Kenya: Meeting Significant Breakthrough After Divisive Elections

President Uhuru Kenyatta with Nasa leader Raila Odinga (file photo).
analysis

The meeting and joint unity statement on Friday by President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition leader Raila Odinga no doubt caught many by surprise, including the most loyal acolytes within their respective Jubilee Party and National Super Alliance camps.

The biggest unanswered question is whether the two might be plotting yet another Government of National Unity as a way out of the current political impasse.

Otherwise, the public show on the steps of Harambee House -- the Office of the President and symbolically the very same place President Mwai Kibaki and Mr Odinga announced that pact ending the post-election violence on February 2008 -- could only have been outcome of intense negotiations conducted, if not directly, through only a very small group of the most trusted representatives.

PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

That there had been no whispers of secret meetings or the impending public statement indicates the confidentiality with which discussions were held, especially in an environment where both State House and Mr Odinga's office leak like the proverbial sieve.

The event was no doubt a significant breakthrough following on the disputed presidential election, Mr Odinga's symbolic swearing-in as 'People's President', and the subsequent crack down on opposition figures and all voices of dissent by the State security machinery.

It was an event that obviously did much to calm fears, restore confidence and indicate that there is a way out of the current political crisis.

After the cheering is over, however, attention must swiftly turn to what is likely to be the exact outcome of the meeting between the two rivals.

DIALOGUE

Putting on a public display of amity and concurrence on key issues is one thing, but providing a clear road map and achieving significant gains is quite another.

The joint statement analysing the key issues facing Kenya showed a broad meeting of minds between Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga, but otherwise was sufficiently vague not to actually reveal any key likely outcomes.

It was the kind of statement crafted by a diplomat practised in the arts of obfuscation and putting on paper words that both sides can live with without any significant wins or concession.

The only clear outcome so far is that Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga have agreed to dialogue through the mechanism of a joint secretariat to be established.

SWEARING-IN

No time frames were given, and no specific references made to the key opposition demands since boycotting the repeat presidential elections last October.

The opposition had refused to recognise President Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto, and instead had Mr Odinga take a rebel oath of office.

It is in the process of establishing People's Assemblies in counties across Kenya, which are intended to serve as platforms for eventual convention of National People's Assembly, that might well seek to proclaim sovereignty in much the same way some African countries overthrew dictatorships and transitioned to democracy in the early 1990s.

There is also the demand for a repeat presidential election by August and reform of the electoral system; alongside renewed calls for key changes to the system of governance in return of the Parliamentary system with a Prime Minister as Head of Government and President being reduced to to titular head of State.

ISSUES

No such specifics were mentioned, leaving it unclear if the opposition will continue its agitation for fresh elections under the Resist campaign, or whether security agencies will call off intimidation targeting opposition leaders.

The statement from Kenyatta and Mr Odinga identified key issues up for discussion.

Most lie in the realm of general concerns or grievances that would be shared across the political divide, including ethnic competition, lack of a national ethos, teething problems with devolution, insecurity, and corruption.

Many of them could be addressed by generally enforcing the laws, strengthening regularity and compliance institutions, and most important and maybe most difficult, effecting attitude changes in the minds of citizens and officials.

ELECTORAL REFORMS

There were also issues that, depending on interpretation, could address some of the key grievances listed by the opposition.

The reference to divisive elections and inclusivity, for instance, could address not just opposition demands for electoral justice, but to an electoral system that favours incumbency and installs a governing system based on ethnic alliances.

Issues of shared prosperity could also address the sense of grievance brought by historical injustices, development and resource allocation and a rich-poor gap that is about the widest in the world.

Any changes to a more just electoral and governance system that will be off necessity require far-reaching constitutional changes, many of which will require a public referendum.

Other issues can be resolved through institutions and mechanism that were actually established under both the 2008 Kibaki-Raila power-sharing pact and the 2010 constitution, but were immediately discarded once the immediate political crisis had passed.

POLITICAL WILL

This will probably mean going back to the mothballed report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission and other issues identified under the Agenda 4 of the pact brooked by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Most vital, however, will be political will.

President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga, with constant references to divisions dating back to the 'Founding Fathers'(conscious reference to their own fathers, First President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and his Vice President Oginga Odinga?) have shown the way.

Now they have to navigate and minefield of vested interests within their respective alliances of hardliners, ethnic kingpins, succession struggles and others who may want to stymie any pact that changes the equation.

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