NAIROBI // Kenya's shaky coalition government was thrown into turmoil this week as the president and prime minister clashed over the suspension of two high-ranking ministers implicated in corruption scandals. Corruption watchdogs warned that the country's political wrangling is undermining the fight against corruption in Kenya, East Africa's largest economy. Analysts warned that the infighting is a sign that the country is likely headed for another round of violence after the next election in 2012.
The political standoff began over the weekend when Raila Odinga, the prime minister, suspended William Ruto, the agriculture minister, and Sam Ongeri, the education minister, to pave the way for corruption investigations in their ministries. Mwai Kibaki, the president, said he was not consulted on the suspensions and that the prime minister lacked the authority for such a move. The president declared that the two ministers were still in office, and they reported for work at the beginning of this week.
"The legal provisions on which the prime minister acted do not confer him the authority to cause a minister to vacate his or her office," the president said. Mr Kibaki and Mr Odinga have been in a power-sharing government since they contested a closely fought presidential election that ended in violence in early 2008. More than 1,300 people died in clashes after Mr Kibaki, the incumbent, claimed victory in a poll fraught with irregularities.
Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, mediated a compromise that ended the bloodletting and created the post of prime minister for Mr Odinga. The International Criminal Court is looking into whether top politicians instigated the violence. The African Union panel chaired by Mr Annan yesterday urged the leaders to iron out their differences and preserve two years of painstaking progress. "The African Union Panel of Eminent African Personalities expresses its concern at the current political impasse in Kenya and the effect this could have on the implementation of the National Accord," it said.
In the last two years, the power sharing arrangement has been wobbly at best and could unravel after the latest crisis. Amos Wako, the attorney general who has been under fire for blocking judicial reforms, told the two rival politicians to work together. "Any perception that they are not working together, but at cross purposes, undermines the coalition and its objective of implementing a coherent and far reaching reform agenda," he said. "It could lead to a breakdown of the coalition government [and develop] into a constitutional and political crisis."
Mr Ruto, once a close ally of the prime minister, and Mr Ongeri, the two ministers at the centre of the row, have been implicated in corruption scandals involving embezzlement of funds from their ministries. Last week, the auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers released a report that said US$26 million (Dh95m) went missing from the ministry of agriculture, which is Mr Ruto's portfolio. The money was intended to give Kenyan farmers, struggling from drought, access to subsidised maize, but was diverted.
In Mr Ongeri's education ministry, $1.4m has disappeared from a programme that provides free primary school education to all Kenyans. The US and United Kingdom last month suspended their donations to the programme over the corruption allegations. The political crisis is hurting Kenya's struggling economy. The Kenyan shilling hit a seven-month low against the dollar this week. Job Ogonda, the head of Transparency International in Kenya, a corruption watchdog, said the struggle for power appears to be more important than fighting corruption and could lead to more violence after the 2012 election.
The Orange Democratic Movement, Mr Odinga's party, on Monday called for Mr Annan to return to Kenya to mediate the dispute. However, members of the president's party have called for Mr Odinga to resign. "The prime minister has no powers to hire, fire or suspend," said Justin Muturi, a presidential legal adviser. "He can only recommend to the president. If his recommendation is not acted upon, the only recourse is to walk out of the coalition, not invite Dr Annan."
Kenyans seem fed up with the corruption and infighting plaguing their government. This week 15 civil society groups held a peaceful demonstration in front of the president's office in Nairobi voicing frustration with the president's "habit of treating those implicated in graft with kid gloves". The influential Daily Nation newspaper said in an editorial that public discord among the country's leaders was hurting society. "We are still a very fragile country and any precipitate action on the part of either of the principals on the coalition government should be avoided at all costs."