NAIROBI, Kenya – The Peace Corps said Tuesday it has suspended operations in Kenya after weeks of postelection violence, another blow to confidence as business leaders voiced concerns over the turmoil’s effect on the economy.
Unrest has devastated the nation’s once-impressive economy, decimating its vital tourism industry and prompting foreign companies to consider pulling out, business leaders said.
The Peace Corps said it was withdrawing its remaining 58 volunteers. After clashes first erupted, 86 volunteers were sent home in January.
There were fears that other organizations – aid groups and businesses alike – would also leave unless there is an end to the violence that has engulfed Kenya since a Dec. 27 election that local and foreign observers say was rigged.
“There are questions already being asked, why are you there? What gives you the advantage to stay in Kenya?” said Steven Smith, managing director of Kenya operations for U.S. battery maker Eveready.
Major foreign companies and aid groups have long used Kenya as a base in Africa, helping to make the country a regional economic powerhouse. But “let’s face it, many firms don’t have to manufacture here,” Smith said.
More than 1,000 people have been killed and 300,000 forced from their homes in violence that has repeatedly degenerated into ethnic clashes. Much of the anger has been aimed at President Mwai Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe, long resented for dominating politics and the economy.
Smith was among the business leaders who met Tuesday with former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is mediating peace talks between Kibaki and his chief rival, Raila Odinga. The business leaders again urged the politicians to end the violence.
With many Kikuyu business leaders lying low, how much sway such appeals will have is an open question.
As the business leaders were meeting in Nairobi, fighting persisted in parts of western Kenya, epicenter of the violence. Thousands more people fled their homes in the region, leaving behind burned houses and rubble after days of fighting that killed seven people.