With 250,000 Displaced, Kenyan Leaders to Meet

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Some 400 people have been killed and a quarter-million more displaced by violence after Kenya's presidential election. Now incumbent president Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga have agreed to talks.

ALISON STEWART, host:

Today, there were supposed to be rallies in the streets to support the Kenyan opposition leader who allegedly lost to incumbent president, which set off days of unrest in the African nation. The Kenyan government says nearly 500 people have died, though the opposition puts the figure at nearly a thousand. Aid organizations suggests some 250,000 people have fled their homes or have been displaced.

Today's events were called off after Kenya's president, Mwai Kibaki, and opposition leader Raila Odinga agreed to face - to meet for face-to-face talks. The issues: the validity of the election and the tribe-on-tribe violence in the country. But before they can agree on the big issues, they have to figure out when and where to talk.

Joining us from Nairobi, Kenya is NPR's Gwen Thompkins.

Hi, Gwen.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Hi there, Alison.

STEWART: So what changed? These two leaders agreed to sit and focus on the issue rather than raise the political rhetoric another notch.

THOMPKINS: Well, these two leaders are under real pressure, both at home and abroad, to do something to bring an end to the political impasse that has had such a negative effect over the entire country. You know, people here, the supporters on both sides are suffering. The people on the ground are experiencing real delays in receiving food and water. As you mentioned in your intro, so many have been displaced, and they're looking for their leaders to protect them. And protecting them means coming up with some kind of workable deal that will move the country forward.

On the international front, you know, the international community has been all over these two leaders, and they're getting calls from the United States. And Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer has been here since Friday, talking with both sides separately and trying to get them by any means necessary to the bargaining table.

STEWART: So what role will the leader of the African Union and president of Ghana play at the meeting- should it happen, when it happens?

THOMPKINS: Well, John Kufuor, as you mentioned, is the president of Ghana. He's also the chairman of the African Union. And he has been selected by both sides to mediate in this crisis.

There was a time when the government appeared to be hostile to the idea of international mediation, but the opposition has always wanted an international mediator. In fact, they wanted Kofi Annan to be the mediator.

The government, for some reason, disliked the idea of Kofi Annan, but ultimately agreed to John Kufuor, who is arriving today in Nairobi. And there is very little if any trust between Kibaki and Odinga, so a third party, you know, would be very helpful to both sides - at least to be able to witness what is being offered and under what terms.

STEWART: Well that's the political part of the story. But, of course, the other part of the story which has gripped so many of us who've been watching from so far away is the personal part of the story, the people on the ground and their lives. Tell me a little bit about the tensions. Are they still high between the locals, especially the two tribes or the two leaders?

THOMPKINS: The tensions are high. Now it's important to remember, Alison, that there are 42 different tribes in Kenya. And this recent crisis for one reason or another - I think because it's, to be honest, it's easier to say that this is a crisis between the Luo tribe, which is the tribe of the challenger Raila Odinga, and the Kikuyu tribe, which is the tribe of the president, Mwai Kibaki.

But so many tribes are caught up in this mess. What seems to have happened is that those who supported the president, no matter what tribe they're in, you know, are in loggerheads with those who supported Raila Odinga, the challenger. And so what's happening is that people are being pushed off their land, their political inclinations are, in many ways, sealing their fate one way or the other. West of Kenya…

STEWART: Where are these people going, the people who are being pushed off their land? Where are they going?

THOMPKINS: Many of them are heading to public parks and setting up camp there. Here in Nairobi, there's a park called Jamhuri Park, which has thousands of people there. Those people were formally residents of the Kibera slum, this huge shanty town that housed many of Odinga's supporters. And those who did not support Odinga have been pushed out to a large degree, and they're over at the park and dependent on humanitarian aid for survival. In other towns around Kenya, much of the same has happened.

Another phenomenon that's even more pernicious is that many of the president's supporters, for instance, and those would be members of his Kikuyu tribe have - are landowners, are farmers in different parts of the country. In fact, the Kikuyu have more coverage over Kenya than any other ethnic group. And the Kikuyu in these different areas are being pushed off their farms, and many of them are heading back to Kikuyu land, which is essentially the central part of Kenya called Central Province - in fact, Nairobi is in Central Province.

STEWART: The crisis in Kenya - has it had a ripple effect to any other surrounding African country?

THOMPKINS: It has, actually. You know, Kenya, up until this point, has been seen as a bastion of peace and stability in East Africa. This is a very difficult region. Kenya's neighbors make the headlines every day - you know, Somali, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, you know, Tanzania, Congo. I mean, these are all neighbors of Kenya, and many of these countries depend on the ports, the major port in Kenya, which is Mombasa to, you know - through which they get all sorts of good food and fuel and supplies. So, you know, so there are real fuel shortages, for instance, in Uganda. There are also fuel shortages in Burundi. And what's important about these fuel shortages is that they have delayed peacekeeping missions to Somalia.

So the longer these crisis goes on, the more those who are in this region are going to be - are going to be dealing with the cumulative effects of not only an unstable Kenya - or at least a destabilized Kenya - but they're also going to be dealing with lack of food and fuel and other life-supporting materials.

STEWART: So if I can understand you correctly, even if things go swimmingly on Friday and all the political issues are ironed out, in terms of the lives of the people within Kenya and in some of the surrounding regions, this is a long-term issue.

THOMPKINS: Well, yes. There's a lot of uncertainty here. People are encouraged that the two sides meet on Friday. But, you know, and as far as the Odinga team is concerned, I mean, they are being invited by a thief to the house that they should be living in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: The man who stole the election from them, in other words. Yeah.

THOMPKINS: And so the president, Mr. Kibaki, he's talked about, for instance, forming a national unity government, but he has not really made any public statements that suggest that he's really interested in sharing power. And that's the major issue.

Now, as far as the rest of the region is concerned, yes, they are going to be dealing with these ripple effects for some time to come.

STEWART: NPR's Gwen Thompkins from Nairobi. Thank you for making the time, Gwen.

THOMPKINS: My pleasure.

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