from Africa in Transition

Pulling Kenya Back From the Brink

Kenya's opposition leader Raila Odinga of the National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition flanked by Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta (L) address a news conference after meeting at the Harambee house office in Nairobi, Kenya March 9, 2018. Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

March 14, 2018

Kenya's opposition leader Raila Odinga of the National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition flanked by Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta (L) address a news conference after meeting at the Harambee house office in Nairobi, Kenya March 9, 2018. Thomas Mukoya/Reuters
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The March 9 meeting about reconciliation between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga has, for the time being, pulled Kenya back from the brink. On news of the meeting, the Kenyan shilling rose against the U.S. dollar. Odinga has called off his defiance campaign against the Kenyatta government, while Kenyatta apparently is allowing Odinga to continue to use the title “people’s president." The official document released detailing the pact refers to both as “his excellency,” a title normally reserved for the chief of state. However, the two will not be part of a power-sharing arrangement. Spokesmen for Odinga are saying that he agreed to meet with Kenyatta to avoid possible future bloodshed along ethnic lines. Details are scarce, but the two leaders were said to be covering a “vast agenda,” including free and fair elections in 2022, and will be traveling around the country together on a “unity” tour. Kenyatta apparently did not consult with his vice president and likely (until now) successor, William Ruto. Odinga, for his part, did not consult in advance with his coalition partners, though he has since met with them and Kalonzo Musyoka, one of NASA's four leaders, has proposed a meeting with Kenyatta. Still, some are accusing Odinga of “betraying millions of Kenyans.” 

Kenyan media reports that diplomatic, religious, and business pressure all played a role in the decision by Kenyatta and Odinga to reconcile. Kenyan media is suggesting that U.S. Ambassador Robert Godec played a leading role in this effort. Then there was the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who arrived in Nairobi the same morning as the meeting.

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Though Kenya is divided by ethnic rivalries easily exploited by politicians, the crisis that seems to have ended was shaped by the personal rivalry of Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga and their families dating back to independence. Both are leaders of large tribes, Kenyatta of the Kikuyu, Odinga of the Luo, and both are rich, though Kenyatta is richer. Nevertheless, because the rivalry was personal, the resolution of the crisis could also be personal. It is significant that Kenyatta has agreed to allow Odinga to retain some of the trappings of a chief of state. Kenyatta may be borrowing from the logic of King Henri IV of France in 1593 when he allegedly said, “Paris vaut bein une messe,” or “Paris is well worth a Mass.” For Henri, becoming king of France was worth a conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism. For Kenyatta, sharing some of the trappings of the presidency is well worth retaining all of the presidency’s power.

Presuming the deal sticks (it will be debated and voted on in parliament soon), reconciliation could upend Kenyan ethnic politics. With the Kikuyu and the Luo, the third politically-ambitious ethnic group in Kenya is the Kalenjin. Their political leader is William Ruto. He has well-known personal ambitions for the presidency and will almost certainly run in 2022, but the new pact between Odinga and Kenyatta could upset his plan to lead the Jubilee Party. With which other ethnic group will the Kalenjin ally?

Kenyan media seems to like the idea that the Kenyatta-Odinga reconciliation was midwifed by foreign diplomats, and there is no doubt they played a role. Kenyatta’s and Odinga’s own personal interests, however, were likely more important.
 

More on:

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Uhuru Kenyatta

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