A political deal is urgently needed in Kenya to prevent violence sparked by disputed elections from spiralling out of control and engulfing the once stable country, experts say.
President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga agreed last week to seek a negotiated settlement to the crisis sparked by the December 27 election that has left more than 1,000 dead.
The chief mediator in the negotiations, former UN chief Kofi Annan, hopes a compromise deal can be reached in the coming days to pull the country back from the brink.
"There is a real risk of renewed violence that could reach a larger scale," said Francois Grignon, the programme director for Africa at the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank.
"There is a collapse of state authority in the Rift Valley," a region in western Kenya that has been hardest hit by the violence, said Grignon. "There are state institutions that are no longer recognized as legitimate."
More than 1,000 people have been killed and 300,000 displaced in rioting, tribal violence and police raids since the December 27 elections that Kibaki officially won, but the opposition claims was rigged.
"A political agreement is needed urgently," said a human rights activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"If not, the next logical step is an escalation. Within a month, things could blow up very badly into a serious tribal conflict."
The violence initially pitted Kibaki's tribe, the Kikuyu, against Odinga's Luos, but there have since been clashes involving other communities over land claims and other disputes.
"There's almost already a civil war going on in the slums and in the Rift Valley," said the human rights activist, who suggested that ongoing violence in western Kenya could split the country.
Tensions remain high in the Rift Valley, where more than 50 people were killed last week, even as Annan met with the rival factions in a Nairobi hotel to try to reach a settlement.
The violence has tapped into simmering resentment over land and wealth that successive governments from the dominant Kikuyu tribe have failed to address since independence from Britain in 1963.
There have been worrying non-confirmed reports that some Kikuyu militias are training in Uganda while Odinga's Luos have set up camps in southern Sudan.
The secretive Mungiki sect and criminal gang is said to be on a recruitment drive to protect Kikuyu and stage revenge attacks, according to several sources.
There is also mounting concern that fighters from the Kalenjin tribe who have been waging a campaign to drive out other communities from western Kenya could be persuaded to trade their bows and arrows for guns.
"These Kalenjin militias are determined to defend or reconquer their land," said Grignon.
If the talks fail to reach a credible peace accord, "we can expect, not a civil war, but rather a collapse of the state in a struggle by tribal militias to gain control of a region," mostly in the Rift Valley and central province, said Gerard Prunier, an expert on east Africa.
The turmoil has shattered Kenya's image as one of Africa's most stable countries as a string of foreign governments have issued travel advisories warning tourists to avoid one of the world's top safari destinations.
"We must agree that Kenya will never be the same," said Dan Juma, the deputy executive director of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission.
"Kenya is very much polarised.. ethnic identity has been wounded. It will take time to heal." (AFP)
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