Kenyan Parliament Opens on Theme of Unity as Rivals Sit Apart
Benedicte Kurzen for The New York Times
President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya, third from left, talked with Raila Odinga, the opposition leader, in Nairobi on Thursday after Parliament’s opening session.
Published: March 7, 2008
NAIROBI, Kenya — The Kenyan Parliament met Thursday for the first time since a power-sharing deal was struck to end a political crisis that had plunged the country into chaos.
“Honorable members, you must now become the ambassadors of peace and reconciliation,” President Mwai Kibaki told the lawmakers. “Please forget the history of what has happened, not because you want to put it aside, but because you want to do something much better.”
The lawmakers — who include 21 women, a record here — now begin the delicate business of carrying out the much-anticipated and possibly awkward power-sharing deal. Under it, the top opposition leader, Raila Odinga, becomes prime minister, and the governing party and the opposition divide the cabinet posts.
This was the deal to bring peace back to Kenya, which had been considered one of the most stable countries in Africa before the violence of recent months.
On Thursday, Mr. Kibaki urged Parliament to swiftly pass the legislation needed to turn the political agreement into law. Lawmakers on both sides have predicted more skirmishes over the next few weeks as they negotiate how much power Mr. Odinga actually gets and how cabinet positions are reassigned.
Mr. Kibaki said that once the new government was solidified, it would dive into an ambitious agenda that would include helping the fishing and tourism industries and building better housing for the millions of Kenyans who live in shanties.
“We still have many challenges, but we still have a lot to celebrate,” Mr. Kibaki said.
His speech seemed to be a pep talk for a country that sorely needed one. Kenya erupted into violence in late December after the national election commission declared Mr. Kibaki, the incumbent, the winner of a closely contested presidential race over Mr. Odinga, who claims to have won the most votes. Election observers have been unanimous that the results were tainted, with some saying that the government rigged the tallying of votes to give Mr. Kibaki a slender 11th-hour edge.
The controversy set off fighting across the country between supporters of Mr. Odinga and those of Mr. Kibaki, who are from different ethnic groups, and it stirred up long-festering political, ethnic and economic grievances. More than 1,000 people were killed, and hundreds of thousands fled ethnically mixed areas, creating a degree of ethnic segregation that had never existed in this country before. The violence has greatly diminished in the past few weeks, but the tension and displacements have continued.
Mr. Kibaki, who has been in Parliament since Kenya’s independence in 1963, said the government would set up a truth and reconciliation commission and address head-on the country’s painful ethnic issues. He also promised to pay for new homes for displaced people and to distribute free seeds to displaced farmers.
Mr. Odinga sat quietly throughout the speech. His party holds a slight edge in Parliament, which has 210 elected members and 12 appointed seats, though two of his colleagues were killed after the election, narrowing the opposition’s majority. Despite all the talk of a new coalition government, Mr. Odinga and his top lieutenants sat on the opposition side of the chamber on Thursday, across the room from Mr. Kibaki’s political allies, who occupied the government seats. There was mingling, though, among some freshmen lawmakers from the different parties.
Kenneth Marende, the Parliament speaker and a member of Mr. Odinga’s party, said, “The recent events have exposed the fault lines in our system of governance.”
“If Parliament descends into anarchy,” Mr. Marende added, “the Kenyan nation will not just sink, it will drown.”
Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga has said he expects a new government to be formed in two to three weeks.
Mr Odinga told the BBC he believed "this new beginning has a very good prospect of succeeding".
At Thursday's state opening of parliament in Nairobi, Mr Odinga's erstwhile rival, President Mwai Kibaki, also sounded a hopeful note.
He urged MPs to pass into law a power-sharing agreement aimed at ending weeks of post-election violence.
Under the deal, opposition leader Raila Odinga would become prime minister - but the details of the structure and programme of the new government have yet to be worked out.
Hundreds of people have died in violence following polls in December, which Mr Odinga said were rigged.
Mr Odinga told the BBC's Network Africa programme that he and Mr Kibaki had "decided that Kenya is better than all of us, and we must put the interests of the country ahead of our own interests".
ODM MPs: 102
PNU MPs: 46
Pro-ODM MPs: 5
Pro-PNU MPs: 61
Vacant seats: 6
He said a 10-member team of politicians from both main parties would work together to try to agree a compromise manifesto for government.
Once the necessary bills affirming the power-sharing deal had been passed, "the first task will be to form the government which we expect to do within the next two to three weeks".
He said dealing with those displaced and wounded in the violence that followed the 27 December poll would be a priority for the new government, along with reconstruction.
Constitutional, legal and institutional reforms would follow, he said.
On Thursday, Mr Kibaki told lawmakers that the power-sharing deal would lay "the foundations for peace and stability in our country".
The BBC's Adam Mynott in Nairobi said that from the atmosphere in the parliament, it did seem that the two parties were united, despite their previous animosity.
The outwards signs suggest that Kenya is moving steadily down the path to a unified government, but there will be obstacles along the way, he says.
Under the deal, brokered by UN-backed negotiators, Mr Odinga is to be appointed prime minister - a post that does not currently exist under the Kenyan constitution.
However, it is not yet clear what Mr Odinga's powers and responsibilities will be - with differences of opinion over whether he will wield equal power with the president, or serve under the president.