The US embassy assessed President Kibaki to be in good health and firmly in control while Prime Minister Raila Odinga is depicted as a politician who would put his presidential ambitions ahead of reforms.
Leaked diplomatic cables offer the most comprehensive portrait yet published of the two men who have been at the heart of the political scene for the last decade, President Kibaki and PM Odinga.
Based on diverse sources including US envoy’s meetings with the pair and interviews of their closest associates, a picture emerges of the coalition leaders that is sometimes hardly flattering because it is significantly different from the popular perception of them.
President Kibaki is cast as a man in control and in full health, despite his occasional appearances in public which create the impression of a hesitant and disengaged leader.
Mr Odinga in turn is described as a pragmatic politician who agreed to the post election coalition arrangement despite considerable pressure from allies.
But both men come in for severe criticism, some of it delivered by their most trusted aides.
Mr Odinga is depicted as a politician who has placed his own presidential ambitions ahead of the fight for reforms, despite his public pose as a champion of the reform effort.
The PM is also criticised as an ineffective leader whose office is beset by wrangles and incompetence, which he appears unable to deal with.
President Kibaki is described as a figure under siege from close allies and hardliners and as a man who knows about the corrupt ways of his key ministers but is unwilling to act.
State House and the Prime Minister’s office dismissed the contents of the cables on Friday evening. Presidential Press Service head Isaiya Kabira said the profile of Mr Kibaki painted by the cables was contradicted by the president’s record.
“Anybody criticising the President’s reform credentials needs only to examine the achievements recorded under his watch. He has helped revive institutions that were on the verge of collapse, streamlined the way government is run and the whole process of reform culminated in the endorsement of the new Constitution, which is a charter that offers the most comprehensive blueprint for institutional reform in the nation’s history. The President is now trying to consolidate that record by supporting implementation of the new Constitution.”
Dennis Onyango, communications director at the Prime Minister’s office, said the cables were inaccurate and had been given attention they don’t deserve, especially considering they are “basically stolen information.”
“The PM understands that US foreign policy is not made on the basis of what is contained in these cables so he isn’t really paying that much attention to them. As to what the US thinks of the principals, Kenyans understand the President and the PM are much more complex than the picture being portrayed in the cables. The Principals deal with many more people and if all were to give their assessment, a picture would emerge of much more sophisticated leaders.”
The entire batch of cables leaked by whistle-blowing agency WikiLeaks and made available to the Saturday Nation reveals the most candid thoughts of diplomats, ministers and top civil servants, who freely spoke to US embassy officials believing that the conversations would never be revealed outside official American circles.
One of the most forthright descriptions of Mr Odinga is given by one of his main allies, Lands minister James Orengo.
US ambassador Michael Ranneberger met both Mr Orengo and head of Public Service Francis Muthaura in mid 2009 to press them to push Mr Kibaki and Mr Odinga to speed up the process of reforms. In his meeting with Mr Ranneberger, the Lands minister shared his frustration with the PM.
“After I reviewed the state of play along lines similar to those I employed with Muthaura, Orengo admitted frustration about the slow movement on the reform agenda. He said that Prime Minister Odinga must bear substantial responsibility for this. Orengo made clear his view that Kibaki and his people do not favour far-reaching reforms, but at the same time, he said, Odinga has not been forthright in driving implementation of the reform agenda. Odinga has done nothing to reorganise his office to make it more effective; Odinga is a poor manager who does not follow up; and he is primarily focused on preparing for his presidential run in 2012, Orengo said. Odinga has avoided bold moves because he is hostage to his difficult political constituency, Orengo said. In essence, Orengo concluded, Odinga wants to maintain support from the diverse elements of his Orange Democratic Movement coalition, and that means he has pulled his punches on issues like the Special Tribunal.”
Mr Ranneberger followed up those comments with a critical assessment of the PM’s office, saying his secretariat was inefficient in comparison to that of Mr Kibaki, which served to weaken Mr Odinga.
“Odinga has weakened his own authority and effectiveness by surrounding himself with an incompetent and divided core team in the Prime Minister’s office. This has contributed greatly to his inability to work effectively to build his own authority within the coalition government. For whatever reason, and despite urging from us and many others to do so, he has refused to shake up his team and remains ill-served by them. As a result, the positions he takes publicly and privately are inconsistent, erratic and often amateurish.
Kibaki, on the other hand, is surrounded by an astute political team and thus far has run circles around Odinga. Odinga has also lost considerable support throughout the country because of the perception (and reality) that he has not energetically pursued the reform agenda which he advocated when he ran for President.”
Mr Odinga’s partner in government, President Kibaki also comes in for criticism. Former US ambassador William Bellamy describes talks he held with the President, advising him that the US had issued a visa ban against a senior minister due to corruption involving security-related corruption.
Mr Kibaki is described in the October 19, 2005 cable as having appeared to show he knew nothing of the allegations but, according to Mr Bellamy, presidential adviser Stanley Murage told the ambassador that Mr Kibaki “has plenty of evidence, he’s just not acting.”
One of the things that might surprise Kenyans used to President Kibaki’s tired looking and lethargic public appearances is that almost every cable that assesses the President’s state of health in private meetings offers a positive appraisal.
In one cable Mr Ranneberger reports that “Kibaki was well-briefed, articulate, and focused. This and other meetings during recent months indicate that Kibaki is healthy and engaged…He is not the totally disengaged leader struggling with health issues that is sometimes portrayed.”
Another cable states: “During an hour and a half meeting with the ambassador on June 9, at the ambassador’s request, a relaxed President Kibaki was expansive on a wide array of issues. The only other participant was Kibaki’s senior adviser Stanley Murage, who acted as notetaker.”
President Kibaki receives a less glowing assessment on his reform record and his support for comprehensive changes in key institutions.
Mr Ranneberger told his superiors in Washington in a cable on the “state of play” on reforms that “Kibaki and his team are willing to carry out what I would describe as the minimum reform agenda:
minimalist constitutional revision; establishment of a new electoral commission; the establishment of a local tribunal, which they believe they can influence, to hold accountable those involved in post-election violence; and the setting up of the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission, among other steps.
Odinga supports these steps, but also wants to carry out more fundamental reforms, particularly through reform of the Judiciary and the police - the two institutions that lie at the heart of the culture of impunity. Odinga is also probably willing to take steps to shake up parastatals to make them more transparent and accountable. Kibaki, on the other hand, has little incentive to undertake these reforms. Both the Judiciary and police report to him, and in the seven years that he has been President, Kibaki has appointed people to head these institutions who are beholden to him. Where Kibaki and Odinga may implicitly share a similar perspective is in not wanting to take steps which could unravel the vast network of corruption, where their interests and those of their families and associates might be compromised. In that regard, each side probably has a lot of incriminating information to hold over the heads of the other.”
Mr Kibaki also comes in for criticism for limiting Mr Odinga’s ability to wield power in the coalition with one dispatch saying the initial room he had allowed the PM had been replaced by an attitude which indicated he felt he could “ignore Odinga.”
The cables also record that President Kibaki predicted a coalition would be formed following the 2007 General Election, despite the fact he felt he would emerge victorious.
Mr Kibaki told US admiral Fallon in a dispatch dated July 30, 2007 that he felt “two or three parties” would form the government after the election, attributing the large number of parties on the political scene to the fact there was a long period of time when opposition parties were not allowed.