What you need to know:
- By failing to reach consensus on the cost of living, the report has given the government huge sway in shaping the economy as its domain.
- Instead, the report recommends a slew of cost-cutting measures, including reducing their travel budgets by 50 per cent.
Since Kenya’s return to multi-party politics in 1992, it remains a poster child of too much reform, too little change. After the 2022 elections, Kenya’s political landscape is a classical scenario where the forest has changed, but the monkeys are still the same.
On September 6, 2023, Parliament established the National Dialogue Committee (NADC) to “facilitate dialogue and consensus building” and to propose reforms to address issues of concern to the people of Kenya. Set up against the backdrop of the closely-fought and extremely divisive 2022 elections, further marred by months of opposition-led post-election protests that polarised and paralysed the nation, the committee was a bold initiative to forge elite consensus and stabilize the polity. But its composition and report — unveiled on
November 26, 2023 — have fragmented the inner circle of opposition power, stifled the emergence of a national elite consensus and opened new schisms poised to shape coalition-building ahead of the 2027 elections.
The National Dialogue Committee report is a case of new wine in old skin. Kenya’s instability is rooted in the legacy of the fragmentation of its elite and the collapse of the ‘nationalist consensus’ as the ideology tie that held the liberation movement together after 1963.
Even after Kenya returned to multi-party politics, the authoritarianism of the one-party vintage was quickly replaced by different shades of ‘electoral authoritarianism’.
In this political setting, the elite has only permanent interests but no permanent loyalties or a galvanizing ideology.
Expectedly, Kenya’s political landscape is littered with skeletons of failed reform processes. All the seven multiparty elections between 1992 and 2022 have been extremely competitive and marred by identity-based violence and periodic raptures of the elite consensus.
Rise of new coalitions
This has shaped coalition-building and the never-ending push for referendums to change the constitution before and after every election. The NADC report, a genuine quest for post-election stability, has far-reaching implications for elite consensus.
Like the BBI before it, the very formation of the Committee has fragmented the elite, hastened the disintegration of existing elite consensus and heralding the rise of new coalitions and alignments ahead of the 2027 elections.
At the one end, the report has emboldened the ruling elite in President William Ruto’s government, which has pledged to ‘fully implement its recommendations’. Its recommendations are safe because they steer clear of sharing power. Instead, the report dangles the position of the Leader of Official Opposition with a huge budget and other perks as the carrot for the opposition in lieu of power-sharing.
By recommending the establishment of the Office of Prime Minister to entrench the Prime Cabinet Secretary into the Constitution, the report has helped the government build its own internal elite consensus. Third, the report also enables the government to broaden the Kenya Kwanza coalition by proposing the expansion of existing funds and creation of new ones in a move that appears to deepen devolution.
Fourth, by failing to reach consensus on the cost of living, the report has given the government huge sway in shaping the economy as its domain. Instead, the report recommends a slew of cost-cutting measures, including reducing their travel budgets by 50 per cent.
Finally, the proposed Independent Political Parties Regulatory Commission to replace the current Office of the Registrar of Political Parties gives the government a free hand to shape the formation, management and funding of political parties.
Power and coalition building
At the other end, the NADC report has widened the cracks within the inner circle of opposition power. The very appointments to the committee split consensus within the Azimio Coalition. Raila Odinga’s ODM camp has endorsed the NADC report, describing it as ‘imperfect and unfinished’, but ‘a good start’. So has Kalonzo Musyoka’s Wiper Movement (WM). But parties aligned to former President Uhuru Kenyatta are divided.
Arising from the above, the NADC report throws up three scenarios for the future of power and coalition building.
The first scenario is potential clash between President Ruto and Odinga over the opposition’s push for a referendum to radically change the constitution. The creation of the Office of Leader of Opposition, the formalization of the office of the Prime Minister and would radically alter the structure of government.
But the Government side argue that the country’s economy in its current fragile state cannot accommodate a plebiscite. After all, a constitutional change could turn into a protest vote against Dr Ruto. The opposition could exploit this to build momentum for 2027.
In the second scenario, the government could use the referendum to shock and awe the opposition, test its electoral machine and propose even more radical reforms to the constitution, including the abolition of term limits to extend Dr. Ruto’s reign. As in the cases of the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) reforms in late 1997 and the 2010 constitutional process, the Government has total control of the reform process in parliament.
In the third scenario, Raila and Ruto might close ranks as they did in 2007. Ruto’s victory last year signaled the end of ‘Mount Kenya’ as the dominant-hegemonic power elite, whose elite are wary about their future under the hegemony of the Kalenjin ‘Young Turks.’
Professor Peter Kagwanja, former Government Adviser (2008-2013), and currently Chief Executive at the Africa Institute (API), Adjunct Professor at the University of Nairobi and the National Defence University—Kenya (NDU).