Make or break talks: Why Ruto and Raila camps are not for power sharing

Raila Odinga

President William Ruto (top left) and his Kenya Kwanza talks team and Azimio leader Raila Odinga (top right) and his team.

Photo credit: Nation Media Group

President William Ruto and Azimio la Umoja One Kenya leader Raila Odinga have unveiled their teams for the talks to address the country’s stalemate arising from months of protests over cost of living and 2022 elections, even as both camps maintained hardline stances ahead of the negotiations.

President Ruto on August 2, 2023, remained guarded on the talks, declining to field questions on the same during his State House address in Nairobi where he delved into matters related to reducing the high cost of living, an issue the opposition maintains must be top in the discussions agenda.

“Let’s not go there,” he responded to a question regarding the talks.

The President’s briefing came barely minutes after his Kenya Kwanza side unveiled its team of five negotiators that will be led by National Assembly Majority Leader Kimani Ichung’wah. It includes Senate Majority Leader Aaron Cheruiyot, Embu Governor Cecily Mbarire, Bungoma Woman Rep Catherine Wambilianga and East Africa Legislative Assembly member Hassan Omar.

Mr Odinga’s coalition had earlier unveiled its team that will be led by Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka in the talks to be spearheaded by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. Other members of the team are National Assembly Minority Leader Opiyo Wandayi, DAP-Kenya leader Eugene Wamalwa, Nyamira Senator Okong’o Omogeni and Malindi MP Amina Mnyazi.

But even as the government and opposition prepare their troops, they remain jittery over the possibility of a nusu mkate or Handshake government.

‘Nusu mkate’ refers to a coalition government or a government of national unity akin to the Grand Coalition Government that brought together Mr Odinga and former President Mwai Kibaki following the disputed 2007 presidential election.

On the other hand, Handshake is a term that was coined following the truce between Mr Odinga and former President Uhuru Kenyatta on March 9, 2018 that ended months of political turmoil in the country following the disputed August 2017 presidential elections.

On Wednesday (August 2) Mr Ichung’wah openly expressed Kenya Kwanza’s reservations on the issue, insisting that it shall not be discussed in the talks.

“As agreed, there shall be no discussions of whatever nature on matters handshake or nusu mkate,” Mr Ichung’wah said in a statement.

Mr Ichung’wah reiterated Kenya Kwanza’s commitment to only discuss five points, which he noted had been agreed during the initial meeting with Mr Obasanjo by the two teams. But Azimio has termed the five “Kenya Kwanza concerns.”

Mr Ichung’wah said that the Kenya Kwanza team will stick to the reconstitution of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), implementation of two-third gender rule, entrenchment of the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) in the constitution, and entrenchment of Office of the Leader of Opposition and Prime Cabinet Secretary in the constitution.

But Azimio insisted on the inclusion of the cost of living, inclusivity, audit of the 2022 elections, reconstitution of IEBC, accountability and responsibility for police brutality and abuse of human rights, and respect for the autonomy and independence of political parties in the talks.

“Our position remains that no party to these negotiations can claim a right to determine for the other what to raise and what not to raise. Azimio will respect Kenya Kwanza’s right to bring all its issues to the table. We expect Kenya Kwanza to do the same with our issues,” Mr Wandayi said.

Despite these differences, both camps seem to read from the same script regarding power sharing.

Even as Mr Odinga’s camp insists it is not seeking a coalition government, President Ruto’s side believes by having “inclusivity” in the agenda, “their aim is to join the government through the backdoor.”

“Kenyans made their decision at the ballot in the elections held in August last year and we shall not discuss anything to do with nusu mkate government,” Mr Ichung’wah said.

“That we will not accept and if they don’t want to take the five issues we have put on the table, let them go back to the streets,” the MP said.

Not interested

But Mr Wandayi insisted that they were not interested in joining the government.

“We have said repeatedly that we're not interested in any form of handshake or nusu mkate. We want Kenya Kwanza to run its government as we keep it in check,” he told the Nation.

