President Ruto, Raila Odinga inch towards dialogue amid sustained pressure

William Ruto.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga (left) and President William Ruto.

Photo credit: AFP

President William Ruto and Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition Party leader Raila Odinga appear to be closing ranks, amid a political crisis that has seen the country rocked by deadly protests in recent times, following the intervention of the international community.

Mr Odinga has now said he will only accept President Ruto's olive branch for talks in the presence of a mediator.

The Opposition, while responding to Dr Ruto's request for a one-on-one meeting, accused him of not being sincere in seeking for a truce and addressing the key issues affecting Kenyans.

Signs of a possible truce emerged on Tuesday when the Head of State offered to meet Mr Odinga, hours after the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) leader had said he had no problem talking to the President.

“My friend Raila Odinga, I am off to Tanzania for a human capital meeting to harmonise the expansion of employment opportunities on our continent. I will be back tomorrow evening and as you have always known, I am always available for a one-on-one meeting with you at your convenience. WsR (William Samoei Ruto),”the President tweeted.

The invitation came hours after Mr Odinga revealed how Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu's efforts to broker a truce between them two weeks ago collapsed after Dr Ruto failed to meet her.

He also revealed that South African President Cyril Ramaphosa also wanted to come but Dr Ruto declined.

“I insist that there must be someone between us. President Ramaphosa wants to come but he (Dr Ruto) has refused. President Suluhu is there. There must be a mediator, even if it's a former President,” Mr Odinga said.

According to Mr Odinga, President Ruto is not interested in resolving the crisis and is instead taking the opposition for a ride.

"I think he is basically joking. He is not serious about dialogue. If he wants to talk, I am ready for a serious dialogue, no in-betweens. We talk to him and tomorrow he changes and denies the same, that's why we need someone to sit there as a witness," Mr Odinga said.

"He [Dr Ruto] is not somebody you can trust; he keeps changing and twisting words," Mr Odinga said when he spoke to Agence France-Presse (AFP) in response to Dr Ruto's Tuesday night tweet.

Mr Odinga also revisited his Tuesday statement on President Suluhu's visit to Kenya, reiterating that she was there at Dr Ruto's invitation for two days and he failed to show up.

"He made a request that we should talk. He even invited President Suluhu. She came here and spent two days and he refused to show up," Mr Odinga said.

He continued: "I was there with the President of Tanzania and he completely disappeared and didn't want to come.”

Mr Odinga said the Azimio team had agreed that, if there was someone willing to mediate between them, he was ready to engage in the talks.

Speaking yesterday during an interview after leading the nation in lighting candles in honour of victims of police brutality as a result of anti-government protests, Mr Odinga reiterated his willingness to talk to end the stalemate, but expressed reservations about the President.

"The country is in a very delicate situation that requires seriousness. The President knows my address and has my phone number. This is not the time for public relations exercises," Mr Odinga said.

Azimio co-principal Eugene Wamalwa described President Ruto's invitation as "too casual to be taken seriously".

"We have not received any official communication even though this is a matter of serious national importance. We wouldn't expect such a casual invitation," said Mr Wamalwa.

He continued: "If Ruto is serious, he should have done [the invitation] the way he did the first time ... But the casual one, we do not take it seriously".

But even though sources in Mr Odinga's camp said the chances of the two leaders meeting last night were minimal due to the nature of the invitation, Nation noted that the intervention of the international community has created a conducive environment for talks in spite of several hardliners, especially in the President's camp.

"The diplomats have asked the Opposition to recognise Dr Ruto as President first ... and we have seen the Opposition leader, after weeks, referring to him as President. This is positive."

"On the other hand, the President has been advised to put the country first and not be pulled back by the hardliners and open his doors for talks and he is warming up to that," a senior source privy to the discussions told Nation.

He pointed out that the Opposition has since changed the name of its protests to "anti-tax", from the original "anti-government".

Another source revealed that the envoys had also reached out to former President Uhuru Kenyatta, whom the Ruto administration has accused of funding Mr Odinga to destabilise the nation.

