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Prime Minister Says Kenyan Politics 'Are Not Ethnic'

Interviewee: Raila Odinga, Prime Minister, Kenya
Interviewer: Stephanie Hanson, News Editor, CFR.org
June 9, 2009

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NAIROBI, Kenya-- Following disputed presidential elections in late 2007, Kenya exploded into ethnic-based violence. In February 2008, international mediators brokered a power-sharing agreement between President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga, who became Kenya's prime minister as part of the deal. Since then, little of the government's reform agenda has been executed and frustration within Kenya has mounted. Odinga, in an interview with CFR's Stephanie Hanson and other U.S. editors, dismissed reports that he has threatened to pull out of the power-sharing government, saying he would work to continue to press reforms in the constitution, electoral law, and the judiciary.

He also rejected claims by some Kenyans that the country is mired in ethnic-based politics and reasserted his support for giving the country's regions greater voice in controlling their development agenda. Odinga also expressed hope for increasing economic support from the United States as well as security cooperation to fight piracy in the Indian Ocean. The following are excerpts from the interview:

You have made some public statements of frustration and exasperation with the government and threatened at points to pull out. First, do you have any intention of doing so, and under what conditions?

I have not threatened to pull out. We will not pull out because pulling out would amount to surrender. Our position is that we won an election but our victory was stolen. We agreed to compromise so that the country can move on and that we use this position to produce reforms that will ensure this country does not in this future get itself in the difficult situation that it found itself in last year.

We want to devolve power to give the regions more say in planning and execution of the development agenda. We want parliament to play an oversight role and the executive to implement the vision.

What we have been doing sometimes is to criticize from within so that we can act as a catalyst to the process of reforms. There are difficult areas where the two sides of the coalition are not in agreement. For example, the issue of police reform. Also in the area of judicial reform.

In a coalition, it is not always the case that two sides will agree. Sometimes there are different positions. That's how coalitions work the world over. Even in Germany, where they have a grand coalition, sometimes you see that the coalition partners disagree.

Could you outline your three most important reform priorities?

Number one, the constitution. We do have a draft constitution. There are only a few areas that need some attention. Number two, the electoral law reforms. Number three, the reforms in the judiciary and the police.

Can you elaborate on your vision for a new constitution and what the main elements in that constitution would be?

This country, like many other African countries, has suffered from overconcentration of power in one institution. This was done through a series of amendments that have been introduced since independence which moved power from the periphery to the center. We started with a fairly decentralized system, a kind of quasi-federal system of government. That was removed and replaced with a unitary, highly centralized form of government where the institution of the presidency has emasculated all other institutions of governance--what we call the imperial presidency.

We want to dismantle that and introduce checks and balances to the system. We want to devolve power to give the regions more say in planning and execution of the development agenda. We want parliament to play an oversight role and the executive to implement the vision. Then we want a judiciary that is truly independent in function and is corruption free. If we could do this and have a clear separation of powers, we would be able to have a better system of governance to ensure democracy and respect for human rights.

What is your timeframe for pushing for constitutional change?

My reading is that many politicians and other Kenyans are willing to compromise on the chapter on the strength of the executive, the legislature, on the devolution [of power to the provinces]. I don't think really that we should go beyond mid-next year.

At a recent memorial service for the people who were killed in Eldoret, in the midst of ethnic violence, in a church fire, the victims were ethnic Kikuyu and many of the perpetrators were ethnic Kalenjin and members of your party, ODM. You weren't in attendance at that service. What are you doing as a leader who needs to show the country how to transcend that?

The events of last year are too gory, some of them, and Kenyans want to forget them.

Yes, people died in the church, but these were not the only people who were burned in churches. A number of people were burned in their whole homes in Naivasha [town in Rift Valley Province]. One person lost his whole family, eleven people. No one is talking about these other people.

"[W]e want to increase cooperation [with the United States] in the field of security and terrorism, the war against piracy ... We don’t have the capacity to police the waters of the Indian Ocean."

In a place like Kisumu [a western Kenya lakeside city], there was no ethnic fighting [but] 107 people were shot dead by the police. A number of them were shot dead here in Kibera, my own constituency. In one afternoon alone, one police officer shot and killed seven people within two hours. One was a twelve-year-old, another was a fourteen-year-old school child. Three or four of them were women. In the end, we took the bodies--thirty-seven coffins. As we were in the process of praying for these bodies, we were attacked by the police.

