Kenya’s Political Antagonists Meet – By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN, NYT

January 24th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

NAIROBI, Kenya — For the first time since Kenya plunged into post-election chaos four weeks ago, the nation’s warring political leaders met face to face on Thursday, but afterward opposition leaders accused the president of being a fraud.

President Mwai Kibaki, who won re-election by a suspiciously thin margin, and the top opposition leader, Raila Odinga, who says the election was rigged, talked for about an hour in Mr. Kibaki’s office. It was just the two of them, along with Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, who is overseeing the negotiations. (more…)

NAIROBI, Kenya — For the first time since Kenya plunged into post-election chaos four weeks ago, the nation’s warring political leaders met face to face on Thursday, but afterward opposition leaders accused the president of being a fraud.

President Mwai Kibaki, who won re-election by a suspiciously thin margin, and the top opposition leader, Raila Odinga, who says the election was rigged, talked for about an hour in Mr. Kibaki’s office. It was just the two of them, along with Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, who is overseeing the negotiations.

The chat went fine, opposition leaders said, and was more of an ice-breaker than anything else to start a long process of negotiation. But Mr. Kibaki’s short speech afterward stirred up tempers.

Mr. Kibaki pointed out that he was “the duly elected president” and emphasized that any reconciliation would be on his terms. “I will personally lead our country in promoting tolerance, peace and harmony,” he said.

These comments seemed to drain the enthusiasm from the moment, and opposition leaders immediately called a news conference to criticize the president.

“True to his fraudulent character, Mr. Mwai Kibaki abused the occasion by attempting to legitimize his usurpation of the presidency,” opposition leaders said in a statement.

Salim Lone, an opposition spokesman, added: “This was supposed to be an event to build good faith. Kibaki politicized it.”

Mr. Kibaki’s spokesman did not return calls for comment.

It seems that the much-anticipated face-to-face talks are falling victim to the same cycle of action, reaction that has sent Kenya into a tailspin since the elections, on Dec. 27. Since then, more than 650 people have been killed and 250,000 people driven from their homes in a burst of violence that has ethnic and socio-economic roots but has been fueled by politics.

The negotiations were supposed to be a breakthrough moment — and maybe they will prove to be. For weeks, Western diplomats and African leaders had been urging the two sides simply to meet, which they had refused to do.

But clearly the political standoff is not over. Western diplomats have warned that both sides are still far apart and that both men are surrounded by entrenched backers who do not seem inclined to give an inch.

Both Mr. Kibaki and Mr. Odinga claim to have won the presidency. Numerous election monitors have said there were so many irregularities, especially during the vote-counting, that it is impossible to tell who really won.

Mr. Odinga is demanding a new election and to be equal partners in a transitional government. Mr. Kibaki has rejected those demands, indicating that the most he is willing to offer is a few minor cabinet posts. He has already made appointments to the most powerful posts.

On Wednesday, Michael E. Ranneberger, the American ambassador to Kenya, warned that any dialogue could be slow and difficult, though indeed crucial for getting Kenya back to its old peaceful self.

“What the end result of that process of dialogue is going to be, I think it’s just too early to tell,” he said on Wednesday. “There are really a number of hard-line people on both sides. And frankly it’s not clear what the president’s and what Raila Odinga’s real bottom lines are at this point.”

Mr. Annan used his clout and diplomatic seasoning to corral Mr. Kibaki and Mr. Odinga into at least meeting each other. The plan for moving forward is for their lieutenants to hammer out a framework over the next few days that will cover all the issues to be discussed.

“This is a difficult and a challenging assignment,” Mr. Annan said on Thursday. “Time is of the essence.”

Peace advocates in Kenya said any meeting was better than none.

“It’s a good beginning,” said George Wachira, a member of a group called Concerned Citizens for Peace. “Symbolically, it sends the right message. If people feel this is going to be resolved at a political level, people will realize there is no need to keep fighting in the streets.”

The worst fighting has been in the Rift Valley Province, where local elders and possibly higher-ranking politicians seem to have organized mobs of young men to attack along ethnic lines.

Several elders and young men who participated in the Rift Valley killings have admitted that they held meetings shortly after the election and plotted to burn homes and hunt down members of rival ethnic groups. Most of the perpetrators were supporters of Mr. Odinga and members of the Kalenjin ethnic group. Most victims were members of Mr. Kibaki’s group, the Kikuyu, who voted for the president in large numbers.

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch issued a statement that said that “opposition party officials and local elders planned and organized ethnic-based violence in the Rift Valley.”

Human Rights Watch said the attacks “could continue unless the government and opposition act to stop the violence.” On Thursday, police reports indicated that at least another 10 people had been killed.

Mr. Kibaki’s political allies have accused opposition leaders of ethnic cleansing. Opposition leaders have denied the accusation and said the violence was spontaneous outrage at the election being stolen.

Reuben Kyama contributed reporting.

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