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Kenyan Politicians Under Pressure to Seek Calm

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

After days of bloodletting over a disputed presidential election, the man who was named the winner of that election called today for an end to the violence. At least 300 people have died since incumbent Mwai Kibaki was returned to power. President Kibaki now says he is ready to talk to the opposition once the situation has calmed. His challenger, Raila Odinga, refuses to accept the result of the election. Also today, Kenya's attorney general called for an independent body to verify the vote tally.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins is in Nairobi and joins us to talk about it. And Gwen, can you tell us more about what President Kibaki said today?

GWEN THOMPKINS: The president came and spoke before reporters at State House, which is the equivalent of the White House here in Nairobi, and he called for calm in the country. What made the speech underwhelming is that Mr. Kibaki's remarks were surprisingly mild considering what has been going on in the country for these past five or six days.

I've just come from Western Kenya, from a town called Eldoret, where there has been terrific ethnic tension and some terrible killings. In fact, the hospital administrator there told me that as many as 50 bodies have been located by hospital officials around the area, but they're not able to bring the bodies to the morgue because the security situation is so tense on the ground.

Also this morning, when I flew out of Eldoret on my way back to Nairobi, I saw no less than 37 farmhouses that were either on fire or had been burned to the ground. So this political context has enraged so many people around this country and they are paying with their lives.

MONTAGNE: And how is the challenger - Raila Odinga, the man who says he was voted in as president - how has he responded to all this violence?

THOMPKINS: You know, his comments, Renee, have been just as mild as the president's. It's as if these two men are in a death grip with one another and they're unable to see their constituents. You know, when asked, for instance, whether it might be more wise to ask his supporters not to (unintelligible) riot police and defy a governmental order not to rally today, he said - Mr. Odinga said that he did not want to deny his constituents their right to free speech.

MONTAGNE: In other words, he was willing to send his supporters into a rally where they might face a water canon and tear gas or something worse.

THOMPKINS: Absolutely, absolutely. Now he also today, this afternoon, went to the city morgue and made a very impassioned speech accusing members of other ethnics groups - he himself is a Luo - and he was accusing them and other ethnic groups of targeting his constituents and finding many of the remains of those constituents at the morgue. So you know, Mr. Odinga is a populist, he is adept at capturing the mood of a crowd, and people here have been taken aback by the kind of violence that we've seen over the past several days. No one really knows what to make of it, and you know, and so all there really is at this point is wonderment and passion.

MONTAGNE: South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu is in Nairobi to help mediate the conflict. Officials in Washington and the European Union also are reportedly working on proposed measures to resolve the crisis. Does it look like any of that is having any effect?

THOMPKINS: Not an immediate effect. There is a lot going on behind the scenes. I think both of these men - on the president as well as Mr. Odinga - are both under a great deal of international pressure. But at this point, there is no outside entity that can be called a hero in this situation. Perhaps it's too early in the process for any resolution that is satisfactory to all parties to be reached.

MONTAGNE: Gwen, thanks very much.

THOMPKINS: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Gwen Thompkins speaking to us from Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Gwen Thompkins
Gwen Thompkins hosts Music Inside Out on WWNO in New Orleans.