Kenya’s opposition leader vowed to go ahead with a ‘million man’ protest rally Thursday that many fear could worsen a wave of political and ethnic violence which humanitarian groups say has already killed 300 people and displaced 100,000.
Opposition leader Raila Odinga called the march to protest President Mwai Kibaki’s re-election in the December 27 vote, insisting the disputed poll was a sham.
On Wednesday, he told The Associated Press the rally was meant to be peaceful. But the government has banned it, though, and with security forces deployed in force, violence was likely to erupt if protesters follow the call.
In Nairobi early Thursday, truckloads of riot police in red berets armed with rifles and batons patrolled the streets. Dozens of security forces ringed the empty Uhuru Park in the city center where protesters were expected to converge. Overall though, the city was quiet and there were no signs of huge crowds assembling.
The rally, Odinga said, aimed to “communicate to our people, to inform them where we are coming from, where we are and where we want to go.”
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke by telephone Wednesday with Odinga and had a call scheduled with Kibaki to ask the pair to resolve their differences peacefully, the US State Department said.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack declined to say whether the United States recognized Kibaki’s victory as legitimate but said Washington had “concerns” about accusations of electoral malfeasance that must be addressed within the country’s legal system.
Though both sides say they are ready to talk, the Odinga and Kibaki camps have mostly traded accusations the other is fueling ethnic violence.
Odinga says he will not meet with Kibaki unless he concedes he lost the presidency, something Kibaki is unlikely to do.
The Kenya Human Rights Commission urged Kibaki to agree to an independent review of the disputed ballot count, saying in a statement: “Kenya will not survive this moment unless our leaders act like statesmen.”
Confusion has surrounded the disputed vote count. The head of the country’s electoral commission, Samuel Kivuitu, said he was pressured by both sides to announce the results quickly. The Nairobi newspaper The Standard quoted Kivuitu on Wednesday as saying: “I do not know whether Kibaki won the election.”
Government spokesman Alfred Mutua said clashes had only affected about 3 per cent of the country’s 34 million people. “Kenya is not burning and not (in) the throes of any division,” he said, adding that security forces had arrested 500 people since skirmishes began.
Vice President Moody Awori said over a local television station that the unrest was costing the country $31 million daily. Neighboring Uganda says many gasoline stations there have shut down because of shortages of fuel, most of which is imported by road from Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast.
The independent Kenya Human Rights Commission and the International Federation for Human Rights said in a joint statement more than 300 people had been killed nationwide since the December 27 vote.
The Norwegian Refugee Council estimated more than 100,000 people have been displaced. Around 5,400 people have also fled to neighboring Uganda, said Musa Ecweru, that country’s disaster preparedness minister. Several hundred people have also fled to Tanzania, officials there said.
The bitter dispute has shattered Kenya’s image as an tourist-friendly oasis of stability in a region that includes war-ravaged Somalia and Sudan.
It has also revealed ethnic rivalries under the surface of this regional economic powerhouse. Members of Kibaki’s powerful Kikuyu tribe, influential in politics and business, were clashing with Odinga’s Luos and others.
In one of the worst attacks, a mob set fire to a church Tuesday in a town about 300 kilometres northwest of Nairobi where Kikuyus had taken refuge. There were conflicting accounts about how many people died. The Kenya Red Cross said in a statement it retrieved 17 bodies from the smoldering church, but other witnesses put the toll at up to 50.
Among the displaced was Ruth Mwihia and her two-year-old daughter, who had spent three days trying to reach the airport in Eldoret.
“When they closed all the routes out and surrounded us the idea was to kill us,” she said Wednesday after reaching Nairobi on a chartered flight. “Will the whole community pay for one person’s mistake?” (AP)
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