By Our Reporter
It was President William Ruto who sent an emissary to opposition leader Raila Odinga’s camp with a significant concession signalling willingness to talk ahead of the State House press conference proposing a bi-partisan initiative in Parliament to help end opposition demonstrations.
Multiple senior sources in both the Raila and Ruto camps, who all requested anonymity because of confidentiality agreements, reconfirmed that though the two leaders did not meet or even talk on phone, they had over the previous two days engaged in intensive discussions through trusted representatives.
They were also both under intense pressure from American, British, European Union, Chinese and Japanese governments to call a truce and halt the increasingly violent confrontations between opposition protesters and police.
It is understood that Ruto was also distressed by the violent raid by a criminal gang on a farm belonging to the family of former President Uhuru Kenyatta, which was apparently planned and executed by senior figures in his government acting in concert with the police command without his knowledge.
Raila, on his part, was also concerned that the supposedly peaceful demonstrations were taking a violent turn, either through lack of organisation and discipline within his ranks, or infiltration by government security agents deployed to cause mayhem in order to undermine the spirit of the protests.
The indirect talks between the two principals did not go very much into detail, but agreed on general principles for dialogue which would start by Ruto publicly holding out an olive branch and signalling desire for talks. Raila would then reciprocate by immediately calling off the next demonstration, which was set for the following day, Monday last week.
That sequence went ahead as planned, but subsequent tussles over the nature of the talks reveals the grey areas that had not been agreed on prior to the announcements.
A key one was that Ruto announced negotiations limited to Parliament and dwelling only on a review of the selection of new members to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, dismissing the key demand for an ‘opening of the servers’ in regard to fresh scrutiny of the 2022 elections, which Raila still claims to have won. The opposition chief also insists on a much more inclusive national dialogue, rather than just Parliament, to address all the varied opposition grievances.
However, Raila may have betrayed himself by proposing a National Accord type of solution in addition to the Parliamentary process proposed by Ruto.
While insisting that he had never demanded a ‘Handshake’ as the outcome of any political settlement, reference to the National Accord brokered by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to halt the 2007 post-election violence invariably recalls the power-sharing deal by which Raila found a place as Prime Minister in President Mwai Kibaki’s government.
The pact formed the Grand Coalition Government out of Kibaki’s Party of National Unity and Raila’s Orange Democratic Movement, a successful union that only guaranteed the peace for five years, but also delivered on some of the most impressive development programmes ever recorded in Kenya.
The ’Handshake’,by contrast, is the Kenyan parlance for the 2018 truce between President Kenyatta and Raila, which in its own way also calmed political temperatures. The opposition chief, who had disputed the 2017 elections and had himself sworn in as ‘Peoples President’, abandoned a planned series of demonstrations and instead rallied his troops to back the government.
The opposition was not formally incorporated in government, unlike with the National Accord, but Raila formed a union with Uhuru that sponsored the ill-fated Building Bridges Initiative, a series of far-reaching reforms that were supposed to be ratified in a referendum before being halted by the courts.
A major outcome was that beyond accommodating the veteran opposition chief by the President’s side and winning a peace dividend, the handshake regime was also intended to freeze out rebellious Deputy President William Ruto.
In 2022, Uhuru, who was serving out his second and final term, backed Raila’s fifth stab at the Presidency, but the powerful alliance could not halt Ruto’s march to State House. After failing yet again in a perennial quest dating back to 1997 and also seeing his Supreme Court challenge thrown out, Raila this time embarked on a series of demonstrations that since commencing on March 20 have shut down Nairobi and Kisumu every at least once a week.
He has faced constant accusations from Ruto and the Kenya Kwanza brigade, led by Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, that he was causing trouble so that he could force his way into government through a handshake as he allegedly did after the 2017 polls with Uhuru and the 2007 polls with Kibaki. The truth is that while Raila has listed a raft of demands, he has never either directly or indirectly asked for a handshake deal.
His main demands included an examination of the presidential election result servers to prove his contention that he was the rightful winner, a halt to the selection process for new electoral commissioners, and reductions in prices of food, fuel and other essential commodities that impact the price of living.
That is the essential background to the recent history of political settlements in Kenya. But in denying ever angling for a handshake deal and instead accusing Ruto’s camp of being the one obsessed with the issue, Raila opened himself to scrutiny by proposing a National Accord type of deal.
He argued that the purely parliamentary process proposed by Ruto at the State House press conference on April 2, while welcome, will address all the concerns raised by the Azimio la Umoja coalition. He suggested a wider national dialogue overseen by a neutral mediator, which is a fairly reasonable proposition, but reference to the National Accord serves only to fire up accusations that his ultimate motive is a place in government akin to the Grand Coalition deal struck with Kibaki.
That is exactly the kind of proposal that makes the Ruto camp see red. The President himself has stated on numerous occasions that a handshake deal which incorporates the opposition in government is out of the question. He terms it unconstitutional and a betrayal of multi-party democracy, saying what he wants to see is a strong opposition to hold his government to account.
This reasoning is somewhat ingenious, given that Ruto has, since assuming the Presidency, expended a lot of time, energy and resources pursuing handshakes with individual opposition Members of Parliament and Governors who are being aggressively courted to abandon Raila and join the government troops.
Ruto has also often highlighted the role he played in the 2007- 2008 post-election crisis so that Raila eventually won the seat of Prime Minister in the Grand Coalition government.
Ruto himself came into the Coalition cabinet as Minister for Agriculture, as did then ODM colleague and now Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi, who was Deputy Prime Minister.
He did not argue at the time that the Grand Coalition was unconstitutional, anti-democracy or a mongrel government. Neither did he dismiss the negotiations outside Parliament overseen by neutral arbiters as unconstitutional. It is an undeniable point, however, that the situation today is very different from what prevailed leading up to the Grand Coalition.
At that time, Kenya was on the verge of civil war as violence flared up across the country in protest against the suspicious declaration that Kibaki had won a second term as President. Raila was at the forefront in rejecting the electoral commission’s declaration of Kibaki’s victory.
Ruto and Mudavadi, who now accuse Raila of causing trouble whenever he loses an election, at that time played key roles in mobilising violent resistance to Kibaki’s re-election, and were happy beneficiaries of the political settlement which landed them senior roles in government.
The country is not on the verge of a complete descent into anarchy and total breakdown this time, but there is no telling what might inform if the weekly or twice-weekly protests continue shutting down Nairobi and Kisumu and maybe spreading to other towns. Despite all the tough talk from Gachagua and the Inspector-General of Police Japhet Koome, there has been realisation from soberer voices in government that the security forces alone cannot ensure restoration of law and order.
There has also been concern over creeping enthusiasm for a brutal crackdown in which civil liberties will be severely restrained and special units within the police given a free hand employ extrajudicial means in dealing with unrest. Another issue is that the hardline forces in government ruling out all dialogue maybe motivated by self-interest.
The likes of Gachagua and Mudavadi will be losers in any deal like that of 2008 National Accord or even the informal 2018 handshake where Raila gets a place at the table and displaces them. Ruto ruling out a handshake and Raila asserting that was never on his mind should have put to rest such fears. Now the latter’s stated preference for a National Accord type of mechanism will have set alarm bells ringing, and also provide justification for those constantly warning against his alleged handshake plot.