(Updates with call for power sharing deal in Kenya)
By Tabassum Zakaria and Samuel Elijah
COTONOU, Feb 16 (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush began a visit to Africa on Saturday with a call for a power sharing agreement in Kenya to end the post-election conflict there that has killed 1,000 people.
Bush, whose five-nation trip does not include Kenya, is sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Nairobi on Monday to back mediation efforts between Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and his opponents by former United Nations chief Kofi Annan.
"Kenya’s an issue ... that’s why I’m sending Secretary Rice there to help with the Kofi Annan initiative," Bush told reporters after arriving in Benin on the first stop of his six-day tour, his second to the world’s poorest continent.
Rice’s mission was "all aimed at having a clear message that there be no violence and that there ought to be a power sharing agreement," Bush said after holding talks with Benin President Thomas Boni Yayi in a brief stopover at Cotonou airport.
He later left for Tanzania, the next stop on a tour that will also take him to Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Annan is trying to end turmoil in Kenya over the disputed Dec. 27 election that has also uprooted 300,000 people, plunging East Africa’s biggest economy into its most turbulent episode since independence in 1963.
Bush, who was accompanied by his wide Laura, is avoiding Africa’s conflict hotspots and visiting five states carefully chosen to show a different face from the poverty-plagued and war-stricken continent normally portrayed by the world’s media.
The presidents of Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia are viewed by Washington as a new generation of democratic African leaders and the United States is backing them with health and education support and also some military cooperation.
But the crises in Kenya and Sudan’s Darfur still loom large over Bush’s visit.
Speaking in Cotonou, he reiterated U.S. backing for the African Union/United Nations peacekeeping force being deployed in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, where political and ethnic conflict since 2003 has killed around 200,000 people.
NEED FOR COLLBORATION ON DARFUR
"No question, Sudan is a real difficult situation which we have labelled a genocide ... We are sanctioning some, rallying others to provide aid in the hopes there will be a robust U.N. force in Darfur to help relieve the suffering," Bush said.
He added the U.S. was ready to "help facilitate" the movement of the peacekeeping force for Darfur.
Bush said he had also been speaking with President Hu Jintao of China — the main backer of oil-rich Sudan — about "the need for us to act collaboratively on Darfur."
Earlier, Bush was presented by Yayi with the Grand Cross of the National Order of Benin, the country’s highest award. He and his wife were greeted on arrival by a military honour guard and colourfully-dressed women dancers. Commenting on Rice’s planned trip to Kenya, a senior U.S. administration official said she would back Annan’s settlement plan. While some issues had been resolved, the power sharing deal will "take a little bit more time," the official added.
The United States had made clear it would not support a Kibaki government that carried on "business as usual" while the turmoil over the disputed polls continued, the official said.
Annan has said that considerable progress was made this week, including agreement for an independent review of the polls. He is also seeking constitutional and electoral reforms.
The former U.N. chief will meet Kenyan President Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga on Monday — Rice is due in Kenya on that day — before negotiations resume on Tuesday.
White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley said Rice’s visit to Kenya would last "a matter of hours".
"It’s basically to go in, give some impetus, but then step out and let Kofi Annan continue his diplomacy," he told reporters aboard Air Force One before Bush arrived in Benin.
Bush’s visit to Africa will showcase U.S. projects backing hospitals, schools and anti-AIDS and anti-malaria initiatives considered a success in a Bush foreign policy scarred by controversy over his handling of Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.
It will stress Washington’s desire for a new partnership based on trade and investment and not purely on aid handouts.
The visit follows the creation late last year of a U.S. military command for Africa, Africom, aimed at increasing the U.S. presence on the African continent, which provides a significant portion of America’s oil needs. (Additional reporting by Deborah Charles; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Giles Elgood)