Insiders in both camps hare uneasy over the inclusion of Mr Odinga’s camp in the government.

United States International University lecturer Macharia Munene said that the fear stems from past experience, with many scared of being “sacrificed on the alter of a Ruto and Raila deal cutting”.

“Both nusu mkate and handshake ... were achieved by sacrificing or trying to sacrifice the powers and influence of certain players. For instance, nusu mkate sacrificed Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka and Kibaki’s PNU Cabinet,” Prof Munene said.

He also argued that the Handshake sacrificed Dr Ruto as Deputy President and some Jubilee Party leaders to accommodate Mr Odinga’s team. “The deal that will be cut will make presumed ‘prima donnas’ on both sides irrelevant as political heavyweights.”

Prof Winnie Mitullah said: “Handshake means gaining and losing power depending on where one is placed so the uneasiness is well pointed.”

Political analyst Dismas Mokua said that Kenya Kwanza’s position is anchored in the fact that the presidential elections were conclusive and anybody interested in the presidency should prepare for the 2027 elections.

“They believe that entertaining a nusu mkate arrangement will render presidential elections a waste of time and create a precedent that rewards political violence,” said Mr Mokua. In his opinion, Azimio is camouflaging its desire to be part of government through the fight over food inflation and high cost of living.

“Fighting food inflation and high cost of living does not warrant bipartisan conversation midwifed by an international mediator. Kenya has agile leadership and institutions to fight food inflation and high cost of living,” he said.

There are concerns that Mr Odinga’s camaraderie with President Ruto could erode the influence of some senior government officials, including Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua who is touted as the “biggest threat to the talks,” according to the opposition.

“There is a feeling, largely by supporters of the DP, that Mr Odinga’s entry might render him irrelevant and that’s why he has unleashed his close allies to push the hardline stance,” an MP told the Nation.

Just as the Grand Coalition Government led to the inclusion of Mr Odinga’s team into the government, there are also concerns that power sharing might lead to that and edge out key Kenya Kwanza leaders. This could lead to the emergence of new power brokers and even neutralise opposition rebels who have been leaning towards the government.

“In such an arrangement, even Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi will not sit pretty because there will be horse trading, Raila will enjoy State largesse and even emerge powerful ahead of the 2027 elections. This normally happens as a sitting president is serving his second and final term as in the case of Kibaki and Uhuru and so it is something President Ruto is unlikely to allow,” another Kenya Kwanza MP said.

‘Feeling of insecurity’

Mr Wandayi argued that “the obsession with sharing government by a wing of Kenya Kwanza is simply borne out of a feeling of insecurity”.

But Mr Odinga’s inner circle is also jittery of him joining the Kenya Kwanza administration, “for fear of carrying its baggage”.

“Joining the Kenya Kwanza government might erode Raila’s pro-people credentials. He has emerged as the last man standing in defence of the people amid the high cost of living and any attempts to join government will obviously leave the hustlers on their own after President Ruto appeared to have abandoned them by increasing taxes,” an opposition MP said.

There are also fears that Mr Odinga might be portrayed as power hungry should he accept a share of the Kenya Kwanza government and this could lead to an Azimio fallout.

Mr Odinga could also suffer the baggage of incumbency should he wish to participate in the 2027 elections. Kenya Kwanza leaders have continued to link Mr Odinga to the Jubilee government failures after Handshake. Further, there are fears that entering into a working relationship with the government will water down the opposition’s influence in Parliament.

ODM National Treasurer Timothy Bosire argued that a section of Kenya Kwanza leaders appear threatened by the likelihood of Azimio “capturing” the President through the talks.

“They want to continue capturing and controlling the President instead of putting the interest of the country first,” Mr Bosire said.

The former MP proposed a “snap election” to be supervised by the international community to address the contentious issues in the country “since there are fears over the talks.”

“Server issue can be better approached through reaching out to the international community to enable us conduct a snap election. It is only through this approach that we will address presidential legitimacy and national unity,” Mr Bosire said.