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A year after Kenyan truce, Odinga wants equal billing with Ruto

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi
Posted on Monday, 11 March 2019 18:49, updated on Tuesday, 12 March 2019 11:29

Kenyatta (left) and Odinga (right) going in for the famous handshake in front of Harambee house on 9 March 2018. Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

A year after a surprise ceasefire between political rivals President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga cooled political temperatures in Kenya, the East African nation looks set to hold a referendum to change its governance.

  • The ceasefire followed a divisive electioneering period where the Supreme Court annulled Kenyatta’s August 2017 presidential win and Odinga boycotted the subsequent re-run.
  • Odinga’s boycott dimmed the legitimacy of Kenyatta’s re-election. Odinga also called for civil disobedience and economic boycotts, naming four companies he said were associated with the ruling party.

Back then, the truce calmed fears of a prolonged political stalemate that would further damage the economy and cause schisms between Kenya’s divided communities. Kenyatta and Odinga also appointed a ‘Building Bridges’ team to handle nine national issues including ethnic antagonism, lack of a national ethos, corruption and divisive elections.

  • For Odinga, a veteran of such post-election truces, it meant he could focus on strengthening his party and leveraging his role as a national leader. He was also appointed by the African Union as High Representative for Infrastructure Development.
  • For Kenyatta, it meant he could focus on his second term’s development agenda, war on graft and a ballooning national debt. Public debt repayments are a crucial part of his second term, as the five-year grace period on a loan with China expires mid-2019.

But, but but: While the ceasefire meant peace for the two leaders, it has threatened an implosion within the ruling party.

  • The Jubilee Party was formed in September 2016, merging 11 political parties that had been in the ruling coalition since 2013.
  • Supporters of William Ruto, Kenyatta’s deputy, saw the muted announcement as an indication Ruto was being sidelined as Kenyatta’s potential successor.
  • The ceasefire also muddied Kenya’s already highly transactional political culture, leaving it without an effective and organised opposition.

The Aftermath: Odinga wants a referendum to restructure politics. He is pushing for a parliamentary system with a prime minister and two deputy prime ministers.

  • Within Kenya’s ruling party, Deputy President Ruto’s side sees such a change as another attempt to whittle down his powers should he win in the 2022 election.
  • Ruto, who has been against the idea of a referendum, outlined a counter-proposal at Chatham House in London in February. According to his proposal the election loser would automatically become the leader of the opposition and cabinet secretaries would be incorporated into the legislature.
  • Other proposals include reducing the number of devolved and legislative units, switching to a single seven-year presidential term and changing the structure of the cabinet.

Under the 2010 constitution there are two ways to trigger a referendum: through a popular initiative and through parliament. A popular initiative requires a million signatures, while the parliamentary route would give an advantage to the ruling party as it holds 193 parliamentary seats to the opposition’s 127.

Bottom line: Given tension between Ruto and Kenyatta, don’t be surprised to see a referendum that helps Odinga over his 2022 rival.

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