New rioting erupts in Kenya

Opposition is halting talks on power-sharing agreement

April 09, 2008|By New York Times News Service.

LAMU, Kenya -- Riots erupted in Kenya yesterday as opposition leaders announced that they were suspending talks with the government over a stalled power- sharing agreement.

According to witnesses, dozens of young men stormed into the streets of Kibera, a sprawling slum in the capital, Nairobi, lighting bonfires, ripping up railroad tracks and throwing rocks at police officers in a scene reminiscent of the violence that convulsed Kenya in the wake of the Dec. 27 election.

"No Cabinet, no peace!" the protesters yelled, referring to the stillborn Cabinet that has yet to be formed because of bitter divisions between the government and the opposition.

This was the first major riot since Feb. 28, when rival politicians signed a power-sharing agreement that was billed as the only way to end weeks of bloodshed after the disputed presidential election.

The post-election violence killed more than 1,000 people and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes, most of whom are still displaced. Much of the violence flared along ethnic lines, and it threatened to ruin Kenya's cherished image as a bastion of stability in a chaotic region.

Now, it seems, some of that instability has returned. Riots also broke out in Kisumu, in western Kenya, where witnesses said hundreds of angry opposition supporters blocked the road to the airport and stoned cars.

Unruly protests were reported in several other towns, though police officials could not immediately be reached for comment. By the close of business yesterday, the Kenyan currency had dropped against the dollar, signaling the serious damage that a few protests can do to an already jittery economy.

The problem that set off the disturbances seemed to be the same issue that has bedeviled reconciliation efforts from the beginning - the division of power. Kenya's president, Mwai Kibaki, whom opposition leaders and some Western observers have accused of stealing the election in December, seems reluctant to grant opposition leaders substantial power.

Under the power-sharing accord, Kibaki and top opposition leader Raila Odinga agreed to form a national unity government in which Cabinet positions would be doled out equally. Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, spent weeks in Kenya this winter, hammering out the framework for such a national unity government.

But Kibaki's side has refused to cede enough of the powerful ministries, such as those that govern finance, foreign affairs or internal security, to placate the opposition.

It is not clear whether the riots are part of a broader campaign by opposition supporters to pressure the government into giving up important positions or if they signal a more serious breakdown in the power-sharing agreement. Opposition leaders have denied organizing the protests and said that they were spontaneous.

Anyang Nyong'o, secretary- general of Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement, said his party had suspended negotiations until the president's side "fully recognizes the 50-50 power-sharing arrangement and the principle of portfolio balance."

Salim Lone, Odinga's spokesman, said the suspension was meant to be temporary and that Odinga wanted the talks to resume - but only after each side sent two emissaries to negotiate about negotiating.

"It's definitely a step back," Lone said. "But there is a profound disagreement about the notions of power-sharing." Kibaki, meanwhile, has blamed the opposition for confronting him with "preconditions and ultimatums."

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