Ruto-Raila talks: Why Kenya Kwanza, Azimio are cautious on key issues

William Ruto

President William Ruto with Prime Cabinet Secretary Moses Mudavadi, Mining Cabinet Secretary Salim Mvurya and Transport Cabinet Secretary Kipchumba Murkomen, among other leaders, during the Port Stakeholders Meeting at the Kenya Ports Authority New Container Terminal in Mombasa on July 29, 2023.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit |Nation Media Group

Fears that talks between President William Ruto and Azimio la Umoja leader Raila Odinga following the anti-government protests could trigger discontent among influential insiders in the two camps remains a major hurdle in kicking off the dialogue.

While both sides agree on structured talks, the scope and structure of the talks remain contentious. While Azimio has insisted that they are not interested in any kind of power-sharing deal, the government believes the talks could trigger a “handshake” between the two leaders.

The shadow of former President Uhuru Kenyatta which is looming large on the Azimio side is also a cause of concern for the government as inviting Mr Odinga for talks would strengthen the opposition.

With still a second term to fight for in the 2027 elections, President Ruto is not willing to trigger discontent in the Mt Kenya region, which overwhelmingly voted for him last year.

President Ruto has also consistently insisted that he won the elections and, therefore, is not ready to get into any political truce with the opposition.  The President wrote to parliament last year calling for amendment of the Constitution in order to create the office of the official leader of opposition, among other issues.

The President’s camp believes that welcoming the opposition leader will scuttle government plans less than a year into office. This comes even as it emerged yesterday that there was general agreement that the two sides should enter into talks.

Speaking at the Coast on Friday, National Assembly Majority Leader Kimani Ichung’wa said any talks with Mr Odinga should be done in the open and should be about issues affecting Kenyans.

Mr Odinga has said numerous times that he is not interested in any power-sharing deal with the government. However, he still believes that his coalition won the 2022 election.

Azimio has identified the cost of living, electoral justice and democracy as part of the agenda.

University lecturer Samuel Mbutu told the Sunday Nation that for President Ruto, a coalition is out of question because it will have negative ramifications for his 2027 plans.

Power sharing

“President Ruto fears dialogue because he knows it will antagonise his side of the coalition. He has already formed his government and accommodated most of his stalwarts. The least of the conversations he wants to have is anything to do with power sharing,” Dr Mbutu said.

For Mr Odinga, bringing on the table issues of concern to Kenyans will enhance his reputation and win over those who view him as perennially seeking power through the backdoor after elections.

“These issues are high cost of living, punitive taxation, crisis in the education and health sectors, among others. This will ensure that he maintains the confidence most Kenyans have towards him while at the same time changing the economic trajectory that the Kenya Kwanza government has taken,” Dr Mbutu said.

Dr Mbutu said the demand for opening of servers may have far-reaching ramifications. He believes that a form of power sharing could be the easiest way out as it ensures the survival of the State and its continuity.

Mukurweini MP John Kaguchia rubbished the proposed talks, saying they had nothing to do with the cost of living but were about a political truce.

Mr Kaguchia wondered how an external arbiter should be called to address the cost of living and Finance Act passed by parliament of a sovereign country.

“Can an external player or president of another country come to Kenya to address the cost of living and budget done by parliament? Peace talks done by mediators are normally for power sharing. The opposition should not lie to Kenyans that it is about cost of living,” Mr Kaguchia said.

He accused Mr Odinga of causing a crisis in the country through economic sabotage then calling for mediation.

“Let the opposition remain the opposition and the government be the government. Raila should remain the voice of the people and keep the government on toes, not calling for talks,” Mr Kaguchia said.

However, former Laikipia governor Nderitu Muriithi dismissed calls that Azimio is fighting for anything else other than the cost of living and other issues affecting Kenyans.

“The government should do what it is supposed to do or get out if it cannot. If the government can address the high cost of living, the high fuel cost, the high electricity costs, there is even no need for the talks,” Mr Muriithi said.

He accused the government of responding with brutal force to its citizens protesting against the high cost of living instead of addressing the underlying issues.

Vihiga Senator Godfrey Osostsi said that contrary to Kenya Kwanza’s belief that they are interested in power sharing. He listed the cost of living, electoral justice and democracy as key issues that must be on the table in the talks.

Cost of living

“We are fighting for the interest of the people. Cost of living affects supporters of both Azimio and Kenya Kwanza,” Mr Osostsi said.

He pointed out that the proposed talks on the issues must be led by an international mediator and should be structured with key deliverables and outcomes within the shortest time possible.

The senator dismissed the bipartisan team, saying it was a waste of time and a way of slowing down the opposition in its call to pressurise the government to lower the cost of living.

“Any talks this time must be led by an international mediator and should be limited to parliament because by passing the Finance Bill despite protests from the people, parliament has proven to act against the wishes of the people,” Mr Osotsi said.

Tharaka MP George Murugara says he does not understand what talks the opposition wants apart from the one being done by the bipartisan team which is legally recognised by parliament and its resolutions can be implemented.

According to Mr Murugara, the most important talks that should be held at the moment is on the reconstitution of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission and any other electoral reforms.

“Any talks at the moment should be about electoral reforms,” Mr Murugara said.

He warned that should there be any political arrangement between the President and the opposition, it would be unpopular.

“On political talks, it would depend on what the President will agree on, but if they agree on anything akin to a handshake, that would be unpopular for now. Let’s acknowledge that we had an election and give effect to the government to work,” Mr Murugara said.