The Tweet from President William Ruto indicating willingness for a direct meeting with opposition leader Raila Odinga may have been casual, even derisory, but it opened up alluring possibilities for a discussion between two men it is widely acknowledged jointly have the power to make or break Kenya.
“My Friend @RailaOdinga” Ruto addressed his foe on Tuesday last week just before departing for a visit to neighbouring Tanzania, “I’m back tomorrow evening, and as you have always known, I’m available to meet one-on-one with you anytime of your convenience.”
Reference to ‘My friend’ was the first time Ruto has referred to Raila in endearing terms since the ‘My Brother’ address at the beginning of April, when he held out the olive branch with a statement from State House that opened the way for dialogue and halted the first wave of opposition protests.
The result was formation of a bipartisan parliamentary committee composed of seven representatives from each side to discuss some of the issues raised.
But it never got going as the Raila team objected to the limited mandate, and eventually found an excuse in the government’s unpopular taxation measures to pull out of the talks and resume street protests.
After the heightened acrimony between the governing Kenya Kwanza alliance and the opposition Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya coalition, and the escalating violence, Ruto’s tweet could only have been a very deliberate effort to reach out once again.
It came just after Raila had told the international press corp based in Nairobi that he has always been willing to talk, and claiming that the President had kept his Tanzanian counterpart, Samia Suluhu, waiting in vain after she accepted an invitation to fly over and mediate.
Even though vocal hardliners in the Kenya Kwanza camp such as Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, National Assembly Majority Leader Kimani Ichung’wah, Kericho Senator Samson Cherargei and social media propagandist Dennis Itumbi moved immediately to shoot down notions of dialogue that might accommodate Raila’s demands, the import of Ruto’s gesture cannot wished away. From the Azimio camp, most key figures seemed to have been taken by surprise, and the response was ambivalent. Raila himself dismissed the “PR stunt” nature of the offer through a Twitter message rather than a formal invite, noting that Ruto knew how to reach him directly as he had his telephone number and address.
Wiper Party leader Kalonzo Musyoka and former Defence Cabinet Secretary Eugene Wamalwa echoed the position that reaching out through Twitter was improper. Others such as ousted Jubilee Party Secretary-General Jeremiah Kioni cautioned against any deal that would give Raila or any other Azimio leaders positions while abandoning the cause of the protests.
Whatever the nature of the approach or apprehension by some in both camps that they may be left out in the cold, it should be almost certain now that a Ruto-Raila meeting might be in the offing. That should then set the stage for formal dialogue, whether that be through resumption of the abortive talks in Parliament or some other structure.
It is also time to revisit the issues that led to the crisis in the first place. All goes to January this year, when Raila came out with a startling claim that an Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission whistleblower had provided fresh evidence that he was the actual winner of the August 2022 presidential election. He published ‘results’ allegedly retrieved from the IEBC election count servers showing that he won the polls with 8,170,355 votes, 57.53 per cent, to Ruto’s 5,915,973, representing 41.66 per cent. That contrasts markedly with the 7,176,141 (50.49 per cent) for Ruto and 6,942,930 (48.85 per cent) for Raila announced by then IEBC chairman Wafula Chebukati at the Bomas of Kenya National Tallying Centre.
From there came the launch of public demonstration to demand an audit of the IEBC election results platform to determine who the actual winner was. To the clamour for ‘Electoral Justice or ‘Fungua Server (Open the Server)’ was added demands of a halt to an ongoing process of reconstitution of the IEBC following the exit of Chebukati and two other commissioners on expiry of their terms, and the government’s ouster of the remaining four who had sided with Raila in a stand-off over the election results. To the public demonstrations was also added demands to bring down the cost of living as Azimio sought to exploit growing public discontent on the rising cost of food, fuel and other basic necessities, and the government’s appetite for increased taxation.
It is now time to revisit the key original issues and others that have been added to the growing list of demands, and propose ways to break the deadlock and get Kenya back on the path of peace and justice:
Talks usually start with ‘talks about talks’. If Ruto and Raila do meet, the first order of business will be to reach agreement on the shape, format and agenda of any discussions.
Ruto’s simple acknowledgement in April that Kenya was sliding down a dangerous path and offer to hold talks resulted in Raila halting the increasingly destructive protests. The result was talks involving seven National Assembly members from either side, but they never really got going. Azimio was unhappy with the restrictive mandate prescribed by Ruto around agreement on reconstitution of the IEBC.
It follows that the same format of talks with limited mandate will not achieve much. Both parties should therefore agree on an expanded agenda to accommodate their respective priorities, as well as elevation to a more inclusive national dialogue to address all the social, economic, political and ethnic divides that make Kenya such a powder keg. The key word should be dialogue rather than negotiations. As a sign of good faith, Raila should call off the protests, while Ruto reciprocates by suspending implementation of the Finance Bill, or at least two of the more contentious issues, the Housing Tax and the doubling of VAT on petrol.
The Ruto camp has persistently accused Raila of always making trouble on losing elections so that he can force his way onto the high table. No evidence has been provided that that is his aim, but reference is always made to the 2008 Grand Coalition government, which he came into as Prime Minister in President Mwai Kibaki’s administration, ending a murderous cycle of post-election violence.
