NAIROBI, Kenya – The U.S. ambassador to Kenya said Tuesday that top U.S. government officials were closely monitoring a dispute between Kenya's top two leaders, as Cabinet ministers aligned with the prime minister said they will boycott Cabinet meetings.
A public dispute between President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga on how to tackle high-level corruption began last weekend and has intensified the last two days. The dispute also calls into question what powers each of them has under Kenya's constitution.
Odinga has asked former U.N. chief Kofi Annan to mediate, and the attorney general has suggested the rift could lead to a constitutional crisis. The power-sharing government was formed in the wake of postelection violence that saw more than 1,000 people killed between December 2007 and February 2008.
U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger on Tuesday urged Kibaki and Odinga to work together to resolve a dispute that could threaten the power-sharing deal.
"We are calling on the two coalition principals to work together to resolve these issues and to jointly fight corruption, corruption at all levels," Ranneberger told a news conference.
Ranneberger said the "highest levels of the U.S. government" are watching events in Kenya "very closely."
The ambassador said Kenya can effectively fight corruption only if the governing coalition works together.
The announcement that ministers aligned with Odinga would boycott Cabinet meetings until the dispute is resolved signaled a further breakdown in the already fractious coalition.
It was not immediately clear how many out of those 20-plus ministers will take part in the boycott. Already, some have shown they are no longer allied to him. Cabinet appointments were split evenly between the two rival political parties led by Kibaki and Odinga.
"Orange Democratic Movement party Cabinet members will boycott future Cabinet sessions until the current crisis is resolved," said Salim Lone, an adviser to Odinga, who is currently on a weeklong visit to Japan. "It is not possible for the prime minister to carry out his function if he has no powers attached to his mandate under the Constitution to supervise ministers and the executive function of government."
On Sunday, Odinga said he had suspended two Cabinet ministers after audits into the works of their ministries uncovered high-level corruption. Hours later, President Mwai Kibaki annulled those suspensions, arguing that Odinga had acted illegally.
One of the ministers is from Odinga's party but they had a falling out last year. The other is allied to Kibaki.
Odinga's call on Monday for Annan to step in shows how seriously he views the disagreement. Annan mediated the power sharing deal Odinga and Kibaki signed after the president was controversially declared winner of the December 2007 poll.
Officials from Annan's office were not immediately available for comment.
The actions by Odinga and Kibaki have precipitated a debate about the constitutional powers of the prime minister, but they have also sparked a public debate on how high-level corruption in Kenya should be tackled.