Unanimous approval by Parliament last Wednesday of a motion paving way for the establishment of a National Dialogue Committee marked a significant upgrading of negotiations between teams representing President William Ruto and opposition leader Raila Odinga.
The talks are now not just haggling between the rival Kenya Kwanza and Azimio la Umoja political formations; they have been accorded both national status as well as legal imprimatur that could be harbinger of what some participants in the National Assembly debate called a ‘Constitutional moment’.
That means likelihood of talks extending beyond settlement of political grievances to what could be far-reaching legal, institutional, administrative and constitutional reforms akin to those intended under the ill-fated Building Bridges Initiative pushed by Raila and then President Uhuru Kenyatta between 2018 and 2021, or the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group pact that secured some vital constitutional amendments ahead of the 2007 General Election.
The bipartisan camaraderie evident in the National Assembly on introduction of the motion by Kenya Kwanza Majority Leader Kimani Ichung’wah with backing of Azimio Minority Leader Opiyo Wandayi was a far cry from the rancor previously seen between the two sides.
New dialogue team
When Ruto and Raila met two weeks ago on a parley brokered by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and agreed to establish a new dialogue team, the immediate sniping evident from their respective representatives did not lend confidence that it would succeed where the previous bipartisan parliamentary committee had failed.
Instead of a joint communique on the way forward, Ichung’wah, who headed the Kenya Kwanza delegation, and Wiper Party leader and former Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka, for the Azimio team, released separate statements disagreeing sharply on what would be on the negotiation table.
They even disagreed on time and venue and venue of their first meeting as their respective bands of supporters exchanged barbs on political rostrums and social media posts.
Along the way, however, it is evident that there was intervention which forced the two sides to tone down the rhetoric and get around the table.
The Weekly Review had learnt that Obasanjo placed calls to both Ruto and Raila pleading with them to call off their respective attack dogs and urge their negotiators to approach the talks with open minds.
The message was amplified by envoys sent by leaders from key western nations, as well as from regional blocs, including the East African Community, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development and the African Union.
Ultimately, likelihood is that it was Ruto and Raila who separately signalled to their respective delegations that it was time to halt public exchanges and hear each other out.
The outcome was the motion in Parliament last week, which significantly broadens the areas of negotiations beyond the Kenya Kwanza proposals and the demands Raila had tabled as condition for a halt to opposition street protests.
Open the server
The upshot is that nothing now is off the table, including, potentially, some of the opposition demands that the government side had been fiercely rejecting, notably an audit of the 2022 presidential election results and reversal of taxation and other measures in the Finance Act 2023 that have contributed to an upsurge in the cost of living.
The dramatic developments of last week could be read as a major win for Raila, but ululations on that side have to be tempered against the fact that a dialogue anchored on parliamentary approval ultimately has to be steered through the legislative process, where Ruto commands unassailable majorities in both the National Assembly and the Senate.
It is also significant that agreeing to have everything on the table is one thing, but successfully pushing through demands quite another.
In separate conversations with The Weekly Review last Friday, both Ichung’wah and Kalonzo denied being pushed by their respective principals to halt public sniping a drive dialogue forward. But each also out their own positive spins on the outcome. Kalonzo was upbeat that anchoring the dialogue in law shows it is a serious initiative rather than some haphazard or ad hoc arrangement.
To Ichung’wah, the motion on a National Dialogue Committee was vindication of the Kenya Kwanza stance all along going back to the period of the ill-fated parliamentary bipartisan committee when Azimio was insisting on a process outside Parliament.
Raila had specifically mooted something akin to the Kofi Annan-brokered National Accord of 2008, which halted the post-election violence, and brought him into President Mwai Kibaki’s government as Prime Minister.
Ichung’wah denies that the latest move in any way amounts to a climb-down by Kenya Kwanza, insisting that it was Azimio which climbed down on demands for an ‘open the server’ audit of the presidential election results and incorporation into a coalition or ‘nusu mkeka’ or ‘handshake’ government.
The Majority Leader says that when Raila publicly declared that he is not interested in forcing his way into government, then it became time to engage. But that raises a question on the alleged ‘handshake’ demands that have become an obsession for Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua and his allies.
Challenged for evidence that Raila has ever demanded a seat in government as the price for calling off mandamano, Ichung’wah retorts that such demands have been made in private through intermediaries, or on social media posts by bloggers affiliated to Raila and Uhuru. He also points out that Raila has a history of forcing his way onto the table after losing elections, going back to 2008 and then the 2018 ‘handshake’.
Kalonzo, on his part, is dismissive of the handshake talk, and the continuing anti-dialogue stance exhibited by Gachagua even after Ruto and Raila agreed to talk. He says the DP seems to be reading from his own script, wondering why some should feel threatened by dialogue.
He noted that Ichung’wah had talked very well while moving the motion in Parliament, which was indicative that with such goodwill form both sides, there should be room for optimism.
He is also happy that everything is now up for discussion, contrary to the previous Kenya Kwanza stance rejecting Azimio demands.
Ichung’wah, however, has a different take. He is still insistent that while everyone is free to table their proposals, Kenya Kwanza has still drawn a line against any ideas for a coalition arrangement. Neither will it budge on issues of cost of living, which he says is a government prerogative to address rather than an opportunity for Azimio or any other party to force its policies on the government.
If Azimio has workable proposals on addressing cost of living, they will be listened to, but there will be no going back to reinstating food subsidies that never worked in the past.