Kenya's opposition announces mass protests next week

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 11, 2008 

NAIROBI, Kenya — Declaring that talks with the government have collapsed, Kenya's main opposition party called Friday for three straight days of nationwide demonstrations next week, raising fears of more violence in the wake of a disputed election.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga's party urged supporters to rally in 28 cities across Kenya starting Wednesday. The action follows the latest failure by an outside mediator to broker a political settlement with President Mwai Kibaki, who Odinga charges stole re-election last month.

Opposition leaders urged protesters to demonstrate peacefully and police to exercise restraint. Since Kibaki claimed a narrow victory over Odinga in the election Dec. 27 — despite widespread allegations of vote-rigging — clashes among rival tribes and between police and protesters have killed hundreds, the worst violence in Kenya in more than a decade.

The unrest has unsettled the Bush administration, which sees Kenya as an important partner in the war on terrorism and a hub in an unstable region. Under President Bush, U.S. assistance to Kenya has grown to nearly $1 billion annually, half of which goes to anti-AIDS efforts, according to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.

Friday's announcement appeared to be an effort by Odinga to put pressure on Kibaki before the highest-profile mediator yet arrives to intervene in Kenya's political crisis: former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Annan, a Ghanaian, is expected to arrive Tuesday.

No mediator yet — not Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, not Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer and not the latest official, Ghanaian President John Kufuor, the chairman of the African Union — has even been able to get Kibaki and Odinga in the same room.

Both sides have traded blame for the stalemate. Kibaki has invited Odinga for one-on-one talks on creating a coalition government. Odinga has called for a new election, and said he'd meet only in the presence of a mediator.

After meetings with Kufuor this week, Kibaki aides said the government "offered dialogue" but that the opposition ignored them. The head of Odinga's party denied that.

"We were not in any way unresponsive," said the party's secretary-general, Anyang Nyongo. "Unfortunately the Kibaki side did not want a just solution."

U.S. and European officials, who've said the election didn't meet democratic standards, are growing frustrated with Kibaki. Ignoring the requests of Western envoys, the 76-year-old president has begun to consolidate power by naming half his Cabinet and convening the first session of parliament next week.

Odinga's party, which controls 102 of 222 parliament seats compared with Kibaki's 59, has said it will nominate a parliamentary speaker at Tuesday's opening session. Party leaders also have said they'll try to occupy the government's side of the chamber — signaling that they're in power — perhaps setting the stage for some pushing and shoving on the floor.

The deadlock annoys many Kenyans. In the Nation newspaper Friday, columnist Lucy Oriang wrote: "This thing we are going through is not about the love of Kenya and Kenyans. It is about power and money, hence the hard-line stand that dominates events and discussions."

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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