During his interview with editors on Monday, Mr Kenyatta for the first time publicly recognised President Ruto as his leader, contrary to his earlier position, during a roadside rally in Kisumu after attending former Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha’s burial, that Mr Odinga remained his President. But even as signs of white smoke appear, some key allies of the President have maintained a hard-line stance, alleging that Mr Odinga's aim is to get a share of government positions, claims he has vehemently denied.

Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, in a speech in Italy, where he is attending an official function, accused Mr Odinga of blackmailing the Kenya Kwanza administration.

"In every election, he has used violence to get into government. After the 1997 elections, he did that to [former President Daniel arap] Moi and came into government through collaboration. In 2007, he came into government through the [grand coalition government], while in 2017 he [blackmailed] Mr Kenyatta into the ‘handshake’. He is trying to [intimidate] us to get into the government ... but we are telling him it can't be done because it is giving into extortion, which is an offence under the Kenyan Penal Code," the DP charged.

He continued: "So, to sit with someone who is blackmailing you is to be complicit in crime. These church leaders who are telling us to sit with him are asking us to commit a crime and we are telling them that President Ruto and I are not ready to commit a crime.”

Ruling party United Democratic Alliance (UDA) Secretary-General Cleophas Malala said Mr Odinga should only prepare for a "brief" meeting with the President, should it happen.

"Dr Ruto is the President of all Kenyans. He can talk to anybody. That does not necessarily mean he is ready to share the government. Let Raila prepare for a short meeting where the discussion will be limited to an open exchange of ideas," said Mr Malala.

Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro appeared to reject calls by the international community for mediation, saying Kenyan issues could be handled locally.

"What the President has said is that he is the President of all Kenyans. That he listens to Kenyans from all walks of life. The other thing is that he doesn't need mediators to engage Kenyans. Either local or otherwise".

"As far as dialogue and talks are concerned, it must be clearly understood that we will not engage in any kind of dialogue that touches on past elections or governance. There is no access to the government through the back door," said Mr Nyoro.

He added: "The only way to have democracy is through the ballot box. Not through maandamano or dialogue. That is not going to happen.”

But Machakos deputy governor Francis Mwangangi welcomed the talks between the President and Mr Odinga, saying, it would ease tensions in the country.

"If these two leaders meet today and even have a cup of tea, it will automatically reduce political tension in the country drastically and this will enhance national cohesion and peaceful co-existence," Mr Mwangangi said.

He, however, suggested that both leaders should consider bringing along other leaders to the talks.

"Their meeting will do Kenyans a lot of justice. They will become statesmen because the meeting will mean that they will have put the country first,"Mr Mwangangi said.

Yesterday, State House sidestepped claims that President Ruto had refused to meet President Suluhu of Tanzania for mediation talks, but did not deny her entry into the country.

State House spokesman Hussein Mohamed failed to offer a straightforward answer when queried on the claims by Mr Odinga.

Mr Mohamed said: "Kila Rais ambaye anakuja (every President who visits) Kenya, or any President that comes to meet the President of Kenya, there are established protocols with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So, they will communicate and handle all the protocols, and of course, we will know a visiting Head of State has come to meet the President of the Republic. Of course, that is not to say a President cannot come to a country for a holiday or whatever."

He went on: "But for all the presidents that have come to meet the President of Kenya, it has been documented. We have all seen that several Heads of State have come to meet the President of Kenya through established protocols with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Hiyo ingine, ndugu yangu, aliyesema alikuwa hapa (the rest, my brother, whoever said she was here) I think that's the best person to address that question to."

State House sources told Nation that President Ruto could not meet his counterpart for talks "because Mr Odinga's protests were still going on and he refused to call them off".

"His condition for the invitation and meeting was that Mr Odinga should call off maandamano this Wednesday and then he would hold the meeting. But RAO [Mr Odinga] refused and said that maandamano would go on as the meeting was happening. [President Ruto] then decided to boycott," the source said.

However, he confirmed that the international community had played an active role in the call for dialogue and that the suspension of the protests was an indication of this. "It has everything to do with pressure from foreign missions," Nation was told.

[email protected]  Additional reporting by Roselyne Obala