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Kenyan Finance Minister Continues to Defy Calls to Step Down

Kenya's finance minister continues to resist calls by lawmakers to step down over his role in the government's controversial sale of a Nairobi luxury hotel. As Derek Kilner reports for VOA from the Kenyan capital, the affair could represent the steepest challenge to date for the country's new coalition government.

On Friday, a small group marched through downtown Nairobi in support of Finance Minister Amos Kimunya, who has come under fire in the past week for approving the sale of a luxury hotel at a price that critics charge was far too low.

The march was a rare show of support amidst a growing chorus of calls for Mr. Kimunya to step down. On Thursday, a group of Kenyan lawmakers led another protest march in Nairobi, calling on President Mwai Kibaki to dismiss Kimunya by Tuesday, warning that they would introduce legislation to censure the president if he took no action.

Ababu Namwamba is among the lawmakers calling for Mr. Kimunya's ouster.

"Kimunya has to leave office, either voluntarily or Kibaki has to tell him to step aside because the accusations that have been leveled against him are serious," he said. "And even if he is not guilty, those accusations are worth investigating, and they cannot be investigated while he is still in office."

Anti-corruption organizations and other critics have raised an uproar over the deal, fearing it represents a continuation of the widespread graft that has long plagued Kenya. Mr. Kimunya approved the sale of the hotel for some $45 million, a price that critics say is less than half the proper value. Mr. Kimunya maintains that the price was fair, based on the current valuation of the hotel, a view shared by some observers.

A government committee appointed by Prime Minister Raila Odinga and headed by Attorney General Amos Wako produced a report this week calling on Kimunya to step down, along with the central bank governor, the head of the National Security Intelligence Service and the head of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission. The committee called the deal "false, fraudulent" and "designed to deceive."

Kenya's parliament has also passed a vote of no-confidence in Mr. Kimunya. Parliament lacks the power to remove a minister from office, but the body has stopped hearing any business related to the Finance Ministry, a move that could paralyze government operations if it continues.

Mr. Kimunya, a close ally of President Mwai Kibaki continues to deny any wrongdoing, saying his hands are "totally clean." He claims Mr. Odinga, Mr. Wako, and Lands Minister James Orengo, among others, were aware of the deal before it took place. And he says many lawmakers are simply acting out of resentment over the finance minister's separate efforts to tax their salaries.

Mr. Kimunya had denied reports of the hotel's sale until Mr. Orengo exposed the deal last week. Mr. Orengo is a key member of Mr. Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement, the former opposition party which is now sharing power with President Kibaki's supporters in a coalition government, following December's disputed presidential elections.

Mr. Kimunya has received little public backing from his traditional allies in the president's party. Attorney General Wako, Justice Minister Martha Karua, and other key politicians from Mr. Kimunya's home region of Central Province have criticized the Finance Minister.

On Friday, however, Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, another Kibaki ally, came to Mr. Kimunya's defense.

"I would like and I would have wanted to believe that acting in the best interests of Kenyans we would have wanted to know what are all the facts surrounding this particular saga and situation," he said. "If Kimunya or anybody else is involved, where is the evidence that is concrete so that we are providing and saying this man must not only be dismissed but he must go to jail because we have evidence A, B, C, D."

President Kibaki himself has been silent on the issue, in marked contrast to his partner in the coalition government, Mr. Odinga. Mr. Namwamba, a member of Mr. Odinga's party, says that if the president fails to take action soon, and is seen as protecting Mr. Kimunya, then more of the president's allies may be pressured fall into line, risking divisions in the coalition government.

"If the president and Kimunya dig in, then the differences will start to emerge," he said. "During debate of the censure motion you saw a fairly united house and you saw leaders across the political divide closing ranks on this issue. But if the position of the president comes under threat, his people, as it were, are most likely to close ranks and that will expose the cracks, definitely."

The public accusations within the Cabinet, particularly between Mr. Orengo and Mr. Kimunya as well as the fact that the bulk of the country's key ministers, claim to have been kept in the dark about the deal, have also raised questions about the coherence of the new coalition.