30,000 flee their homes in Western Kenya

KITALE, Kenya – The army on Monday used heavy firepower to crack down on a group linked to bloody clashes over land, officials in western Kenya said, a day before parliament was to debate and possibly adopt a power-sharing deal.

The violence in the western Mount Elgon region underlines how difficult it will be for Kenya to retreat from the edge of violent breakup, even though politicians who clashed bitterly for weeks over a disputed presidential election now are talking peace.

Fred Kapondi, a Mount Elgon member of parliament, said people are fleeing “aerial bombing and harassment from the army.”

However, Mohamud Birik, the local district commissioner, denied the army is targeting villagers.

“What the army is doing is to track down the militiamen and not intimidating or harassing residents,” Birik said.

Defense Department spokesman Bogita Ongeri declined to give details of the army’s Mount Elgon operation, saying only troops were in the area to assist local officials.

Ochiemo Cheptai, who identified himself as chairman of the Mount Elgon chapter of the Kenya Red Cross, said 30,000 people fled their homes after the army began pursuing members of the Sabaot Land Defense Force on Sunday.

Red Cross officials in Nairobi challenged the 30,000 figure, saying they have not yet assessed the numbers fleeing.

A week ago, 13 people were burned alive or hacked to death in the Mount Elgon region in an attack that police blamed on the Sabaot Land Defense Force. No one has claimed responsibility for the March 3 attack.

Mount Elgon has seen frequent, bloody clashes over land, with some 800 people killed and tens of thousands displaced since 2006, according to the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in the Rift Valley.

When President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga each claimed victory in Dec. 27 presidential elections, their dispute unleashed weeks of bloodshed, killing more than 1,000 people and exposing divisions over land and economic inequality.

The Mount Elgon violence echoes other disputes in the Rift Valley that can be traced back to Kenya’s colonial era, when white settlers seized land in the western Rift Valley. Since independence old bitterness has occasionally erupted over land, more frequently with the return of multiparty politics in 1991.

Kibaki and Odinga agreed to a power sharing deal on Feb. 28 after a month of negotiations mediated by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, with Kibaki continuing as president and Odinga taking a new prime minister’s post. That deal has been transformed into two bills — one a constitutional amendment proposal, on which parliament will open debate Tuesday.

Debating and passing bills can be a lengthy process in Kenya, but politicians have managed to do it in as little as a day in the past, meaning Kenyans could have a new power-sharing constitution at the end of Tuesday and Odinga could take office within days.

The proposed constitutional amendment would create the positions of prime minister and two deputy prime ministers. The other bill defines the functions of the prime minister, including the power to “coordinate and supervise” the government.

The bill also states that the prime minister must be the leader of the largest party or coalition in parliament and can only be dismissed by a vote of no-confidence — meaning the prime minister would not be beholden to the president.

The bill says the grand governing coalition will be dissolved if parliament is dissolved, which under the constitution will automatically lead to elections. The coalition partners also can agree in writing to dissolve it or one coalition partner can withdraw following a written decision by that party’s highest decision making body.

In the past week, politicians across the divide have endorsed the power-sharing deal, an indication lawmakers will pass the bills with speed and without much resistance.

Once the bills become law and a new government is formed, it will face major tasks, including helping the half-million people displaced by the past two month’s violence and stemming losses in what was once one of Africa’s most promising economies.

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