Kenyan president stands in the way of healing his nation’s wounds

Eldoret, Kenya
REUTERS/Georgina Cranston
An 11-year-old survivor stands amid the burnt out ruins of a church near Eldoret in western Kenya where at least 18 people were burnt alive on Tuesday during ethnic clashes after disputed elections.

As Ghanaian President John Kufuor prepared to facilitate an end to violence and a way forward in Kenya earlier this week, President Mwai Kibaki complicated the mission and reportedly upset U.S. diplomats in Nairobi by precipitously appointing political cronies to key Cabinet posts. Given the violence that Kenya’s disputed Dec. 27 election spurred, said a Financial Times of London editorial, Kibaki’s decision was “high-handed and provocative. He seems intent on precipitating a deepening catastrophe, rather than healing the wounds of the nation.” On Wednesday Kufuor tried but failed to get Kibaki and his challenger in the election, opposition leader Raila Odinga, to negotiate. The African Union, which Kufuor chairs, announced today that the two had instead agreed to work with former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The Daily Nation of Kenya said the president’s Cabinet announcement “resulted in an unscheduled meeting between President Kibaki, on the one hand, and the US assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, Ms Jendayi Frazer, accompanied by ambassador Michael Ranneberger. The two are understood to have held ‘frank’ talks with President Kibaki, resulting in a statement in which the President committed himself to ‘constructive and inclusive’ dialogue to reach a political solution to the election crisis caused by the outcome.”

Despite meeting separately with both Kibaki and Odinga, Kufuor could not get them to meet, Reuters reported. Before leaving Nairobi today he said the two leaders had “agreed to work together with a panel of eminent African personalities headed by Mr. Kofi Annan … towards resolving their differences and all other outstanding issues including constitutional and electoral reforms.”

Open society
The international community is applying pressure on both sides, and not only because of the deaths of hundreds of Kenyans. “The urgency of the situation is only magnified by the critical role Kenya plays geopolitically,” wrote Stephanie Hanson in a Council on Foreign Relations analysis. “Like Nigeria and South Africa, Kenya is considered an ‘anchor state’ by diplomats,” she wrote, adding, “It is a relatively open society with a history of multiparty politics and an economy that serves as a regional hub. Due to its proximity to crisis-stricken countries such as Somalia and Sudan, it also houses the headquarters of significant humanitarian operations. … Nairobi also serves as a strong political partner for the United States. Kenya has facilitated regional diplomatic efforts such as the peace process between north and south Sudan and attempts to reconcile Somalia’s warring factions.”

Hence the involvement of the African Union and the United States. According to Karen Allen of BBC News, suggested options for resolution “include a change in the constitution to enable the creation of a strong prime ministerial post” for Odinga. But “that seems an unrealistic possibility,” she said. “Firstly, changing the constitution would take time. Also, Mr Odinga was promised the prime ministerial role in the last government and when President Kibaki reneged on the deal he split from the party.”

‘Democratization across the continent’
The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Joel Barkin says shared power won’t solve the problems anyway. In a comprehensive essay in Foreign Affairs magazine he said Kenya’s recent violence “has deep historical roots and it will take more than a recount or the formation of a national unity government to resolve the crisis.” The Kibaki administration, he wrote, “was regarded by most members of Kenya’s remaining 41 ethnic groups as a government that favored the Kikuyu [tribe] at the expense of others. The Kikuyu are the largest (22 percent), most educated, and most prosperous ethnic group in Kenya.” He said resentment of the Kikuyu “runs particularly deep in the northern Rift Valley, which was once inhabited by Kenya’s white settler community before independence. This region has borne the brunt of post-election violence. Land vacated by the former settlers during the 1960s and early 1970s was purchased by Kikuyus with assistance from the government instead of being returned to the communities from which it had been taken during colonial rule. These Kikuyu settlers have suffered greatly during the past week.”

Barkan says only a negotiated deal will ensure stability because Odinga wants “real executive power” and “more importantly, a new constitution for Kenya that will guarantee non-Kikuyu citizens an equitable slice of the pie.” He concludes: “Given the prominence of ethnicity in African politics, democratization across the continent will require more than expanding the political and economic rights of individuals. In Kenya — and elsewhere on the continent — accommodation of group rights must be part of the equation.”

Susan Albright, a former editor of the Star Tribune’s editorial pages, writes about national and foreign developments.

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