Friday, February 8, 2008

Annan Sees Progress in Kenya Talks - Fri 2/08/2008

Published: February 9, 2008

NAIROBI, Kenya —

Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, who is brokering peace talks in Kenya, said on Friday that no deal toward a durable political solution had been reached but that progress was steadily being made.

Mr. Annan has spent the past week trying to nudge Kenya’s government and top opposition leaders toward a compromise that could end the turmoil and violence that exploded last month after a disputed election. More than 1,000 people have been killed, and Kenya’s economy — and reputation for stability — have taken a serious beating.

“We have agreed that what is needed is a political solution,” Mr. Annan said on Friday. “We are actively discussing the terms of that solution.”

He added, “I hope next week we’ll have firm details.”

Kenyans had been hoping for more.

On Friday, rumors raced through Nairobi, the capital, that a breakthrough had been reached and that the two sides were going to join together in a government of national unity. People huddled around television sets and fine-tuned the aerials of their radios, eager for news.

Kenya plunged into turmoil in late December after the country’s electoral commission declared that the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, had narrowly beaten the top opposition leader, Raila Odinga. Many election observers have said there was widespread evidence of vote rigging. Some observers claimed that the government interfered with the vote-tallying process to give Mr. Kibaki the edge.

A person close to the political negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said on Friday evening that the two sides were close to sealing a deal.

The opposition has agreed to recognize Mr. Kibaki as the president and drop its demand for a new election, the person said, and the president’s negotiators have reciprocated by talking of a “broad-based government.”

Many Kenyans have said that a meaningful political settlement is the only way to end fighting between opposition supporters and those who back the government. A power-sharing agreement has been one of the possible solutions floated in recent days, and Western officials, including American diplomats, have tried to throw their weight behind this.

Though Mr. Annan said on Friday that talk of a coalition government was “premature,” he emphasized that “there is ground for optimism” and that “we have narrowed down the issues.”

The election controversy has stirred up deep-seated grievances over political, economic and land issues, pitting opposition supporters against members of the president’s ethnic group and groups perceived to support the government. Many people in Kenya tend to vote along ethnic lines, and much of the post-election bloodshed seems to have been ethnically driven, though many participants insist their motives are political.

Western governments have been increasingly alarmed about the unrest in Kenya, which up until December was celebrated as one of the most stable and promising countries in Africa. The American Embassy in Kenya recently sent letters to 10 politicians and businessmen in both the government and the opposition, warning them that they would be barred from entering the United States if the embassy determined that they had instigated or participated in violence.

The Canadian and British governments have said they are considering similar measures.

The pressure may be working. Mr. Odinga indicated on Thursday that he is willing to back off his initial demand that Mr. Kibaki step down.

Ngari Gituku, a spokesman for Mr. Kibaki’s political party, said this could be a welcome step forward.

“The president doesn’t have a problem with a government of national unity, but the modalities of sharing responsibilities have to be carefully worked out,” Mr. Gituku said. “That’s going to take some time.”

Kennedy Abwao contributed reporting from Nairobi.

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