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First aid for Kenya

The country is not Rwanda. It's still possible to learn from past mistakes and prevent ethnic warfare.

January 04, 2008

The international community flunked its first genocide prevention test in Rwanda. It failed again in Darfur. Now comes another chance at redemption -- in Kenya, where, mercifully, there is still time and opportunity to keep one of the few peaceful, stable and prospering countries in Africa from jumping over the precipice of ethnic warfare. It will require a swift and concerted effort to help the Kenyan people and institutions eager to save their own nation. It can still be done, but only if we learn the lessons of ethnic cleansings past: The longer the killing goes on, the harder it will be to stop the cycle of atrocities and revenge.

Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu flew to Nairobi on Tuesday to try to mediate the conflict between Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, who had himself sworn in for a second term two hours after a blatantly flawed election was abruptly decided in his favor, and his rival, Raila Odinga, leader of the Orange Democratic Movement. Odinga met with Tutu and has called for an end to the violence, but Kibaki refused to see the archbishop on the grounds that Kenya is not in civil war. On Thursday, Kibaki said, again unhelpfully, that he would talk to his opposition once the nation is calm.

The African Union's chairman, John Kufuor, the president of Ghana, offered to fly to Kenya as well, only to have Kibaki's spokesman say that AU intervention wasn't necessary to deal with an internal Kenyan matter. Kibaki needs reminding that the U.N. Security Council, with Kenyan assent, in 2006 recognized that national sovereignty is trumped by the duty of the international community to intervene when governments are "manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."

Until now, Kenya has done a far better job than most African nations in managing its many ethnic divisions. It has strong human rights groups and traditions that ought to prevent the kind of genocidal madness that struck Rwanda. But Kibaki, who came into office as a reformer promising to reverse the decades of corruption, decay and ethnic favoritism of strongman Daniel Arap Moi, has proved a grave disappointment. He has, however, been one of Africa's best U.S. allies in combating terrorism, and he receives nearly $800 million in international aid. The United States and Britain, both key trading partners for Kenya, should use that leverage now to force Kibaki to negotiate a power-sharing deal and help pull his country back from the brink.

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