Kenyan impasse fuels anxiety

Juma Kwayera | Nairobi, Kenya

A widening rift around the size and structure of a coalition government in which powers and responsibilities will be shared between President Mwai Kibaki's Party of National Unity (PNU) and Prime Minister designate Raila Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) may be edging the country close to a renewed outbreak of political violence.

Concerns that the stalemate could trigger fresh violence were expressed this week by civil society leaders, among them Nobel Peace laureate and former Cabinet member Wangari Maathai.

In an attempt to stave off renewed violence Maathai led a march to the president's office on Tuesday this week to petition Kibaki to expedite the composition of a coalition cabinet.

However, the march was brutally broken up by anti-riot police who lobbed tear-gas at the protesters.

The demonstrators warned that continued procrastination and dithering over implementation of the peace deal signed between Kibaki and Odinga is dangerous for the country, which came close to a civil war following last December's disputed presidential poll.

But as civil society and religious organisations warned of renewed hostilities, neither side gave an indication of when the deadlock might be broken.

A key sticking point is the size of the cabinet. While the PNU is arguing for a cabinet composed of 44 ministers, the ODM does not want to add to the 34 already existing ministries. In the talks chaired by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, the two sides agreed to share cabinet posts evenly.

Reached for comment on Wednesday, ODM spokesman, Salim Lone and his government counterpart, Dr Alfred Mutua, refused to speculate about when the impasse might be resolved and remained steadfast about their positions.

Lone said that a bloated government was an economic risk, while Mutua argued that a 44-person Cabinet was necessary to help the country heal.

'The reality of the moment justifies the president's decision to create more ministries. The citizenry must feel part of the government,' Mutua told the Mail & Guardian.

Maathai, who wants the cabinet to be trimmed to 24 portfolios, said the stand-off had become a major security risk, as the delay in forming a Cabinet was creating unnecessary anxiety.

'Get in one room with Raila Odinga, put down 12 names from your side and the other side 12 names and let's have a Cabinet,' she appealed to Kibaki.

'I want to let the president know that I have just come back from the Rift Valley and it is not easy for displaced people to go back to their farms without adequate security,' she said, in reference to the leaflets circulated by tribal militiamen warning people uprooted from their homes against returning to their farms.

The Rift Valley was the epicentre of the violence that claimed more than 1 200 lives and displaced 350 000 people between late-December and February.

Maathai said the reluctance to implement the power-sharing deal in full had led to delays in unveiling the coalition government.

It is now three weeks since the president signed into law constitutional amendments that legalised a coalition government. Twice last week Kibaki and Odinga failed to agree on the number of ministries to be created and how they would be shared between them.

Since the collapse of the talks Odinga has kept a very low-profile, fuelling fears that his supporters could revert to mass action to press for full implementation of the accord.

The ODM warned at a press conference this week that the country stood on the precipice of renewed hostilities. ODM legislator Najib Balala accused the PNU of procrastinating over implementing the power-sharing deal.

Balala said the president was not keen on portfolio balance and ensuring that high-profile ministries and government appointments are distributed equally between the ODM and the PNU.

'If they want to take all production and supply ministries, then we are joking about the power-sharing agreement,' Balala said.

As the stalemate persisted, donor countries and anti-graft organisations raised a red flag about increased corruption.

Dr Richard Leakey, the country director for international anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, said the current power vacuum in government is promoting a culture of non-accountability - a problem which has long been at the heart of mismanagement in Kenya.

'A bloated government is an instrument of government that is satisfying a political need rather than a management need.

The Cabinet must be an effective professional instrument that carries the process of government forward in an efficient and transparent manner,' Leakey said.

Civil society estimates that a 48- member Cabinet would increase the government budget by an extra $1,5-billion. The current budget for the existing 34 ministries is $4,8-billion.