US Urges Quick Resolution of Kenya's Political Dispute

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:15pm EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - A controversy over a new constitution for Kenya has attracted the attention of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, which has advised politicians to end the uncertainty threatening to erode the gains Kenya has made since a change of government 16 months ago.

U.S. Ambassador William Bellamy said that although Washington took a neutral stance on Kenya's internal politics, it shared the concern of most Kenyans that the country has a stable and democratic government.

A dispute has arisen over a provision in the draft constitution for Kenya to have an executive prime minister and a ceremonial president - a change from the present presidential system of government.

President Mwai Kibaki has not publicly stated his view, but the cabinet is understood to be split on the issue.

Those supporting a prime minister's office say it will assume some of the powers that may currently make the president appear too powerful and even above the law.

Opponents argue that having a prime minister's office will create two centers of power, and likely lead to a serious political crisis. This is the line which has been adopted by Kibaki's allies, fuelling speculation that the president is reluctant to give up some of his powers.

The differences grew so deep that lawmakers called last month for Kibaki's16-month-old government to stand down and call new elections.

Evans Osano, an investment manager with the global investment firm, AIG East Africa, has warned that the constitutional dispute was responsible for Kenya's slow economic recovery and was affecting the country's ability to attract foreign investment.

Britain's envoy to Kenya, Edward Clay, was the first diplomat in Nairobi to call for a negotiated settlement and invite political party leaders to meet for discussions.

The intervention was not universally welcomed, however. The head of the Safina party, which supports the government, accused Clay of paternalism and urged him to emulate the American ambassador's neutrality.

In fact, Bellamy has also been accused of being partisan, particularly by Muslim leaders pushing for constitutional recognition of Islamic (shari'a) law.

The U.S. envoy said Washington had no interest whatsoever in taking sides in any of the constitutional debates.

"Whether Kenya has a strong presidency and weak prime minister or no prime minister at all, is entirely a Kenyan affair," Bellamy said.

The U.S. was concerned, however, that the issues were resolved, in the interests of "a stable and democratic government" and "real economic growth."

Bellamy cautioned Kenya not to "go back to the old days."

Kibaki's autocratic predecessor, Daniel arap Moi, ruled for more than 20 years, and his government was accused at various times of corruption and instigating tribal violence.

Kenyan lawmaker John Koech, heading a group of legislators discussing how to resolve the differences, blamed sectarian interests among the politicians for the rift.

Kenyans interviewed in Nairobi said they were disappointed about the dispute and generally welcomed efforts from the diplomatic community to find a resolution.

Julius Oduor, a 32-year-old accountant and father of two, said he expected the new government to get stuck with efforts to revive the economy and improve living standards.

"I, like most Kenyans, fear we may waste another four years to politics," he said.

Kibaki remains popular with Kenyans and most would still vote for him, according to a recent poll conducted by the Institute of Education in Democracy.

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