettleman

February 15, 2008

NAIROBI: Despite soothing words from Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general who is trying to mediate a solution to the Kenyan political crisis, one thing seemed clear on Friday: Kenya is stuck.

The rival political parties, which have been bitterly at odds since a disputed election in December, have agreed on a few minor issues, but the big problems that were supposed to be solved by now seem as nettlesome - and as far from being solved - as ever.

There is no deal for a coalition government, no concrete plan of how to share power or divvy up cabinet positions and no end in sight to the political deadlock that has kept this country on edge, despite more than two weeks of negotiations and mounting international pressure.

Annan has consistently tried to put a good face on the talks, and Friday was no exception.

"Let me assure you that there is real momentum," he said at a news conference. "We are at the water's edge. The last and most difficult step will be taken."

Annan emphasized that the two sides had committed to an independent review of the election results and the turbulence that followed, which has killed more than 1,000 people and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes.

The trouble started in late December when the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, was declared the winner over Raila Odinga, the top opposition leader, despite widespread evidence of vote rigging. Supporters of the two politicians have battled across the country and the fighting has mostly followed along ethnic lines. The election controversy has also stirred up deep-seated grievances over land and economic inequality that have dogged Kenya since independence in 1963.

Annan said that it was critical for Kenyan lawmakers from both sides to work together to address these issues. He said that the government and opposition had agreed to an ambitious agenda that read like a laundry list of just about everything the country needed to do: electoral reform; constitutional reform; public service reform; police reform; judicial reform.

But the reality is that the negotiations, which are being closely watched here and throughout Africa, are quickly slipping behind schedule. Last week, Annan reassured Kenyans that a political compromise would be finalized by the early part of this week. Then on Tuesday he implied that a deal would come by Friday. Mediators even escaped to a secret location - a game lodge in southern Kenya - to hold their discussions. Now Annan is saying nothing will be decided until next week - at the soonest.

Two people close to the talks said that the Kenyan government and opposition leaders had agreed in principle to join together in a coalition government but that they remained bitterly divided over the specifics, especially how much power the opposition would have. The officials said that the government was not budging and had rejected an opposition offer to split power between the president, who would remain head of state and commander-in-chief, and a newly created prime minister position.

Some government officials admit that they have no intention of working with the country's leading opposition party, which, by some accounts from election observers, won more votes in both the parliamentary and presidential races.

This may be a case of possession being nine-tenths of the law. The government is in power, fairly or not. Half the cabinet has been appointed. Kenya is getting back to normal after weeks of disruptions, and the appetite for street demonstrations and fighting with police seems to be subsiding.

"There will not be any power-sharing deal with the opposition," said one government official who was not authorized to speak publicly. "These guys are criminals."

Opposition leaders seem to have been more flexible so far, dropping their initial demands that Kibaki resign and that a new election immediately be held. But the problem for them is that they have been accused of inciting the post-election violence. Kenyan government officials and Western diplomats have said that William Ruto, a charismatic opposition figure, incited his supporters to kill members of Kibaki's ethnic group. Ruto vehemently denies this.

Many diplomats fear that if the opposition is not given a meaningful role in the government, violence will explode again because opposition supporters will feel that they have no other outlet to express their anger or bring about change. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to come to Kenya on Monday to lend the full weight of the American government to the talks.

"At the moment, I'm not optimistic," said David Anderson, a professor of African studies at Oxford University. "I don't see much motivation to negotiate."