NAIROBI, Kenya – Kenya's prime minister said Monday that he wants former U.N. chief Kofi Annan to mediate a dispute with the president that is threatening a power-sharing agreement that helped end postelection bloodshed two years ago.
The public spat between the two leaders has deepened fractures in the coalition government formed in 2008 after more than 1,000 Kenyans were killed in the country's worst violence since gaining independence from Britain in 1963.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga on Sunday dismissed two Cabinet ministers over corruption allegations, but President Mwai Kibaki immediately reinstated them, part of a weekend to-and-fro over what constitutional powers the premier has.
On Saturday, two Odinga aides resigned over misconduct allegations, and Kibaki then ordered eight government employees to step down, including the two Odinga aides.
The U.S. Embassy welcomed the decision to force government officials to step aside, and called for a thorough and transparent investigation. But the rift has clearly turned personal, and the Attorney General suggested it could lead to a constitutional crisis.
The call to bring in Annan signals the seriousness of the dispute. Annan mediated the power-sharing agreement in early 2008 that stopped machete-wielding factions and police from spilling more blood.
"What comes across quite clearly is that the two people are at loggerheads on a critical, crucial issue that speaks to many, many Kenyans, and that they could be disagreeing dents the confidence the people have in the coalition," said Kwendo Opanga, who writes a regular column in the weekly Sunday Nation newspaper.
Under the power-sharing agreement, the president and prime minister are supposed to consult on Cabinet appointments or dismissals. The ministries are split between their political parties.
After Kibaki overruled Odinga's suspensions of the ministers of agriculture and education, the prime minister on Monday insisted the ministers remain suspended and that his action was legal.
"The law is clear. On matters of discipline, suspension or interdiction of public officials including Cabinet ministers, the prime minister has exclusive authority," said Musalia Mudavadi, a deputy prime minister, reading a statement on behalf of Odinga, who is traveling to Japan for a weeklong visit.
"The prime minister does not share that power or authority with the president," said Mudavadi. He said Odinga will soon write to Annan and the African Union to seek their intervention.
Kibaki on Sunday said the prime minister did not consult him before announcing he was suspending Agriculture Minister William Ruto and Education Minister Sam Ongeri and that Odinga did not have authority to suspend the two.
The U.S. government said only by working together will the two leaders show they are determined to fight corruption.
"The Kenyan people and the international community are waiting to see whether the government's actions taken so far signal a new decision to take bold actions to fight corruption at all levels with respect to these cases and the other major corruption scandals," said the statement.
Odinga singled out Ruto for suspension because a PricewaterhouseCoopers forensic audit report made public on Thursday showed Kenya wasted 2 billion shillings ($26.1 million) through corrupt deals made in a government program meant to provide subsidized maize for Kenya's poor.
He suspended Ongeri because government auditors uncovered fraud in the government's program to offer free primary education, which later saw Britain and U.S. suspend yet to be disbursed aid.
"That graft is at the center of political wrangling now is a good thing because that's where the hearts of the people are," said John Githongo, a former anti-graft adviser to Kibaki. "For the elite it's like playing soccer with a bomb. It's popping and everyone will be injured. People seem willing to pay the price."
This week's spat is not the first time Kibaki and Odinga have disagreed on how to run the coalition government, but most disputes revolve around hierarchy — whether the vice president or prime minister is more senior, for instance. Otherwise, the two have seemed to work in harmony.
The new rift seems more serious, but Opanga said there is still time for the two leaders to work through the impasse.
"It is important they do that because if they don't, if the two of them are seen to be taking paths that are parallel on corruption, we are looking again at the abyss," said Opanga.