For a moment there, it appeared that the momentum driving the BBI-sponsored referendum was slackening and that the unthinkable was about to happen. Then President Uhuru Kenyatta on Wednesday night drove to the Karen home of Mr Raila Odinga for a “secret” meeting and the following day the two gentlemen were criss-crossing the city inspecting “progress” and reaffirming that the plan was intact and that we shall have a referendum.
Optics is a big part of politics generally and nowhere more so than in Kenya where alliances form and dissolve faster than quicksand. It was important that the two main BBI drivers appear together to quieten the noises, even if for a while. Because it is obvious that things are not what they appear to be.
Remarks by Kakamega Governor Wycliffe Oparanya and ODM party Secretary-General Edwin Sifuna that this was not an optimal time to conduct a referendum and that the money earmarked for it be used to get Covid-19 vaccines were read by many as evidence that there was despair within ODM ranks and that the referendum no longer had the support of the President and his key allies.
Part of this despair stemmed from the apparent support the President was assumed to be giving to the new alliance of party leaders Musalia Mudavadi (ANC), Kalonzo Musyoka (Wiper Party), Gideon Moi (Kanu) and Moses Wetang’ula (Ford Kenya), a grouping of also-rans loath to see Mr Odinga run for the presidency because, they say, he owes it to them on the basis of a deal they agreed on when, prior to 2017, three of them (apart from Mr Moi) agreed to join Mr Odinga to form Nasa.
Since President Kenyatta last month appeared in a photo with the four, together with Mrs Charity Ngilu and Mr Odinga, and agreed to push the BBI agenda, Mr Mudavadi in particular has been very keen to “own” the implied support from the President and cast the ODM leader as unreliable and dishonest.
Then there was the irritating issue of Interior PS Karanja Kibicho dismissing accusations that he was overreaching himself in his support for BBI and insisting that he intended to keep on doing what he was doing because that is what the President expected him to do.
And finally the drama being played out in Parliament by ODM and Jubilee MPs over whether the Bill on BBI should be open to discussions and possible amendments (as the Jubilee team wants) or whether it should be passed as is without amendments “because the public has already agreed on its contents” (as the ODM team wants).
These are the headwinds that the appearance of the President and Mr Odinga was intended to calm. They probably did, but it is temporary. It will take more than just a public appearance to calm the tempest. That the referendum is deeply important to Mr Odinga is not in doubt. He is on record saying that everything – even a decision on his political future – is on hold until after the BBI referendum. He is, therefore, willing to emerge, even before he is fully healed from a Covid attack, to breathe fresh life into it. The President too has stacked plenty of his legacy on the referendum.
So this is a bus with two drivers agreed that it heads out but each heading to a different destination. Neither can drive it alone because they both need to carry different and mutually hostile co-passengers and co-drivers.
It is hard to see Raila suddenly feeling comfortable as the President cozies up to people determined to neuter Raila’s ambitions. But he also just can’t shut out the President because the referendum will require a significant push from the state to safely pass.
And while he can arguably walk the rest of the referendum journey alone, the President is hesitant to rock this party too soon. There are still too many variables to be navigated, not least getting agreement within Parliament, which will allow the process to move on to the voting public.
I think that the rapprochement that we saw on Thursday will hold only until the referendum is held and the desired outcome is achieved. Beyond that, the President will support whoever he wants to succeed him and there is nothing to suggest strongly that that person is going to be Mr Raila Odinga.