Breakdown in Kenya Coalition Talks

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Kenya's political opposition has suspended talks with President Mwai Kibaki on forming a coalition government, claiming that the Kenyan leader and his allies had no intention of honoring a power-sharing agreement that ended more than a month of bloodshed after disputed December elections. As news of Tuesday's decision spread, protests broke out in the Nairobi slum of Kibera and the western city of Kisumu, both strongholds of opposition leader Raila Odinga. Demonstrators who had chanted "No Raila, no peace" last December this time shouted "No cabinet, no peace."

The breakdown in talks was the latest setback for the February 28 deal, which tamped down the violence that followed allegations that Kibaki's Party of National Unity had rigged the December 27 vote. More than 1,200 people were killed and 300,000 displaced in bloodletting that pitted Kenya's various ethnic groups against one another, and threatened a larger tribal war.

Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement claims that Kibaki is sabotaging the agreement that would have installed Odinga in the new post of prime minister and awarded half the positions in the cabinet to his alliance.

"It is now crystal clear to the country that PNU is extremely reluctant to honor the accord in the first place," ODM Secretary-General Anyang Nyongo said in a statement. Nyongo said Kibaki has "demonstrated his contempt for and reluctance in forming a grand coalition government as the constitution demands and the people of Kenya expect him to do."

Kibaki rejected Odinga's claim, and maintained he was willing to negotiate. "They are the ones who do not want the coalition," said government spokesman Alfred Mutua. "How can they walk out of talks and make demands? Demands are made at the negotiating table."

The international community, which brokered the peace deal, is fast losing patience with both sides. Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who mediated the agreement, has repeatedly urged the two sides to come to a deal, and the European Union on Tuesday warned both sides not to lose momentum.

"When Annan got the two leaders to sign up to real power-sharing, he meant real [sharing]. The international community is still focused on Kenya," said a senior Western diplomat, who insisted on anonymity. "Its stability and prosperity matters to the region. We won't ignore those who put this at risk."

The agreement brokered by Annan, signed in late February, had fostered hope that Kenya would avert a meltdown, but anxieties have simmered as the two political coalitions bickered over the allocation of ministries. Kibaki may have tied his own hands by his post-election decision to hand out the most powerful Cabinet positions to his allies, leaving only a few, relatively modest posts unfilled. Analysts have suggested that Kibaki is coming under strong pressure from ministers he has already named to resist making compromises.

Last week, the two sides appeared to have found a solution by expanding the cabinet to 40 ministries, from the current 34, and had planned to announce a power-sharing lineup on Sunday. But the ceremony was scuttled at the last minute because the neither side would give up its demand for control of five key ministries — foreign affairs, local government, transport, energy and the new ministry of cabinet affairs.

"If you're going to share power equally, you have to have genuine power-sharing," Odinga spokesman Salim Lone said. "One side can't have the most crucial ministries and the other gets what's left over."

The prospect of an enlarged cabinet angered many Kenyan civil society groups, who argued that the tens of millions of dollars it would cost would be better spent on helping the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the violence. But adding new ministries is not a move to make government more efficient; it's a mechanism aimed at satisfying the demands of the competing ethnic-political factions. Yet Odinga himself is pleading for calm, and neither side has given up hope. Upon hearing about the protests, Odinga told the Associated Press that the demonstrators should "hold their horses." He said the talks have not collapsed, but have "just been adjourned." Yet again, Kenyans will have to wait and see.