Kenya: Building Bridges Initiative deepens Ruto-Odinga rivalry

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi

Posted on Wednesday, 4 December 2019 13:17
Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta, left, shakes hands with opposition leader Raila Odinga, right, outside Harambee House in Nairobi, Kenya (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

A wide-ranging report by a panel appointed by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and his former rival, Raila Odinga, has received mixed reactions as the country debates what comes next.

President Kenyatta, 58, and Odinga, 74, appointed the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) taskforce shortly after their March 2018 détente.

That followed the 2017 elections, which reignited political controversy. For the second time in a row, Odinga accused Kenyatta of stealing the elections, and campaigned for electoral reform.

Launched on November 27 in Nairobi by the country’s political elite led by Kenyatta, the BBI’s 156-page report is a wide-ranging document whose route to implementation is still unclear.

Prime Minister proposal sparks angst

Predictably, the headline-grabbing recommendations are those touching on the structure of the executive, which has been a thorny issue in Kenya since independence.

To reform the country’s divisive elections, the taskforce recommends a prime minister position “to deliver on the day-to-day implementation of policy,” to lead a hybrid cabinet made up of both politicians and technocrats.

It also adds that members of the cabinet should use public facilities so they have ‘skin in the game,’ and civil servants should not do business with the government.

The position of prime minister has been a staple of Kenya’s politics for decades, and its revival is seen as an attempt to shape post-Kenyatta politics.

In one of many possible scenarios, Kenyatta would stay on post-2022 as the country’s prime minister, while Odinga or someone else would replace him as president.

In mid-November, Kenyatta told a conference of his political allies, perhaps jokingly, that he “wouldn’t mind being in leadership in a post.”

“The intention from the word go is to give Raila a safe route to power,” Herman Manyora, a political commentator, told Bloomberg.

Reactions to the report have also been predictably partisan.

While Kenyatta’s and Odinga’s supporters have praised the report, deputy president William Ruto’s allies are said to be plotting how to use the legislative process to stifle it. 

Outside of political restructuring, the panel says that the work of uniting Kenyans is ‘bottom-up’ work. The recommendations touch on many aspects of Kenyan society, and proposes ways to improve wealth and value creation.

  • It makes multiple recommendations for improving social well-being. It recommends improved parenting, a national lottery to replace the betting industry, and a Department of Happiness, Wellness, and Mental Health.
  • For the business sector, it recommends anti-trust measures to end monopolies and “too-big-to-fail” businesses, and transparency in business lobbying.

Reactions to the report have still largely been about the political aspects, but it has already attracted scathing criticism from some quarters. One commentator called the report an attempt by the country’s political elite “to rewrite history rather than deal with it,” while another wrote that it was “absolutely underwhelming.”

Where next?

The main expectation was that the panel’s recommendations would trigger a referendum process. That might still happen, since some of the points, such as the creation of a prime ministerial post, require a change in the country’s 2010 constitution.

Odinga’s allies are said to be pro-referendum, while Ruto’s prefer a legislative process instead.

National Assembly speaker Justin Muturi said that the report would only be considered if it was drafted into a bill. “Before that has happened, there is no basis for anyone to even argue that it can be brought to Parliament. How?” he told a press conference in Nairobi on December 2.

Some of the recommendations, he pointed out, are already in the country’s laws: “If you look through the document, a lot of the proposals in there are really by way of policies.”

The Senate majority leader, Kipchumba Murkomen, agreed.

The bigger issue, though, is whether the report is representative of the true, and pressing, concerns of the East African country’s citizens.

While the Kenyatta-Odinga détente was widely praised, their joint taskforce’s report is a mixed bag.

  • Its wide-ranging recommendations would require extensive buy-in from Kenyans.
  • Many of them, the panel notes, “spoke of their problems fed by poverty and joblessness or underemployment” at every session.

Bottom Line: As Kenyatta tries to revive the economy, abstract conversations on social and political fabric may not resonate much with the country’s 47m people.


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