NAIROBI, Kenya – Kenya’s feuding politicians shook hands, smiled for the cameras, and finally agreed to share power. But two months after a disputed presidential election unleashed ethnic violence that killed more than 1,000 people, the real test is whether the reluctant partners can heal a deeply divided nation.
Much depends on how President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga work together in the days ahead.
“For the last two months, Kenyans have known nothing but sadness,” said Odinga, who won a powerful prime minister’s post in Thursday’s agreement.
He referred to his rival as “my countryman, President Mwai Kibaki” – one clear sign of acceptance after having denounced Kibaki’s re-election as a sham.
Kibaki added: “This process has reminded us that as a nation there are more issues that unite than that divide us.”
Under the agreement, the opposition leader will become prime minister and have the power to “coordinate and supervise” the government – more authority than Kibaki wanted to yield.
The bitterness between them runs deep, however, and both men have been lashing out at each other since the Dec. 27 election. They have traded accusations about inciting violence, stealing the vote, and destroying the nation. They had not even been in the same room for weeks before Thursday.
Kofi Annan, the mediator, had to prompt them to shake hands Thursday as the cameras rolled.
The two men must try to repair the lives of more than a half-million people who have been displaced from their homes and require food, water and medical care. Kenya’s Red Cross says it knows of at least 500 youngsters who were separated from their families.
There is also the matter of restoring one of Africa’s most promising economies. Kenya, one of the most prosperous and tourist-friendly countries in Africa, has seen up to $1 billion in losses linked to the turmoil.
Kenyans welcomed the deal with skepticism. In a reminder of the previous weeks’ chaos, police fired tear gas to disperse dozens who gathered outside Kibaki’s office to witness the signing.
Much of the bloodshed pitted other ethnic groups, such as Odinga’s Luo tribe, against Kibaki’s Kikuyu people, long resented for their domination of the economy and politics.
In many regions, the violence brought a bloody end to decades of coexistence among Kenya’s ethnic groups, transforming cities and towns where Kenyans had lived together – however uneasily at times – since independence from Britain in 1963.
Residents in Nairobi’s Kibera slum celebrated what they saw as a chance for peace.
“The general mood among people is that of happiness,” said Nelson Ochieng, whose barbershop was destroyed in the violence. “We are tired of the political crisis. I was a barber but my shop was burnt. Now I’m jobless and the end of this crisis means that I can rebuild my business.”
It was unclear when, exactly, Odinga would take over as prime minister. Kibaki said he is reconvening parliament March 6 to begin work on the constitutional changes necessary to make the deal into law.
The State Department welcomed the deal as a first step. “We want to see this agreement implemented and much will depend on its implementation,” said Tom Casey, a spokesman. “We will be watching very carefully to see how this progresses.”
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown applauded the accord but said “the hard work must continue. Kenyans need help to resettle and rebuild. Real leadership, patience and tolerance is necessary to ensure that the agreement sticks.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it “a breakthrough toward resolving the crisis,” U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said in New York.
Ban believes it “gives hope to the people of Kenya for a return to democratic stability in their country,” she said.
Francois Grignon, head of the Africa program for Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group, said the deal was a step forward, but not enough. “Power-sharing is not necessarily going to answer the requirements to end the violence,” Grignon said, saying major challenges ahead include disarming militia groups and restoring Kenyans’ trust in their government.
Robert Mwaniki, 26, a salesman for a cable TV company in Nairobi, said that trust will take time to earn. “Once they sign this agreement, everything will be OK for them, but not for us,” he said. “Before we get that confidence back of living together as different tribes, it may take time. We have no respect for each other anymore.”