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Crisis Talks Heighten Tension in Western Kenya

  • Scott Bobb

The political opposition in Kenya is holding out the possibility of further anti-government demonstrations if there is no agreement on resolving Kenya's disputed presidential elections. The threat has raised tensions in a major opposition stronghold in western Kenya. Correspondent Scott Bobb reports from the western city of Kisumu.

At a street corner in Kisumu, a young man yells to a passing journalist: "If Raila calls for mass action, we go."

Others shout: "No Raila, no peace."

Raila Odinga heads the opposition Orange Movement for Democracy. His party won a near-majority of the parliamentary seats in the December elections, but was defeated by President Mwai Kibaki in the presidential vote, which the opposition says was rigged.

Four weeks of negotiations between the government and opposition have stalled over the issue of power sharing, leading opposition leaders to call for new demonstrations. Protests after the elections led to weeks of violence in which 1,000 people were killed and several hundred thousand were displaced.

Local civic leaders, like Chris Owalla of the human rights group, Initiative Action, are worried that new demonstrations could ignite the anger that still simmers in their communities.

"If this war happened to break [out] again, if the talks fail, then it will be worse off than round one because now people are more prepared psychologically. Many people are allied in groupings," said Owalla.

Professor Ochieng Ojwang founded the Kisumu Residents Forum that is trying to foster dialogue between local professionals and demonstration leaders who are often unemployed youths from the poorest neighborhoods. But he says healing and reconciliation hang on a successful outcome to the negotiations.

"Depending on the results of that process [negotiations], the country can either slide into total chaos or the country can rise up from the ashes and become one of the best democracies in Africa," said Ojwang.

Progress has been made in the talks mediated by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Agreement was reached last week on a number of issues, such as constitutional and electoral reform.

The two sides reportedly agreed Wednesday to create the post of prime minister, but remain divided over how much power it would share with the presidency. A working group is now studying constitutional and legal issues related to creation of the new position.

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