The marriage of convenience between Uhuru and Raila will start to unravel as money grows tight and a rival consort asserts himself
Kenya's political landscape in 2019 will be dominated by two-way competition between Deputy President William Ruto of the ruling Jubilee Party and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), as each man positions himself for the presidential election of 2022. Each will be trying to cobble together a winning coalition by buttressing his ethnic stronghold and winning over the 'swing' votes in regions such as Maasailand, Kisii, Luhyaland and the Coast.
President Uhuru Kenyatta's mantra is that the time for party politics is over and that all leaders should concentrate on economic development, based on his signature 'Big Four Agenda' (food security, affordable housing, manufacturing, and affordable healthcare), and reconciliation, based on the 'Building Bridges Initiative' agreed between him and Odinga last March. He will continue to state this line, arguing that he wants a legacy of an ethnically united Kenya, and will continue to reach out to former opposition leader Odinga and his Luo people.
Both Odinga and Ruto will on the surface claim they support the Big Four and Building Bridges even as they continue their individual campaigns and trade acerbic barbs. Many Kenyan pundits say the only person who has not grasped the new reality is Kenyatta, as he continues to insist on a politics-free country until 2022.
In his efforts to succeed Kenyatta, Ruto will campaign for the presidency in Jubilee strongholds (Uhuru's Kikuyu Mount Kenya region and his own Rift Valley among the Kalenjin) while saying he is bringing Big Four projects to them, so as not to offend the presidential directive to stay off politics. And he will continue to make forays into western Kenya among the Luhya, the people of the Coast and Kisii. But he continues to watch his back in the Rift Valley where fellow Kalenjin Gideon Moi (son of ex-President Daniel arap Moi) is determined to spoil his act by running for the presidency in alliance with Odinga's former running mates Wycliffe Musalia Mudavadi (a Luhya) and, possibly, Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, who still commands a considerable following among the Kamba.
Odinga will also pay lip service to the dream of building bridges and the hope of an economic miracle based on the Big Four in the remaining four years of the Kenyatta presidency (AC Vol 59 No 12, Jobs for Raila's boys & Vol 59 No 16, Raila rebounds). To his core Luo constituency, he will repeat the line that the March reconciliation handshake with Kenyatta was a tactical retreat in his lifelong campaign for the presidency which will finally bring development to Luoland. For that reason, he will campaign in the name of building bridges as directed by the President between rival ethnic groups that were divided by the 2017 election, while also strengthening his ODM's hold among the Luo and Luhya, and in Nairobi and the Coast.
In addition to strengthening his base, Odinga will call for a referendum to move Kenya from a presidential to a parliamentary constitution, a proposal under debate by the Building Bridges Commission. Oddly, having campaigned for a devolved system of government since the 1990s, Odinga will continue to urge the dissolution of the recently established 47 county governments because 'they have failed the people'. To replace them, he proposes seven regional governments based on the old provinces. This will bring him into direct conflict with Ruto, who favours the current constitution with a powerful president.
Odinga has a vested interest in the referendum precisely because Ruto is opposed to it. Should his own side win it, it will energise the flagging opposition National Super Alliance (Nasa) coalition, bring in new allies and put him in a position of strength from which to challenge Ruto. This is exactly what Odinga did during the November 2005 constitutional referendum. Having fallen out with President Mwai Kibaki over a dishonoured power-sharing agreement, Odinga used the opportunity offered by the referendum to run a spirited campaign against the 'Kilifi' draft constitution favoured by Kibaki and defeated the government, winning 58% of the vote.
Though Odinga was thrown out of cabinet the following month, the victory boosted his standing and attracted many opponents of Kibaki, predominantly Kikuyus, to put together the ODM, which many believe won the still-disputed 2007 election.
Ruto, who was Odinga's right-hand man in the ODM in those days, remembers this all too well, and a constitutional referendum will be the last thing he wants. But it will be the first recommendation Odinga wants from the Building Bridges Commission. Sooner or later, Kenyatta will have to declare himself on the subject. Opposing the referendum will antagonise Odinga and could destroy the shaky rapprochement between them. Agreeing to a plebiscite will antagonise Ruto and lead to new ethnic alliances and antagonisms, as happened in 2005, putting paid to Uhuru's dream of enduring harmony. Pushed into a corner, Uhuru would probably rather stick with Ruto than concede to Odinga.
The economy will continue to struggle throughout much of 2019 and the President will start to realise just how difficult it will be to realise the ambitions of the Big Four. The IMF predicts that Kenya's GDP will grow by 6.1% – close to the average annual growth that the economy has achieved since the Jubilee government took power in 2013.
This does not leave the government much room to achieve its grand objectives. To start with, there are constraints imposed by the rising debt burden (AC Vol 59 No 18, Fuelling a debt crisis). Public debt servicing will consume about 47% of the revenue the government is expected to generate, the result of a need to pay rapidly maturing commercial debt and Chinese infrastructure loans that the government has contracted. As a result, there will be insufficient revenue to build the 500,000 affordable houses that Uhuru has pledged under the Big Four, in addition to ensuring food security, universal health coverage and an increase in manufacturing's contribution to GDP from 9% to 15% by 2022.
Because the President will insist on higher spending for his pet projects, the Kenyan Treasury, contrary to its own technocrats' convictions, will be forced to borrow on the domestic market, thereby crowding out private borrowers. This will lead to an increasing scarcity of credit for the private sector that was already being felt in 2018. Because the Jubilee government has failed to abolish the cap on interest rates that President Kenyatta signed into law in 2016, the IMF will continue to withhold standby credit to Kenya. The shilling will continue a slide against major currencies that began at the end of 2018.
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