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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Kenya swears in historic coalition cabinet

NAIROBI - Kenya swore in a power-sharing government on Thursday to soothe fury over a disputed election that plunged the country into a bloody crisis.

The 41-member cabinet, Kenya's largest and costliest ever, was sworn in at the official State House residence of President Mwai Kibaki, who split government posts with the party of his closest election challenger, new Prime Minister Raila Odinga. The two men met secretly on Saturday and broke a six-week deadlock over forming the coalition, the cornerstone of a power-sharing deal agreed in February.

The announcement of the new cabinet brought relief to Kenyans and investors watching for signs of lasting peace in east Africa's biggest economy. The Kenya shilling and the Nairobi Stock Exchange have rebounded already, having suffered badly after the country erupted into riots and ethnic killings that saw more than 1,200 people killed and 300,000 uprooted from their homes. The cabinet is supposed to steer the redrafting of a new constitution within 12 months, to help address long-simmering issues of land, wealth and power that fuelled the crisis. Many expect it to descend into infighting before long.

The inauguration makes Odinga only the second prime minister in Kenyan history. Founding president Jomo Kenyatta was prime minister for the year after independence from Britain in 1963, until his title was changed. Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, who mediated the deal, attended, along with Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni and Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza.

For Odinga, it marks a bittersweet ascendancy to one of the country's top jobs. His father, independence figure Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, was vice president under Kenyatta but the two fell out badly. Showing how little the political cast of characters and dynasties have changed since then, Kenyatta's son Uhuru was sworn in as one of two deputy prime ministers under Odinga.

For years, the former political prisoner Odinga has sought to be Kenya's president and came within a few hundred thousand votes in the December 27 election, which Kibaki stole. That unleashed riots by his supporters that police violently suppressed, and a cycle of ethnic killings. The violence and pictures of machete-wielding youths who for weeks paralysed parts of the country seriously harmed Kenya's image as the stable, prosperous anchor of turbulent east Africa. Enormous international and local pressure brought the two sides to a deal to stem the violence, but still-raw rivalries kept the cabinet from being named for weeks.

Few Kenyans expect the cabinet to do much other than squabble and to spend more time on self-enrichment than on the major electoral, legal and constitutional reforms they are supposed to tackle along with parliament. "It's not going to be united," housewife Unia Isaac, 32, said. "It's the common man who is going to lose a lot."

Critics of the size of the cabinet say it will cost $1 billion a year -- around 5 percent of Kenya's GDP -- to maintain, between salaries for 41 ministers and 50 assistant ministers, plus large cars, bodyguards and support staff for all. "I don't care what they do as long as there is peace," businesswoman Jacinta Wanjiru, 33, said.

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