TOPICS > Politics

Kenyan Peace Talks Delayed After Death of Second Opposition Legislator

January 31, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan postponed talks between rival leaders in Kenya Thursday after an opposition lawmaker was killed -- the second in three days. L.A. Times Nairobi Bureau Chief Edmund Sanders discusses the prospects for an end to the turmoil.

JIM LEHRER: And now the Kenya story. It comes from Edmund Sanders, Nairobi bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. He’s in the Rift Valley where much of the violence has taken place. Judy Woodruff talked with him by phone earlier this evening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you for being with us. Today in the city where you are, Eldoret, there was the killing of a second opposition leader in Kenya. What can you — in just a matter of a few days. What can you tell us about this?

EDMUND SANDERS, Los Angeles Times: Well, the second killing, as you mentioned, has really put the whole country on edge a little bit. Kenya really doesn’t have a tradition or a history of assassination of its members of parliament. The last time it happened was in 1990, and now we have two in a three-day span.

So people are very nervous. The country’s very tense. After the first assassination a couple of days ago, you saw rioting in some Nairobi slums.

And today, as the word spread, you saw some clashes in at least three cities in Kenya. At least one person here in Eldoret was killed. And just nervousness and concern about how people are going to react to this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is known or what is believed to be behind this killing today?

EDMUND SANDERS: Today’s killing was a little bit different, and maybe that’s why we’re seeing a little bit of a delay in the reaction.

The police are saying that was a crime of passion, that this lawmaker was involved in a love triangle. They have arrested the man who killed him. He’s a policeman. The policeman was involved with a woman, who was also involved with the lawmaker. And apparently the policeman had been following the two, encountered them in a car this morning, and shot both of them.

Police say that he’s confessed that he might not even have known that the man he killed was a member of parliament and that it’s really not politically motivated.

Opposition leaders, though, are very skeptical about that. In fact, they find that a little bit difficult to believe. Opposition leader Raila Odinga said he that thinks it’s really more of a plot, a scheme by government supporters to weaken them and to erode the very slim majority that they have in parliament right now by essentially killing their representatives.

Spreading violence

JUDY WOODRUFF: So whatever is behind it, it's caught up in this dispute since the election. Tell us, again, how widespread is this violence? And is it principally ethnic? Is it among ethnic groups, or is it purely political? How much are you able to tell about that?

EDMUND SANDERS: What's going on in Kenya is really multifaceted and has gone through different phases. And it really started in the beginning as election outrage, frustration over what they believe was a rigged election.

It spread to slums and where there was a lot of looting. And a lot of it was probably just motivated by -- we had a lot of frustrated young men, unemployed, poor, and this was an opportunity to vent.

And within a matter of days, though, is when it really started to spread into different parts of the country and took on a more ethnic dimension. And, really, you got the sense that tribes were using this as an opportunity to settle old scores, to reclaim land, try to push away rival tribes off of land that they might believe rightfully belongs to them.

We saw some really horrific attacks designed, burning houses, the horrible church burning near Eldoret here, where at least 17 people, many women and children, were burned to death. And that was seen as, in a sense, over land and over power and over resources.

And then, in more recent days, you saw it take on even another dimension, which was revenge attacks, again, tribalistic in nature, but people attacking in response to attacks that had taken place against their tribal members.

So it's really kind of evolving as time goes on. In terms of where it's taking place, you can't really say that the whole country is engulfed in this. I mean, much of the country is struggling to return to normal and probably has.

What happens and what seems to be happening -- and this is the future for Kenya for the next month or months -- is that it's flaring up in different cities, and it's very hard to see where or when it flairs up, and something like today, the killing of the lawmakers, something that can trigger it.

It flairs up. It might last a day or two, and then things sort of go back to normal and things calm down until the next incident.

Prospects for resolution

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, can you tell us, do people expect the dispute between President Kibaki and the opposition leader, Mr. Odinga, to be resolved?

EDMUND SANDERS: People are very pessimistic, actually, when you ask people on the street. I find them to be fairly pessimistic that these talks are going to go anywhere, so there isn't a high expectation. The men have sort of taken very firm positions, at least publicly.

But, personally, I think that there is room for compromise. These men have been political allies in the past. They've shown that they're willing to reach compromise. And, privately, I think that it might be closer to an agreement than they're admitting to publicly.

Whether or not that really resolve the issue for Kenya right now is another question, because many people think that the clashes and the crisis might even be out of their control because they've started something that has now grown into something even greater.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, very quickly, you said in a country with no history of assassinations, what's this doing to the social fabric?

EDMUND SANDERS: It's really been traumatic for people in Kenya. And I should clarify. There have been certainly assassinations in Kenya before, but it has grown to a point where people thought it had moved on and was beyond these kinds of things.

It never really had national or a big ethnic clash or a civil war like so many of its neighbors. It was like a beacon for democracy in this area.

So people are shocked that this is happening to the country and that it's unraveled and wondering, what was bubbling beneath the surface all along? And so I think it's causing people to sort of re-think their views about their own country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Edmund Sanders with the Los Angeles Times reporting for us from Eldoret in Kenya, thanks very much.