NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenya’s president and opposition leader announced Friday they will work together to unite the country, which has been divided along ethnic lines following last year’s disputed elections.
President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga spoke after holding discussions, the first talks between the two since the elections sparked widespread turmoil.
The Kenyan leaders agreed that their meeting was not the result of pressure from Western countries. “This is a purely domestic initiative,” Odinga’s spokesman, Dennis Onyango, said.
The Kenyan politicians’ initiative to bring the country together was welcomed by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who arrived in Nairobi Friday to start a three-day visit.
“This is a very positive step in our view, and while we know addressing Kenya’s ethnic and political divisions will take some time and effort, today both of these men showed great leadership in coming together,” Tillerson said after meeting Kenyatta. “All the credit goes to the two leaders.”
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sent former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to Kenya in January to try to mediate the political crisis.
“We hope that our role played a bit part even in anything that moves in the right direction,” Guterres spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Friday.
Kenyatta and Odinga met publicly at a funeral service where they shook hands earlier this year, but did not have talks.
“The time has come for us to confront and resolve our differences,” said Odinga, after the talks. “These differences are becoming too entrenched.”
The fathers of Odinga and Kenyatta were allies in the struggle for Kenya’s independence from British colonial rule and then became political adversaries. Now the sons have extended the family rivalry, which starts with personal politics and carries on to affect the country’s ethnic allegiances.
The two men, who also faced off in a 2013 election marred by opposition allegations of vote-rigging, are vying for power in Kenya, East Africa’s economic hub that plays a key role in the Western-backed fight against neighboring Somalia’s Islamic extremists.
For many observers, the historical divisions between the Kenyatta and Odinga political dynasties and the ethnic groups they represent cloud the promise of Kenya’s democracy.
On Friday, President Kenyatta said he and Odinga had reached an understanding “that this country of Kenya is greater than any one individual. And for this country to come together, leaders must come together.”
Following last year’s election in August, Odinga pressed a lawsuit challenging Kenyatta’s victory and the Supreme Court ordered a new election. Odinga boycotted the repeat election in October, saying adequate electoral reforms had not been made.
On Jan. 30 Odinga held a protest event which was a mock inauguration in which he was sworn in as the “people’s president.” The government reacted by shutting down some broadcasters and arresting some participants.
The Kenyatta government shut three television stations that tried to broadcast the Odinga’s protest event, but at the press conference with Tillerson, Kenya’s foreign minister dismissed criticism of the action.
“The notion that there is a restriction on the media in Kenya is actually not backed by fact or reality,” said Monica Juma.
“The provision of a free press in this country is secured within our constitution. The incident that is being referenced here is a one-off incident,” she said. “It’s an incident that affected three of more than tens of TV stations in this country. It is a matter that involved investigation of the police and you will know if you operate in this environment that we have perhaps the largest media corps perhaps anywhere on this African continent.”