End of US ‘opposition strategy’ and future of power in Kenya

By: PETER KAGWANJA

Two years ago, this column cited the influential American broadcast journalist, Edward E. Murrow, who once forcefully argued that “When the loyal opposition dies … the soul of (the nation) dies with it” (SN, September 21, 2013).

The visit of US President Barack Obama last week sounded the death knell for rogue opposition politics, and is likely to usher in a new era of loyal opposition and constructive engagement with the government.

Although Kenya’s 2010 Republican constitution anticipates a two-party state anchored on the doctrine of Parliament as the repository of the sovereign will of the people, deepening democracy is a shared responsibility between the government and the opposition.

Sadly, consolidating a viable opposition as a pivot of democracy is Kenya’s unfinished agenda.

Even after the opposition swept to power in 2002, a weak opposition and intra-elite power tussles and intrigues within NARC gave rise to a frightful “mongrel opposition” that was half-government and half-opposition.

POWER SHARING

Finally, the 2008 National Accord and Reconciliation Act (2008) and the subsequent power-sharing arrangement wiped out the opposition, turning the Raila Odinga-led ODM into a junior partner in President Mwai Kibaki’s Government.

In view of this, the clear victory of the Jubilee coalition on March 4, 2013 carried the promise of the return of a loyal opposition. But this was not to be.

While the victorious Jubilee celebrated “the triumph of democracy’, the defeated Cord declared “democracy on trial” and refused to accept the results even after the Supreme Court affirmed Kenyatta’s victory.

On the basis of this, the opposition has pursued a blistering genre of rogue politics that pushed for regime change along the lines of the Arab Spring take-over of governments through popular protests.

This withering politics of protest reached a fever-pitch in the run-up to the opposition’s Saba Saba rally at Uhuru Park on July 7, 2014.

CONFRONTATIONAL POLITICS

Even though the opposition failed to draw millions of people into the streets of Kenyan cities or to produce the intended CNN-effect, it stepped up the brand of confrontational politics, embarking on a unilateral push for a referendum on a spectrum of issues, effectively polarising the country along personality and ethnic lines.

It is in this context that four opposition leaders — Raila Odinga, Kalonzo Musyoka, Moses Wetang’ula and Martha Karua — presented a memorandum to President Obama in a meeting held at the VIP waiting Lounge of the Indoor Arena of the Kasarani Sports Centre in Nairobi.

Here, the opposition team called on Washington to intervene and press the government on various issues, including corruption, governance, tribalism, rising insecurity, media freedom, implementation of two-third gender rule and electoral reforms, especially of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).

However, Obama’s reply came as a rude shocker which has left the opposition chiefs licking their wounds. Obama pointed to the hypocrisy in the opposition leaders’ call on America to intervene in Kenyan affairs.

“It’s funny though that one of the opposition leaders – I won’t mention who – was saying we really need you to press the Kenyan government on some issues”, Obama disclosed while speaking at a forum with civil society.

Obama took a swipe at the hypocrisy of leaders who want the US to be very involved when they are not in power but when in power want the superpower “to mind its own business.”

“I had to say to him, I remember when you were in government you kept on saying why are you trying to interfere with Kenya’s business?

You should mind your own business,” he said.

He passed a three-point message that has irreversibly changed the axis of politics in Kenya and emphatically changed the fortunes of the opposition ahead of 2017.

DEMOCRATICALLY ELECTED GOVT

First, Obama told the opposition bigwigs that Kenya has a democratically elected government with which America will do business.

The 2013 election was free and fair, and bequeathed Kenya with a legally elected and legitimate government under President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Obama reportedly went ahead to admonish the opposition for its lack of patriotism.

“Hoping that your President fails is the same as hoping your country fails, and it’s not patriotism,” he said.

“Patriotism is supporting your Commander-in-Chief, even if you don’t agree with him on everything.

It’s what will make Kenya great, not complaining every time this nation tries to make progress,” he added.

Second, while warning that corruption was one of the biggest risks facing Kenya’s economic potential today, Obama told the opposition that the Government of President Uhuru Kenyatta was serious in fighting corruption and must be supported and its initiatives given time to materialise.

He cautioned against doing politics with anti-corruption and, instead, called for a united front against corruption between the opposition and the government.

Third, while noting that the US was “always going to be listening to all elements of the Kenyan society,” Obama called on the opposition and civil society to engage the government constructively.

Instead of calling on the Americans to intervene in Kenya, the opposition should play its role in defending institutions and deepening democracy by engaging the government and holding it to account within the established channels.

Obama’s message has sounded the death knell to the “opposition strategy’’ that the US and the West have pursued since 2003 in which Raila was supported to ascend to power as a safe pair of hands.

No doubt, Washington’s policy shift — seemingly an endorsement for Kenyatta’s second term — has thrown the opposition’s 2017 plans into disarray.