Then there was the 2018 informal deal, hence the ‘handshake’ tag, that saw him bring the opposition onto President Uhuru Kenyatta’s side, allowing the latter to sideline Ruto, his then Deputy President. If Ruto and Raila meet, they will presumably accord each other the courtesy of shaking hands, but it must be made clear that it is not a prelude to new political accommodation or any form of partnership or coalition. This should put at ease those who live in mortal terror that they might lose out. It should also reaffirm that talks are abut Kenyans, rather than merely individuals and their political outfits bargaining for seats at the feeding trough.
The pursuit of electoral justice on purported fresh evidence that Raila actually beat Ruto at the presidential elections last August was the trigger to mandamano. The IEBC has remained curiously silent about the allegations and the numbers published by Raila to back his claim. It has left it to Ruto and his Kenya Kwanza cohorts to rubbish the claims, which has both managed to indicate that the electoral agency is subservient to the ruling party, and that there is indeed something to hide.
To settle the matter once and for all, let the IEBC servers be ‘opened’ once modalities are worked out of what exactly that will entail, under the supervision of neutral and independent experts. That should come on condition that Raila agrees to withdraw his claim and recognise Ruto as President if the whistleblower numbers do not hold up. In turn, Ruto will have undertaken to resign as President and lead DP Gachagua out of office to pave way for fresh elections if it is found he was not the rightful winner of the polls.
Ruto had already appointed a panel to recruit fresh electoral commissioners by the time mandamano started. The terms of Chebukati and his allies, Yusuf Guliye and Boya Molu, had expired. Vice-chairperson Juliana Cherera and her clique of Justus Nyang’aya, Francis Wanderi and Irene Masit had been forced out as soon as the new government took office, having denounced the election results announced by Chebukati.
In extending his olive branch in April, Ruto specifically offered that reconstitution of the IEBC be suspended pending a broad agreement from the mooted talks. The selection panel, chaired by Nelson Makanda, duly suspended the exercise, but resumed when the bipartisan talks collapsed, and now says it is ready to publish a list of shortlisted applicants.
It should be obvious now that a process seen as one-sided can only result in the IEBC being seen as beholden to Ruto. The selection should be scrapped altogether until a mechanism that involves all interest groups and is sure to result in a trusted and independent body is agreed on. In the meantime, stakeholders, beyond just the Ruto-Raila political camps, can be invited to agree on formation of an interim electoral management body.
COST OF LIVING
The Kenya Kwanza majority ramming through passage of the Finance Bill in June was the trigger for Raila to pull out of the bipartisan talks and resume street protests, obviously exploiting public anger over what is seen as punitive taxation. The cost of living, the general economic crisis and the governments inability to meet its extravagant campaign promises have since overtaken ‘Fungua Server’ as the main rationale for demonstrations.
As stated earlier, Ruto can make some gestures such as suspending the increased fuel tax and the Housing tax, and maybe a few other proposals that have earned him the Zakayo tag. But it return, the Azimio team must acknowledge that the prices of food and other basic necessities cannot be brought down presidential decree. There has to be recognition that in most cases, local and international market pricing will be the biggest factor, even beyond the impact of high taxation.
Heavy-handed police action, including what looks like deliberate bludgeoning of demonstrators to death and shooting to kill has raised the spectre of a return to dictatorship. But it also cannot be denied that opposition promises of peaceful protests ring hollow in the face of clear evidence of violent mobs on orgies of destruction, robbery, burning and looting. It can no longer be enough for protest organisers to blame all violence on police, nor for the authorities to absolve their men and women from blame. Both sides must agree to restrain their respective troops and hold them accountable for their actions.
An independent inquiry might be called for into the deaths, injuries and destruction of property witnessed during the demonstrations, and the direct perpetrators as well as those bearing command responsibility called to account. It is important that Raila agree he will not call demonstrations if he cannot keep them peaceful, and that he will bear responsibility if anything goes wrong.
Equally, Ruto should commit to respect for Constitutional rights to assembly and processions, as well as an end to police brutality when there is need to keep the peace. The government should also abandon moves to dilute civilian authority over the National Police Service, as witnessed in the contempt and defiance demonstrated towards the Police Service Commission and the Independent Policing Oversight Authority.
There are some issues which, though not directly canvassed, can still be put on the table. In April, Ruto floated a proposal for constitutional amendments to create an Office of the Leader of Official Opposition as one of the matters that could be up for discussion. Together with that could be ways to halt bastardisation of democratic systems through buying and wooing of opposition legislators.
A simple device would be to bring back the requirement that any MP, governor or other elected leader who defects from or otherwise abandons the position of his or her sponsoring party be not only de-whipped, but removed and forced to seek a fresh mandate.
Also worth discussion could be ways of limiting presidential powers to create offices outside the existing constitutional regime and Public Service structures just to find room on the public payroll for political allies. The appointment of Chief Administrative Secretaries, presently suspended by the courts, comes to mind. Finally, there should be commitments from all sides to respect and uphold the law, respect court orders and demonstrate fidelity to oath of office by upholding, defending and protecting the Constitution.