January 16, 2008 / 5:01 PM / 12 years ago

Fight in parliament, Kenya government tells opposition

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya’s foreign minister urged the opposition on Wednesday to take their battle off the streets and into parliament, and said the country must undertake electoral reforms to avoid a repeat of the current crisis.

Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula also told Reuters in an interview that President Mwai Kibaki has been committed to dialogue since his inauguration on December 30, and remains so despite assertions by others to the contrary.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga and his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) accused Kibaki of stealing the December 27 vote, and have vowed street protests like those that occurred in trouble spots across Kenya on Wednesday.

Election-related violence has killed more than 600 people and left 250,000 homeless in a crisis that damaged Kenya’s economy and democratic reputation.

But Wetangula, who rose to prominence defending suspects in treason trials after a 1982 coup plot that Odinga took part in, said Kenya’s institutions were strong enough to bring the east African country out of its current turmoil.

“We expect the strong opposition we have now in parliament to provide critical, effective oversight of the government, to audit government in every way,” he said. “What we are left with now is to find ways and means of responsibly working together.”

In parliament, ODM has a narrow edge over Kibaki’s coalition demonstrated by Tuesday’s four-vote victory by the opposition in a vote to choose the speaker.

“You saw us elect a speaker who went through many contested elections but who won narrowly, and the government ... readily accepted the new speaker as validly elected. I would urge my colleagues in ODM to embrace the same spirit,” he said.

Wetangula, a 51-year-old lawyer promoted from assistant foreign minister, said the opposition and government must take up their respective roles in the legislature as “one way of thawing the hardened positions we have now”.

REFORMS NEEDED

Among parliament’s business should be electoral reform, since Kenya’s electoral commission was at the heart of the problem, he said.

“We need certainly to reform the constitutional and legislative structure of the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) so we are able in future to have a commission whose authority, pronouncements and actions are beyond reproach,” he said.

Both sides said the other had rigged votes, and international observers raised questions over the tallying process. ECK Chairman Samuel Kivuitu further added fuel to the fire by saying he didn’t know who won the election.

Western countries have pressed the two leaders to sit down and negotiate, but Odinga has demanded an international mediator be there. Wetangula said the international focus on getting solely Odinga and Kibaki together was “not the issue”.

“Raila Odinga has a team that he appears to defer to on many things, so talking with him alone is not helpful,” Wetangula said. “We don’t want to talk to one wing of the organization and then the other wing starts making uncomfortable noises.”

ODM has made no demands directly to the government, he said.

Despite some strong words from Kibaki hardliners over the presence of Ghanaian President John Kufuor as an intermediary last week and the impending visit of former U.N. head Kofi Annan, Wetangula said his boss had not wavered.

“President Kibaki has said right from the word go at his speech after inauguration ... that he is interested in genuine dialogue with the opposition so that we reduce areas of friction,” Wetangula said.

He said the government and ODM both accepted Kufuor’s recommendation that Annan come: “So I don’t know why this issue of inviting or not inviting should come up.”

His cabinet colleague, Roads Minister John Michuki, made headlines this week by saying Kenya had not invited Annan.

Editing by Daniel Wallis and Giles Elgood

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