Raila Odinga became Kenya’s second Prime Minister following the signing of the National Accord two years ago today. He spoke to the Sunday Nation’s MURITHI MUTIGA about his decision to agree to negotiate with rival Mwai Kibaki the dramatic events following the 2007 elections and the tortured negotiations that yielded a coalition arrangement that pulled the country from the verge of civil war. Below are excerpts:
Sunday Nation: In the immediate aftermath of the last General Election, with ODM protesting that its victory had been stolen, you spelt out two conditions to break the stalemate: Fresh elections or independent re-tallying of the presidential votes. At which point did you back down and why?
Mr Odinga: The election in 2007 will go down as a watershed in Kenya’s history because of the manner in which the vote tallying was manipulated. In the past, people had known that elections are manipulated. But that was before the era of Information Communication Technology and particularly before mobile phones became widely available. The mobile phone changed everything. It was now possible for results to be relayed instantly from every polling station in the country.
We in ODM had set up a very elaborate communication network and, by midday on December 28, we had a good idea what the results were. Media outlets were also announcing results directly from polling centres and the whole country could see what the result of the election was. There is no doubt in my mind and in the minds of many Kenyans what the outcome of that election was.
Eventually, the tallying of the vote was manipulated at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre. Kenyans only blame the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) but it was a far wider operation. ECK officials were heavily coerced by the state security apparatus, including the intelligence services, the police and especially the Administration Police.
Once this manipulation became apparent, Kenyans protested countrywide. This persisted for weeks. Lives were lost and property destroyed. Kenya seemed destined for the league of failed states. At that point, we had two options: We could allow the crisis to persist and the nation to descend into civil war as happened in the Ivory Coast (which split along ethnic and religious lines following an attempt to overthrow President Laurent Gbagbo in 2002).
In this scenario, everyone would have lost. There was the possibility of fragmentation of the country into different parts controlled by warlords as happened in Somalia. Blame would then have been attached to those who brought the crisis in the first place by manipulating the elections.
We concluded this was not the best option. We knew one side had gun power because of its control of the security forces but we had people power on our side. People power can also be turned into gun power. During times of crisis, people tend to acquire guns which can set off a destructive arms race. We didn’t want to go down this route. It was painful but necessary to negotiate to seek an an end to the impasse.
Friends of Kenya played a major role in getting both sides to talk. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was a key player. He called me at night and talked genuinely and passionately about developments happening in the country. He said he was willing to use his influence to facilitate negotiations. He also spoke to Mr Kibaki and relayed a similar message.
At that time, the US was playing a dubious role. The US Ambassador (Michael Ranneberger) was trying to manipulate diplomats in Nairobi. He was very quick to accept the results. (Then US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs) Jendayi Frazer also arrived and played a dubious and ambiguous role.
The British PM was more forthright and engaged genuinely. The day after we spoke, Mr Brown’s emissary called and said they were proposing that an African mediator be brought into the country. He suggested four names: Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former Sierra Leone president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Ghanaian President John Kufuor.
They asked me who I wanted to come over from that group and I suggested Mr Annan. The other side rejected this suggestion. They were still clinging to the view that there was no crisis and that this was a local problem and we had to look for internal solutions. Later they suggested they would be comfortable with Mr Kufuor. But they said Mr Kufuor was only coming as a guest of the President. Before Mr Kufuor arrived, a partial Cabinet was named.
We met Mr Kufuor at Inter-Continental Hotel and told him that the other side was behaving in a spiteful manner. We told him the naming of the Cabinet was in bad taste. He said they had told him that they had left some portfolios unfilled to accommodate us.
I told Mr Kufuor what they had left were crumbs, nothing serious. We gave him a condition that the Cabinet be dissolved before any talks commence. We also said we would not agree to a meeting in State House. We would only meet in Parliament or another neutral ground.
Enter Kofi Annan
At that time, with positions hardening on both sides, Mr Kufuor asked if I would accept it if he asked Mr Annan to come to negotiate on behalf of the African Union. I said Mr Annan was the mediator I had suggested in the first place. The other side also accepted Mr Annan.
Around the same time the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel came to town and assured us he would use his influence to ensure talks took place. Mr Tutu also came in and asked us to talk. I told him there could be no peace without justice as he well knew from his experience in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.
Former African presidents Kenneth Kaunda, Ketumile Masire, Joaquim Chissano and Benjamin Mkapa also came in and talked to us and visited the scenes of some of the clashes. It was against this background that Mr Annan arrived and began the talks. We appointed a negotiating team and agreed to negotiate in good faith.
Did ODM get a raw deal?
Given the conditions at the time, it was almost impossible to get a better deal than the one we negotiated. The crisis was causing more deaths with every passing day. We were dealing with a fairly belligerent and intransigent partner. When it turned out the negotiators could not strike a deal, Mr Annan and the other members of the Panel of Eminent African Personalities – Graca Machel and Mr Mkapa – decided to talk directly to the principals.
Those were very difficult hours. We met with Mr Kibaki together with (Tanzanian President Jakaya) Kikwete. I yielded ground and Mr Kibaki also yielded some ground to the disappointment of some hardliners in his camp. Towards the end, we suggested we needed to talk to our lawyers.
They called in Attorney-General Amos Wako but I said he is not my legal adviser. That’s when James Orengo came in and they made their case like attorneys before a jury. The Annan team then decided to sit down to draw the draft and we broke for lunch. As we were returning to go down to the ground floor of Harambee House to sign the deal, some hardliners in the Kibaki camp came to request a private meeting with him.
He dismissed them and said we were going to make an announcement and there was no time. When we signed the deal and addressed the nation, tempers came down. It was like a giant balloon had been deflated. The next day (March 1, 2008), I went with my family to Mombasa and at the airport, people said to me happy New Year. That’s how momentous an occasion it was.
In retrospect, do you feel betrayed, considering the frequent complaints you have raised that the state bureaucracy and your coalition partners have made it tough for you to implement the reform agenda?
I view this as a historic struggle. We were dealing with people who were schooled in the past. They were psychologically steeped in an era when the imperial presidency was everything. Democracy can only be practised by democrats. There are also issues of morality at play.
There is a reason why in African culture there is respect for age. Most cultures have a proverb stating kuishi kwingi ni kuona mengi. One of the qualities admired among older people is that they don’t tell lies. Shaking hands is like taking an oath. In 2002, we had an MoU signed and sealed and kept with a lawyer.
This time it was signed in public and entrenched in the constitution. But they still choose to misinterpret it and the Attorney-General offers advice that is factually and legally wrong. (But) I am one of those who believe that when you take two steps forward and one step back, that is progress. It is a historic struggle. That is why we will not walk out of the coalition. We will stay and fight for reforms because we know the circumstances which forced us into this arrangement.