NAIROBI - Kenya's president and first lady have disagreed in public over who is to blame for two fire disasters that killed at least 148 people.
Their unprecedented spat has added to public dismay over the way authorities have reacted to a supermarket fire that killed 26 people and a petrol truck blaze that claimed 122 lives.
During a week of national mourning for the nation's worst accident toll of recent times, first lady Lucy Kibaki raised the political stakes when she lambasted one of her husband's ministers during a visit to victims.
The volatile Lucy was angry at Security Minister George Saitoti's comments that poor Kenyans contributed to the oil disaster by scrambling for fuel in the road.
"How can dead people be taught a lesson?" she said on Monday. "If it was a woman in the ministry of internal security, she would have stopped these accidents."
Abandoning his low public profile, President Mwai Kibaki stood by Saitoti.
"I wish to assure the Honourable George Saitoti that I have full confidence in him," Kibaki, 77, said in comments published by local media yesterday.
Kenyan authorities have faced criticism for poor safety standards and a slow response to the accidents.
Some survivors have said fire escapes in the Nairobi supermarket were locked, while some witnesses of the truck blaze near Molo town accused police of taking bribes to allow people to scoop up oil.
The disasters have compounded a mood of national gloom in Kenya, where new graft scandals have come to light in the maize and oil sectors, and the economy has taken a dive due to the global crisis and the impact of last year's election violence.
Kenya's economy is also facing a food shortage, with 10million people suffering from hunger.
Trying to chart a way forward, Kibaki opened a three-day policy conference titled "The Kenya We Want". Many however, are sceptical that their leaders are the ones to take them forward.
"The problems we face were caused by the ruling class," said Morris Odhiambo of the National Civil Society Congress.
"The current leadership, characterised by oligarchic claims to power and privilege, patronage and corruption, cannot deliver on the transformation Kenyans desire," added Odhiambo, who was organising an alternative conference in Nairobi.
Kibaki launched the official conference with a call to "re-create" and "re-engineer" Kenya.
Kibaki presides over a coalition government set up in April last year after a disputed presidential election. - Reuters