President William Ruto and opposition leader Raila Odinga have agreed to dialogue to halt a slide into anarchy with a bi-partisan engagement in Parliament to resolve the stalemate on the process of recruiting electoral commissioners.
Following the truce, Mr Odinga’s Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition Party yesterday called off the fourth round of protests planned for today but warned of a resumption of the demonstrations should the government renege on the deal to immediately form the bi-partisan parliamentary committee.
President Ruto had earlier set the stage for the ceasefire in a televised address to the nation, noting that the two weeks of protests had caused the deaths of three people, with hundreds of others injured. He said the violence had also ruined the economy.
Acceding to one of the four key demands by the Opposition to review the recruitment of Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) commissioners, the President suggested “a bi-partisan engagement in Parliament on the reconstitution of the IEBC panel within the parameters of the law and the Constitution.”
Mr Odinga’s camp has accused President Ruto’s administration of rushing through changes on the composition of the selection panel that will interview IEBC candidates in order to stack up the team with commissioners who are biased towards the Kenya Kwanza administration.
President Ruto, in his address at State House in Nairobi yesterday said the precarious political situation called for compromises without regard to who is right or wrong, even as he urged Mr Odinga to call off the anti-government protests, which his main rival subsequently did.
The composition of the IEBC selection panel has been one of the reasons Mr Odinga has called for the bi-weekly demonstrations, the others being lowering the cost of living, opening electoral servers to audit last year’s presidential election that Mr Odinga claims was rigged and reinstatement of four electoral commissioners forced out of office on accusations that they attempted to block Dr Ruto’s path to victory.
“I have carefully listened to the issues raised by [Odinga]. In times like these, it is not about who is right or who is wrong. Like Winston Churchill said, I dare say that courage is what it takes to stand up and speak, but it is also what it takes to sit down and listen,” said President Ruto.
The President also downplayed suggestions the ruling coalition could exploit its majority in Parliament to stall the process, saying, a bipartisanship route “is not a game of numbers” and “we have been on this road before.”
“I have always been ready to engage Kenyans of all walks of life, including elected and appointed leaders from across the political divide and the religious fraternity, on how to make our country better and more prosperous. My door still remains open for honest, objective and sincere deliberations, based on the rule of law and the Constitution,” the President added. But even as the President ceded ground, he did not indicate how the bipartisanship approach on recruitment of IEBC commissioners will obtain.
This is considering that the IEBC selection panel that was gazetted sometime back is already working within statutory timelines and is in the process of shortlisting Kenyans who applied to be members of the commission. Yesterday, Mr Odinga welcomed Dr Ruto’s “statement that I regard as important” but insisted the bi-partisan committee be established immediately and with “strict timelines”, failing which the coalition warned of a return to mass action next week .
“We agree that a balanced parliamentary process co-chaired by both sides and backed by external experts from outside should proceed. In our view, this committee should be composed with immediate effect with strict deadlines for resolving the crisis facing the country,” Mr Odinga said.
Azimio leaders have pointed to a team similar to the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) of the late 90s as a reference.
Mr Odinga also wants criminal charges against protesters dropped as he announced that the coalition was responding to calls for talks made by different groups of Kenyans, including religious leaders, who had implored the politicians “to give dialogue a chance, especially during this season of Easter and Ramadhan.”
“In view of the foregoing, we stand down our demonstrations for Monday [today] but, in doing so, we want to emphasise that we reserve the right to call for demonstrations should this process bear no fruit. Should there be no meaningful engagement or response from [President] Ruto to our counter-offer, we’ll resolve to resume our demonstrations after one week,” he warned.
“I believe Kenya is today facing the worst crisis, out of which we can recover or go the way of failed States,” Mr Odinga said, adding; “we believe the people understand the dangers we face” as he listed electoral injustice, cost of living, opening servers and savage attacks on the media.
The IEBC law, which was amended early this year and which Mr Odinga is uncomfortable with, altered the first schedule of the parent Act to change the composition of the selection panel that oversees the filling of vacant positions at the commission.
The new-look seven-member selection panel, which is already working, includes two nominees — a man and a woman — from the Parliamentary Service Commission (PSC).
The others are one person nominated each by the Public Service Commission (PSC), the Political Parties Liaison Committee (PPLC), the Law Society of Kenya (LSK), and two people — a man and a woman — representing the Inter-Religious Council of Kenya (IRCK).
The repealed law had four people — two men and two women —nominated by the PSC, two from IRCK and one from LSK. The Azimio side protested that with the exception of the LSK, the other panellists are sympathisers of the government and will, therefore, not be fair.
Mr Odinga’s anti-government protests started on March 20. Yesterday, the President also reminded Mr Odinga that the issue of legitimacy of his government had been settled by the country’s institutions as established by the Constitution and that the IEBC conducted “a free, fair and transparent General Election.”
“This is a poll that was observed by different organisations both local and foreign. The commission declared the results for all six elections conducted and any contestant who was aggrieved by the outcome had an opportunity to present their grievances to the country’s judicial system for arbitration,” he said.
Although Mr Odinga contested President Ruto’s election, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the IEBC.
The President ruled out welcoming the Azimio side into the government, saying doing so would be going against the wishes of the people.
“As a believer in the rule of law and the running of an accountable government, the Opposition will not be part of the government. [If] you embrace the Opposition [as the] government, you [risk getting into] big trouble because there will be no one to check on the government. There will be no accountability,” the President noted.
There was an indication that Mr Odinga would push to halt the ongoing recruitment of new electoral commissioners with his party’s insiders framing it as an irreducible minimum for the coalition to ease off the pressure on the President. The Azimio side has accused the President of changing the law to have friendly commissioners at the country’s electoral agency.
Dr Ruto’s proposals on ending the stalemate hark back to a decision by former President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2017 agreeing to a bipartisan approach that saw him accede to IEBC reforms that led to a negotiated process to replace commissioners following the ouster of the Issack Hassan-led team.
The bipartisan committee was co-chaired by former Meru Governor Kiraitu Murungi and then-Siaya senator, who is now Siaya governor James Orengo.
It gave the defunct National Super Alliance coalition, then the minority side in Parliament, two slots in the selection panel while the majority had two slots.
The vacancies at IEBC were triggered following the retirement of its chairman, Mr Wafula Chebukati, and members Abdi Guliye and Boya Molu.
There was also the resignation of vice-chairperson Juliana Cherera alongside commissioners Francis Wanderi and Justus Nyang’aya following a petition in Parliament and the hounding out of office of Ms Irene Masit on recommendations of a tribunal.
The IEBC selection panel has Mr Bethuel Sugut and Ms Novice Euralia Atieno representing PSC.
Others are PSC vice-chairperson Charity Kisotu and Evans Misati James from the PPLC.
LSK is represented by Mr Benson Ngugi Njeri while Dr Nelson Makanda and Fatuma Saman represent the IRCK.