The High Cost of Kenya's Turmoil

Kofi Annan's broken microphone at Tuesday's press conference in Nairobi seemed a cruel metaphor for his impact on Kenya's political crisis. As he urged leaders to take the nation toward peace and stability, the former United Nations secretary-general's voice sounded like a whisper in a room packed with parliamentarians from the rival parties of President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga. The meeting was running an hour behind schedule anyway, because of a dispute between Kibaki and Odinga over seating arrangements. In the end Annan sat in between the two Kenyan politicians. And after a few false starts he even got his sound system working properly.

Convincing both Kibaki and Odinga to agree to his agenda for peace talks, which started Tuesday, is certainly an achievement for Annan. But that meager advance has done little to end the violence that has killed nearly 1,000 Kenyans in the past month—and now seems to be worsening by the day. Clashes have degenerated from protests against the disputed Dec. 27 presidential election results to cycles of killing between rival tribes over scarce resources—mainly land. At first members of Kibaki's dominant Kikuyu tribe bore the brunt of the violence, particularly in the Rift Valley, but they began their own round of revenge killings against members of Odinga's Luo tribe last weekend. In just three days 115 were dead. In Naivasha, 55 miles from the capital, mobs burned 19 people alive. Angry crowds waving pangas (machetes) and stones disbanded only when the police fired rubber bullets at them from helicopters. Riots also erupted in several residential neighborhoods in Nairobi after opposition MP Mugabe Were was shot dead in front of his home shortly after midnight on Monday night. On Wednesday, Jendayi Frazer, the leading U.S. diplomat for Africa, called the violence in Kenya's western region "clear ethnic cleansing."

At this point there are few options left for a political solution. Until now Odinga's party has been demanding that Kibaki admit he lost the election and resign, paving the way for an immediate rerun. But Kibaki has refused, insisting that he was duly elected. (International observers have called the election too flawed to tell who the true winner was.) Odinga says now he will also consider a power-sharing arrangement with Kibaki, which would lead to a review of the constitution and a new election in two years instead of five. According to Odinga's spokesman, Salim Lone, Kibaki is, at least in principle, ready to negotiate on this item. "But whether they will agree," says Lone, "we don't know." United Nations Information Center deputy director Nasser Ega-Musa cautions against presupposing that anything is off the table. "No one is hard set on a position," Ega-Musa insists, pointing out that both sides have demonstrated flexibility by committing to the format and timeline for negotiations set out by Annan.

But even if Kibaki and Odinga can come to some sort of agreement, Kenya's path to recovery—and reconciliation—will be a long one. The looting, vandalizing and burning of property have left the country economically crippled. The railway network that links the port city of Mombasa to Uganda has been partially destroyed in both Naivasha and Nairobi. Roadblocks set up all over the Rift Valley in the past month have also stalled the movement of goods throughout the region. Hundreds of farm workers have fled Naivasha to escape the violence, leaving the country's $700 million flower and vegetable industry struggling to cope. And the Kenya Association of Manufacturers estimates that the economy stands to lose more than 400,000 jobs in the first half of 2008. In western Kenya the cost of basic food commodities has skyrocketed 40 percent. And the Kenyan shilling is at a three-year low against the dollar. Tourists have also been scared away, opting for safaris in neighboring Tanzania and leaving Kenya's beach hotels virtually empty. If the political impasse is not resolved soon, the European Union has warned that it will cut its budgetary aid, and Washington is reviewing now whether it should do the same. Ethnic tensions remain so high that few of the 250,000 displaced people who have lost their homes in ethnically fueled violence will feel comfortable returning to their once-mixed neighborhoods anytime soon.

Kenyans have few choices but to wait and see if their politicians' actions match their promises to restore stability. When Odinga spoke on Tuesday he said that "no grievance, not even one as huge as robbing you of your democratic birthright to elect your leaders, justifies the killings of the innocent." Never in his darkest dreams, he added, did he ever imagine women and children being burned alive in his beloved country. Kibaki also said he felt "deeply saddened" to see Kenyans confronting one another violently over issues that could be discussed and resolved peacefully through dialogue. And yet many Kenyans feel their politicians have failed them. Since the start of the violence, Kibaki and Odinga have made only a single trip each outside Nairobi to visit victims of the violence. And while Kenya will be a much-discussed topic at this week's African Union summit in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, few think the talk likely to have much impact on the situation. If anything, the summit might raise tensions; Kibaki is planning to attend as Kenya's official head of state, a move that has enraged Odinga. If such bickering continues, Kenyans have little hope of seeing the impasse resolved anytime soon.