Jump to navigation

Vol 60 No 19

Published 27th September 2019


Bridge of sighs

A bid to build alliances across the country’s ethnic divides owes more to political ambition than to altruism

Due for release in early October, the wide-ranging report of the Building Bridges Initiative looks likely to deepen political conflict despite its lofty aims of lessening ethnic and regional rivalries. The BBI was set up to bring together the country's competing ethnic groups under a new national ideology and better system of government. At least, that was the idea agreed between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his new ally Raila Odinga in the historic 'handshake' of March 2018 (AC Vol 59 No 8, Believe the handshake). 

The report will force Kenyatta to choose between Odinga's position on it – largely favourable – and Deputy President William Ruto's, who opposes the report in its entirety. The BBI report will also widen the rift within the ruling Jubilee Party between Ruto and Kenyatta followers. And it may splinter what remains of the Odinga-led National Super Alliance (Nasa), the nominal opposition. 

What Kenyatta and Odinga intended to be a manifesto for national unity may cause more rancour among rival political factions (AC Vol 60 No 15, A killing joke).

The draft BBI report tries to summarise the views of voters, recorded in public meetings in Kenya's 47 counties, on the nine main governance issues that were identified by Kenyatta and Odinga in the March 2018 concord. 

It gives equal prominence to all nine areas: ending ethnic antagonism; creating a patriotic ethos; ethnic inclusiveness; ending the pattern of polarising elections; strengthening devolution; strengthening public security; fighting corruption; promoting shared prosperity; and respect for human rights.

Kenyans want to see progress in all these areas, the report says. They said the same to the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission when it took evidence from different parts of Kenya under Professor Yash Pal Ghai between 2000 and 2005. 

It was those soundings that were incorporated in the reformed constitution in 2010 in the wake of the devastating violence after the 2007 elections. But those constitutional reforms didn't work as Professor Ghai reminded the BBI panel when he appeared before it on 8 May this year. Civil society and religious groups raised these concerns before the new constitution was inaugurated in 2010 and continue to do so.

Dividing lines
The report's proposals to represent rival factions and ethnic groups more fairly look set to split opinion: 

The most contentious part of the report will recommend a parliamentary system of government, with more positions at the top of government distributed reflecting Kenya's ethnic diversity: a president with a deputy, and a prime minister with two deputies. 

This will divide the ruling Jubilee alliance as Ruto has twice campaigned for Kenyatta on the promise that he would inherit a unified and powerful presidential system. He has pronounced himself opposed to any changes.

The report was commissioned by and for Kenyatta and Odinga, so other leaders in the Nasa opposition alliance say that its recommendations are of little interest to them and their supporters. These include Musalia Mudavadi (Luhya), Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka (Kamba) and Moses Simiyu Wetangula (Bukusu); their supporters say the report has no legal or constitutional basis.

The most delicate relationship is with Ruto, who was excluded by Kenyatta from the two-way negotiations which led to the BBI and this new report. The gap between the two has grown apace.

Politicking deputy
Kenyatta insists that all Jubilee activists must stop campaigning for the 2022 elections 'and concentrate on development' and service to the public, a warning aimed at Ruto's relentless politicking (AC Vol 60 No 3, The President's anger & Vol 60 No 18, Spending on the hoof). Ruto tours the country inaugurating public projects, using the stopovers to consolidate his base and giving large sums to build churches. Kenyatta sees this as insubordination. 

Using the opaque security budget, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Interior, Karanja Kibicho, has under Kenyatta's orders sponsored an anti-Ruto movement in the Mount Kenya region – the Kieleweke group. The aim is to undercut Ruto's initiatives, supported by the rival Tanga Tanga group of MPs.

The rupture has been papered over but it cannot remain so for long. Kenyatta has spoken vaguely in the past about the need for ethnic-political inclusiveness and the need to reform the winner-takes-all election system. 

This has been taken up most vocally by his close advisor and supporter Anne Waiguru, Governor of Kirinyaga. Although she is Kikuyu, Waiguru defends parliamentary government with more ethnically distributed seats at the top and she also told Kenyatta's Kikuyu and Ruto's Kalenjin followers 'to forget running for the presidency and give other tribes a chance'.

This was seen as a pitch by Waiguru for an Odinga presidency and few doubt that her statement could have been issued without the President's permission. It has polarised Kikuyu political opinion and leaders as never before. 

And the division will continue, we hear, since Waiguru will spearhead the campaign to sell the BBI proposals in the Mount Kenya region. The Mount Kenya groups (Kikuyu, Embu, Meru) seem split on the Uhuru/Raila reform pact but the larger proportion resents Jubilee's all but formal betrayal of Ruto, after he campaigned for two successive election victories for Kenyatta and the Kikuyu.

Ruto retains broad support among his Kalenjin people although he is challenged for supremacy from Gideon Moi and Joshua Kutuny. The Kikuyu in the Rift Valley, who live cheek by jowl with the Kalenjin, largely side with Ruto, giving him credit for the peace they enjoyed during and after the 2013 and 2017 general elections, in contrast to the bloody polls of 2007. Ruto is working hard to bring under his wing the disenchanted Odinga supporters among the Luhya, Bukusu and Kamba, and from the Coast. The ethnic and ideological line-up behind the Deputy President is changing.

Shifting support
Odinga's support among Luhya in western Kenya, Kamba and the coastal communities is falling. He has angered his leftist brains trust, including the likes of David Ndii and Maina Kiai, by forming his new alliance with the wealthy Kenyatta family. Nobody can tell where the dice will land. 

Against the backdrop of the shifting ethnic-based political factions, one of the few certainties is the constancy of Odinga's support base among the Luo. Kenyatta has to make a critical choice: whether to throw his weight, his family's fortunes and his substantial Kikuyu following behind Odinga or should he back his deputy. On the basis of this report, and in the eyes of many Kenyans, Kenyatta has decided for now to back Odinga and sideline Ruto.


Related Articles

Believe the handshake

President Uhuru Kenyatta was affable good humour personified on 17 April when he nipped across London's Mayfair from the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to the Chatham Hou...

A killing joke

A fake letter detailing an assassination plot against the Deputy President has widened the fault lines within the ruling elite

The political drama sparked by a fake letter claiming that several cabinet ministers from President Uhuru Kenyatta's Mount Kenya homeland had been plotting to kill Deputy President...

The President's anger

Kenyatta’s frustration with the slowness of change is visible as he looks to his legacy and Ruto ponders the next election

For a leader who has tamed the political ambitions of the main opposition party and brought it to support his government's national unity and development agenda, President Uhuru Ke...

Spending on the hoof

President Kenyatta wants to buy his way to a legacy. Sceptics say the economic outlook does not support this largesse

On an impromptu stop at a function at Mwangoni Primary School in Kwale County on the south coast on 8 September, President Uhuru Kenyatta made an instant personal donation of 1 mil...

Seriously, though

The horror of the bombings brought a political truce, but it's proving temporary

The threat of a national strike by 260,000 teachers on 5 October appears to mark the end of the political calm which descended after the bombing of the United States’ Embassy on 7 ...