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Kenyan Prime Minister Begins Visit to Washington


Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga has begun his first official visit to Washington. Over three days, he will brief senior US officials and business leaders on how Kenyans are trying to rebuild their society after several months of post-election violence. Accompanied by several cabinet ministers and MP's, Mr. Odinga is also expected to seek support for resettling close to one million internally displaced persons – IDP's, who fled their homes and farms amid chronic ethnic and land rivalries both before and after Kenya's disputed December elections. That vote's violent aftermath prompted a flight of some 600-thousand people. But since 1992, some 398-thousand others have also been displaced. Senior research associate Dorina Bekoe of the US Institute for Peace tells VOA English to Africa reporter Howard Lesser about the roots of the disenfranchisement and suggests some possible solutions.

"At the top of that list is land resettlement, land ownership issues. There are also grievances related to economic status, one ethnic group thinking that another ethnic group stands in their way of obtaining economic success or taking their jobs. So there are some economic issues as well that were exacerbated by the election crisis. So in one sense, they are related because the political tension brought them to the fore, but they are also quite separate from what happened in January and need to be addressed separately from that," she said.

Bekoe says that so far, Nairobi's efforts at resettlement have produced mixed results because many of their grievances refuse to go away.

"There are some who might refuse to go back because those that either burnt their homes or took their farm animals haven't been arrested. There've been no consequences. So they fear that if they go back, they won't be safe. Others have tried to go back, only to be run out by those from whom they fled in the first place," she said.

To facilitate the resettlement process with close to one-million Kenyans still dispossessed, Bekoe says a solution must be inspired by both government leadership and activism at local and civic group levels.

"Understandably, the Kenyan government wants to address this issue. It's one of their top priorities, and getting the displaced out of the camps, back into the communities where they feel safe but it's also a process that has to be done in a much more comprehensive manner than is being addressed at the moment. And taking the concerns that IDP's have, will produce a much more successful reintegration process. Getting strong leadership sends a strong signal that the government is committed to reconciliation. But communities must also be prepared and reequipped to absorb those that fled. And so it has to be an effort both at the national level and at the community and civil society level as well," she said.

The Odinga visit will introduce Kenyan defense, transport, and trade ministers to key congressional leaders who chair subcommittees that deliberate and fund Africa-related objectives of US foreign policy. Figures such as senators Russ Feingold and Bill Nelson and representatives Donald Payne and Nita Lowey will exchange views on how far Kenya's divisions, have healed since the December 27 vote.

Kenyans endured almost three months of ethnically driven violence in which Luos and other cultural groups supporting Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) candidate Odinga clashed with Kikuyus who backed incumbent President Mwai Kibaki and his Party of National Unity (PNU). Despite the violence, Kenyans have continued to turn to democratic government and institutions in a way that contrasts sharply with the instability and military regimes of many of their East African neighboring countries. In March, a national unity government was finally negotiated through international efforts mediated by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and others. The Kenyan Prime Minister and President have pledged their cooperation to restore long-term stability and the rule of law, and results of Mr. Odinga's US visit are expected to spur new strides the country is making to reverse domestic tensions.

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