We don't want to again open up these old wounds. That demonstration is not helping to heal the wounds; it is actually opening up old wounds. Worse things happened than even [the church burning at Eldoret]. But we want to forget all that. What we are concerned with is to try to reconcile, not to inflame and open up old wounds in the country. I don't think that process served the process of healing and reconciliation.

So are you not in favor of a special tribunal on post-election violence?

I am. And I have supported it, I have canvassed for it, I have tried to lobby parliament to pass it. We were not successful the last time around. I have said that the perpetrators of these heinous crimes must be brought to [justice]. That is when we can begin the process of truly healing this society.

One Kenyan student I spoke to referred to the Kenyan government as an arranged marriage by the United States. Can you characterize the relationship now and the support you receive from the U.S. government?

I don't know that the U.S. government was involved in arranging the marriage. That is [one] opinion. I don't know whether [the United States] wants to preside over the divorce as well.

The United States played a major role in the negotiations, in pushing for some kind of compromise, along with the European Union, the UK, the UN, and the African Union. So there were many matchmakers. The United States has continued to play a role in assisting us move forward. I don't know whether they have been overzealous to the extent of trying to get into the bedroom. I want to leave that to others to judge.

We would like to see more support from the United States. What we are asking for from the United States is engagement at an economic level. We are not expecting handouts from the United States. We want to see more trade between the United States and Kenya. We want more access to goods manufactured in your country and vice versa. Secondly, we would like to see more American tourists come to Kenya. Thirdly, we want to increase cooperation in the field of security and terrorism, the war against piracy. Our economy has been very badly affected by piracy in the Indian Ocean. We don't have the capacity to police the waters of the Indian Ocean.

We've met with a number of university students here, some of whom were very adamant that it was time for Kenyan politics to move beyond ethnic politics and community politics, that it was time for Kenyan politics to focus on national politics and ideological politics. Does Kenya need to have a more ideological base of party politics, rather than these coalitions of ethnic communities running against each other or alternating power?

I don't agree. It's a very simplistic view of Kenyan politics. Kenyan politics are much more complicated than that, and they are fairly ideological. ODM party [Odinga's party] is more of a social democracy [party]. PNU [Kibaki's party] is a more conservative political party. But ideology has even died in America. What is the difference between Republicans and the Democrats? Go to Britain. Labor and the Tories. It is not just only Africa. That is a very simplistic view of what's happening here.

Our politics are not ethnic. Look at elections last time. My party won seats in all the eight provinces in the country. Look at the presidential elections. I won the vote in six of the eight provinces. I did not win in [President Kibaki's province], but I also got some votes there. I did not win in Eastern Province, but I also got some votes there.

If you look at the Democrats and the Republicans in the United States when they are voting, there are some states that are purely Democratic, the others which are purely Republican. Your political parties are stronger in some regions than others. In Britain, there are what they called the Labor-safe seats and the Tory-safe seats. If you are a Labor and you want to run for a Tory-safe seat, they will give you a ticket, but not [funds], because they know you stand no chance of winning.

Tell me how ODM is an ethnic grouping. We have forty-two different tribes in this country. Who are my alliances in all those? Yesterday I was in Samburu [in northern Kenya], where I got 90 percent of the vote. Who are my ethnic allies in Samburu? In Somali, in Northeastern Province, I won the majority vote there. Who are my ethnic allies there? The people just voted for me because of what I represented. I got the votes of the Kambas [an ethnic group]; I got votes from [the coast]. I won the majority vote, not because of ethnic alliances, but because of what my political party stood for. This idea that politics in Africa is ethnic-based tribalism completely misses the point. It does not understand the sophistication of African [politics].

There is a lot of concern among Kenyans about corruption. What can the government, and you personally, do to address corruption?

Corruption is of serious concern to us. Corruption exists in virtually all societies. It is only what is done about it that differs. If it is tolerated, then it becomes entrenched, it becomes systemic. We are coming from a time when corruption was highly tolerated, and the institutions that have developed over the years that were tolerating corruption--the police force, the state law office, the judiciary, and then there are the oversight bodies against the government itself. We are dealing with this issue of corruption. That is why I emphasize a lot the issue of reform in the governance structure.

* Stephanie Hanson is in Kenya on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors' trip organized by the International Reporting Project (IRP) in Washington, DC.

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