President William Ruto quietly met opposition Azimio la Umoja One Kenya alliance leader Raila Odinga in Mombasa on Friday evening in the presence of retired Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, kicking off a series of events that culminated in the announcement of talks involving five representatives from each side of the political divide, the Sunday Nation has learnt.
Mr Obasanjo, who was also sent by the international community to mediate between Mr Odinga and then-president Uhuru Kenyatta in 2018, landed in the country early in the week.
In the ensuing days, the two sides that had been exchanging words bitterly appeared to tone down the rhetoric and showed signs of willingness to talk.
After Mr Odinga claimed that the government snubbed a mediation bid by Tanzanian leader Samia Suluhu Hassan, President Ruto on Tuesday said he is ready to meet the opposition.
“My friend Raila Odinga, I am off to Tanzania for a...meeting to harmonise the expansion of employment opportunities. I am back tomorrow (Wednesday) evening, and as you have always known, I am available to meet one-on-one with you anytime at your convenience,” President Ruto tweeted.
Sources told the Sunday Nation that the Friday night deliberations took place at a coastal hotel, with both parties having agreed not to tag along any of their lieutenants for fear of scuttling the talks at the initial stage.
“President Ruto and Mr Odinga met last night (Friday). He (Mr Odinga) flew to Mombasa after they settled on a neutral place, away from the prying eyes of many,” a Mr Odinga ally told the Sunday Nation.
“It was not at State House, Mombasa, where the president has been since Thursday.”
Last evening, Azimio la Umoja One Kenya coalition and President Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza alliance, in separate statements, confirmed the agreement on the beginning of the talks.
Azimio mentioned the role of Mr Obasanjo in the planned talks that will involve representatives from in and outside Parliament.
But it is in the planned terms of reference that the two teams appear to have diverged.
The opposition wanted the talks to centre on the cost of living, victims of police brutality and punishment of officers involved in terrorising demonstrators but the government side could hear none of it.
What was, however, in agreement was the composition of the 10-member committee.
The team will have National Assembly Majority Leader Kimani Ichung’wah and his Minority colleague Opiyo Wandayi; two MPs from each side and two members for each side from outside Parliament.
The opposition group has tentatively settled on Wiper Party leader Kalonzo Musyoka and former Defence Cabinet Secretary Eugene Wamalwa to join Mr Wandayi.
Kenya Kwanza is said to be fronting Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi, with others to be named later.
“We, the leadership of Azimio la Umoja One Kenya, having consulted with the leadership of Kenya Kwanza under the facilitation of Mr Olusegun Obasanjo on the state of our nation, desirous of a democratic and peaceful resolution of issues that beset our nation, determined to resolve our differences amicably for the benefit of our people, have agreed with Kenya Kwanza to establish a committee of 10,” a statement from the opposition, signed by Mr Wandayi, said.
In the statement, Azimio la Umoja One Kenya coalition insisted on two key matters – police brutality and the rule of law.
“We express condemnation and regret on the violence that has visited our nation with loss of life, serious injuries and the destruction of property, and affirm our commitment to adherence to the Constitution and the rule of law,” the statement said.
Soon after, State House officials circulated a statement by Mr Ichung’wah – and which had not been signed by Mr Wandayi at the time of its release, though marked as a joint statement – and which repeated most of the things in the Azimio one, save for the matters to be discussed.
According to Mr Ichung’wah, the team will discuss the reconstitution of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the implementation of the two-thirds gender rule, the entrenchment of the Constituency Development Fund, the establishment of the Office of the Leader of Opposition and the embedment of the Office of the Prime Cabinet Secretary.
On the cost of living, Mr Ichung’wah said there was an agreement to drop the discussion on the Finance Act, 2023 – the law that sets out new tax measures
He said it should be left for the courts to decide, as discussing it “is sub judice”.
Sources said these issues are expected to be ironed out in the coming hours to allow the release of a statement signed by both sides.
The Finance Act, 2023, is a subject of a petition before a three-judge bench, with petitioners seeking to quash new laws, including a planned deduction of 1.5 per cent salary for employees and to be matched by an employer, as well as doubling of tax on fuel to 16 per cent.
But Azimio says the fall in the cost of living issue should be the key reason for the talks and dropping it is betrayal.
“We told the Ruto team that the petitioners can withdraw the matter or wait for the outcome of the court decision and review it. The release of the statement by Mr Ichung’wah points to Azimio leaders’ interest in positions and not cost of living,” said an opposition MP who did not want to be named.
Earlier, talks spearheaded by a 14-member team composed only of MPs and co-chaired by Mr George Murugara (Tharaka, UDA) and Mr Otiende Amollo (Rarieda, ODM) were called off when Azimio accused Kenya Kwanza of insincerity.
Mr Murugara early this week called for the resumption of the talks that he said offer the best chance to resolve the matters in question.
While the opposition alliance insisted that the talks should have membership from outside Parliament, President Ruto’s side said MPs are representatives of the people, and that the committee should be free to invite anyone to talk to it.
The agreement to include non-lawmakers in the new talks could be seen by some in the opposition as victory.
Foreign diplomats in Nairobi and the countries they represent are keen on the talks.
Sources informed the Sunday Nation that the envoys have been piling pressure on the two rival sides to end the impasse and avert deaths, injuries and destruction of property.
The behind-the-scenes effort to form a reconciliation team is also said to be spearheaded by a top government figure who is the go-between Western diplomats and State House.
The envoys have been talking with the Azimio side through Mr Musyoka.
Efforts to reconcile the two sides were triggered through a statement issued by the Western envoys recently.
The diplomats said they were ready to “support the parties in their efforts to find a constructive and peaceful solution”.
The statement was followed by a meeting between Mr Musyoka, several envoys from Europe and the US and United Nations officials at his Karen home, Nairobi.
The opposition has a list of demands to the President, including the repeal of the Finance Act, 2023.
Azimio la Umoja also wants immediate action taken on police officers who used live ammunition on protesters.
It says the government should publicly sanction tthe officers and have them charged for the deaths and injuries visited on demonstrators.
Azimio also wants Dr Ruto to publicly withdraw comments linking former President Uhuru Kenyatta the protests. President Ruto accuses his predecessor of funding the protests.
A row over who between Presidents Suluhu, South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa and Mr Obasanjo should lead the talk delayed the conclusion of the start of the talks. Dr Ruto’s side expressed discomfort over closeness of Mr Odinga to Ms Suluhu and Mr Ramaphosa.