As rioting rocked Kenya and thousands fled the country after Mwai Kibaki was sworn in on Sunday as Kenya’a president, Senator Barak Obama announced Tuesday that he was working with the U. S. State Department to speak with Kibaki.
Obama, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee whose father was Kenyan, said he had spoke Monday with opposition leader Raila Odinga in Kenya.
“He said the country would see the message that both you and Kibaki do not want chaos and that violence on all sides must stop,” said Robert Gibbs, Obama’s spokesman. “If the country sees you talking and a willingness to resolve this political situation peacefully, a powerful message will be sent to the people.”
Ethnic violence exploded immediately after Kibaki, 76, was announced the winner and hastily sworn in Sunday evening to a second five-year term.
Kibaki’s challenger, opposition leader Raila Odinga, accused Kibaki of “stealing” the election and wiped away tears and announced that a ruling clique was trying to rob Kenya of its democracy.
According to the official result, Kibaki won 4,584,721 votes to Odinga’s 4,352,933 votes. Odinga was well ahead in the counting Friday, but Saturday saw the tally steadily tilt in Kibaki’s favor.
“Kenyans will not accept the results of a rigged election,” Odinga, the leader of the Orange Democratic Movement, declared Sunday to news media outlets. “No force will stop Kenyans attaining what they want.”
He said his party’s figures indicated that the election had been rigged by 300,000 votes.
The chief of the European Union election observers in the country, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, reported evidence of irregularities in the voting process to the press.
“We regret that it has not been possible to address irregularities about which both the Election Observation Mission and the Electoral Commission of Kenya have evidence,” he said in a statement Sunday, adding that “some doubt remains as to the accuracy of the result of the presidential election as announced.
Enraged by Kibaki’s win, Odinga’s supporters took to the streets and looted homes and businesses.
According to news media reports, churches were burned and tribal killings increased. Mobs burned shacks and kiosks and beat people up. People fled the area, shouting that gangs of youths were stoning cars and attacking and robbing people. Police fired tear gas and live bullets to try to disperse the protesters. The violence ran along tribal lines, as opposition supporters from the Luo tribe attacked those from Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe.
In Kibera, a Nairobi slum area and an Odinga stronghold, thousands of protesters armed with rocks, knives, and machetes chanted, “No peace!”
Tribal violence has killed about 500 people over the disputed Dec. 27 election, and 250,000 had fled their homes, according to United Nations reports.
It is reported that 500,000 Kenyans will need aid this month, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which launched a $13.5-million appeal Friday.
The Rift Valley in the west, where 100,000 are in critical need of food, has seen tens of thousands flee some of the worst violence.
European observers Tuesday called for an independent investigation into discrepancies in the tally, reporting that the election had failed to meet democratic standards.
In an effort to stop tribal strife, Kibaki has invited Odinga to meet with religious leaders on how to stop post-election violence and forge reconciliation. The meeting is scheduled for Friday, and will be mediated by the African Union.
Tony Sisule, a political analyst with a research firm, said competition between Kibaki and Odinga in the presidential race had been fierce. He analyzed that just the fact that Odinga, a Luo, was running against Kibaki, a Kikuyu, in a close two-person race had raised tensions in the country.
“I think there’s been a simmering resentment over many years because of this perception created by politicians that some groups are getting a bigger share of resources than other groups,” Sisule told The Los Angeles Times. “This has been used by politicians in their political messages for a long time. This is a big lesson to politicians in Kenya that you can’t campaign on an ethnic platform.”
Obama, whose grandmother and other relatives live in Kenya, observed, “Despite irregularities in the vote tabulation, now is not the time to throw that strong democracy away. Now is a time for President Kibaki, opposition leader Odinga, and all of Kenya’s leaders to call for calm, to come together, and to start a political process to address peacefully the controversies that divide them. Now is the time for this terrible violence to end.”
Once considered a haven of stability in Africa, tourists have been warned to stay away during Kenya’s election strife, and the country’s billion-dollar tourist industry has been hard hit.