NAIROBI, Kenya – The two presidential rivals at the center of Kenya’s bitter election dispute met Thursday and shook hands, offering a potential breakthrough in the violent political standoff that has crippled this East African nation.
In their first meeting since the disputed Dec. 27 presidential poll, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga met with former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan for about an hour. Afterward, they emerged from the presidential office, smiling broadly and vowing to work together.
Images of the men shaking hands drew shouts of joy and applause from onlookers. Hoping to ease the public’s anxiety, the government temporarily lifted its emergency ban on live television so broadcasters could air footage of the event.
“I felt such relief to see them shaking hands,” said Gladys Mumo, 32, standing outside the presidential compound in Nairobi. “We want peace. Our children aren’t going to school because of this fracas. As a mother, I see things moving in the right direction.”
Annan, who arrived in Kenya earlier this week to mediate talks, joined Kibaki and Odinga in calling upon Kenyans to maintain peace and be patient while negotiations continue. Although the initial meeting marked a turning point in Kenya’s political crisis, experts cautioned that tough issues must still be resolved in the coming days and weeks.
“This is a very encouraging development,” Annan said
Kibaki and Odinga claim to have won the Dec. 27 poll. Kibaki, the incumbent, was declared the winner by the nation’s election commission, but international observers and local watchdog groups reported evidence of widespread tallying fraud.
The dispute set off nationwide riots and ethnic clashes that have killed more than 600 people, displaced another 250,000 and cost Kenya an estimated $1 billion. The turmoil has devastated the economy and tarnished the country’s reputation as a model African democracy.
Kibaki expressed optimism that a resolution would be found. “I will personally lead our country in promoting unity, tolerance, peace and harmony among Kenyans,” Kibaki said.
But in his remarks, he did not acknowledge allegations of voter fraud and took strides to emphasize the legitimacy of his presidency. When it was his turn to speak, aides quickly brought out a special podium with the government seal, and he referred to himself as Kenya’s “duly elected president.”