Africa, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS: U.N. Seeks to Mediate Kenya Crisis

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 7 2008 (IPS) - With no imminent end to the ongoing political violence in Kenya that has resulted in some 500 deaths in the past one week, U.N. officials are trying to bring the ruling party and opposition together to find a peaceful solution through dialogue.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon discusses the situation in Kenya at his first press conference of the year on Jan. 7, 2008.  Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon discusses the situation in Kenya at his first press conference of the year on Jan. 7, 2008. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

“I have been in close contact with Kenyan leaders, including President Mwai Kibaki, opposition leader Raila Odinga, the African Union Chairman John Kufuor, and many other international leaders,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters Monday.

In his first press conference since the beginning of the new calendar year, Ban said further killings of civilians are “unacceptable” and he hoped that through “international interventions, the Kenyan leaders would sit down together and resolve this issue in a peaceful manner.”

However, Ban did not go into specifics of how he would be able to bring the ruling party and opposition together, except for stating that Kufuor and some “other former presidents” were likely to visit the strife-torn East African country soon.

But whether the international intervention is going to produce any positive results is far from clear at the moment. Last week, Kibaki said there was no need for Kufuor to visit Kenya, while his opponent Odinga flatly rejected a U.S. proposal to form a national government with Kibaki.

Odinga, who has alleged widespread rigging of the Dec. 27 national elections, is calling for the resignation of the incumbent president before any kind of political agreement is reached between the two.

Still, some observers seem hopeful about the possibility of some kind of compromise. On Monday, Kibaki reportedly invited Odinga for face-to-face talks, which Odinga has not yet responded to.

Driven by fears that continued violence could lead to a greater humanitarian crisis, human rights groups are calling for an independent investigation of the presidential poll results, which is the original cause of the current unrest.

“Mounting evidence of serious election fraud has helped ignite violence throughout Kenya,” said Georgette Gagnon, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), an influential watchdog group based in New York.

In a statement, Cagnon added that “an independent and transparent review of the vote tallying is urgently needed,” and demanded the government lift its ban on live media coverage and peaceful demonstrations.

Since the outbreak of political protests by the opposition a little over a week ago, the government has put severe restrictions on broadcasting and protest rallies.

The Kenyan government denies rigging the elections, but international observers who monitored the polls say they believe there were widespread “irregularities” in the counting of votes.

Soon after the polling was over, election authorities declared the ruling party of Kibaki the winner, which the opposition has described as an act of fraud.

In a statement, HRW also called for opposition leader Odinga to opt for an international probe into the counting of votes. But Odinga insisted he wanted nothing less than the resignation of the sitting president.

In expressing its concern about the continued violence in Kenya, HRW held both the government and opposition responsible for the loss of innocent civilian lives.

The government’s response to the opposition’s protests was “heavy-handed”, the rights group said in a statement, which is equally critical of the conduct of the opposition vigilantes for targeted attacks on Kikuyu, the ethnic group of Kibaki.

“There have been horrific incidents, including the burning of a church in western Kenya containing dozens of Kikuyu, including women and children who had sought refuge there,” HRW’s Gagnon said.

Reports coming from Kenya indicate that the week-long violence has not only wracked Nairobi, but also a number of other cities across the East African country.

The U.N. estimates suggest that there are at least 200,000 Kenyans who have lost their homes as a result of violent attacks. The U.N. agencies responsible for providing humanitarian aid are currently trying to reach out to the victims in many parts of Kenya.

HRW said it wants the Kenyan authorities to ensure that all displaced persons and others in need are able to access humanitarian assistance.

On Dec. 27, Kenyans voted peacefully and in record numbers in parliamentary and presidential elections. Nearly 100 of the 210 parliamentary seats were won by the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM).

Despite having certified that Kibaki received 230,000 more votes than Odinga, election commission chief Samuel Kivuitu was subsequently quoted as saying he did “not know whether Kibaki won the elections” and he was under pressure to announce a result quickly.

The European Union’s electoral mission has also expressed its doubts about the legitimacy of the results, saying there were “some irregularities that cast a doubt on the accuracy of the final results.”

The Kibaki government, which strongly denies any wrongdoing, has rejected calls for an investigation by outsiders. It encouraged the opposition to take their case to the courts, but Odinga’s sympathisers say they are unlikely to get a fair hearing.

Meanwhile, the worsening political situation has also brought into question the U.S. role as a mediator.

“U.S.-Kenya policy should be people-centred and truly committed to robust democratic processes rather than defined by a narrow agenda of the ‘war on terror’ and international business interests,” said the Washington, DC-based advocacy group Africa Action last week.

The group stressed that economic disparity persists in Kenya, despite Western business and political leaders’ characterisation of the country as an economic dynamo.

“The ugly scenes of violence and chaos…are symptoms of the greater issues of poverty and socioeconomic inequality,” Africa Action said, noting that the average Kenyan earns just 540 dollars a year.

The international community should address “not only the immediate political crisis but also deeper issues of social, political, and economic justice,” the group concluded.

Regardless of when and how the ruling party and the opposition reach a negotiated settlement, the most pressing issue at the moment is how to help those who are displaced and homeless.

Activists say the most vulnerable among them are women, some of whom are being subjected to rape as an act of revenge by warring political rivals.

“The Nairobi Women’s Hospital is now full,” said Vicky Karimi of the Urgent Action Fund-Africa, an independent advocacy group, which is providing medical and psychological care to rape victims. “It has dealt with 19 cases in the last 24 hours.”

The number of displaced Kenyans is growing daily, says Karimi, who puts the true number above 300,000 and is worried about funding, although some help has been provided by the Red Cross and other humanitarian groups.

“We see this action as contributing to protecting the lives of the most marginalised in our communities,” Karimi said in an appeal to foreign donors.

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