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Handshake will cure problems facing the country, says Raila

Sunday March 10 2019

Uhuru and Raila in Siaya

ODM leader Raila Odinga welcomes President Uhuru Kenyatta to Siaya County for an official tour on December 14, 2018. PHOTO | SAMUEL MIRING'U | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

MACHARIA GAITHO
By MACHARIA GAITHO
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On the first anniversary of the historic March 9 handshake that calmed the post-election tensions, Opposition leader Raila Odinga responded to questions.

A year has elapsed since President Uhuru Kenyatta and yourself shook hands on the steps of Harambee House to signal the beginning of a quest for national unity. Apart from “cessation of hostilities”, has anything really been achieved on the outlined agenda?

Cessation of hostilities is important. It remains an achievement that no one should belittle. We know too many nations that got to the precipice and have never been able to pull back. So nobody should talk as if cessation of hostilities is a non-event. Apart from that, we were very clear on March 9, 2018 that achievements were going to be delivered in a structured manner through an agreed framework. We appointed a team, the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), to examine the issues and recommend solutions. That team is working; the time frame it was given has not elapsed. I want Kenyans to give that team a chance.

The work of the BBI Task Force has largely been conducted behind closed doors, leaving the public unsure of what exactly is going on. Might a more open and transparent process answer lingering questions, ease suspicion and restore public confidence in the process?

The BBI is very open. The media has not given it the space probably because BBI does not lend itself to the combative, slash-and-burn brand of public engagement our media loves and promotes. But it is wrong to say BBI is secretive. It has held public hearings in at least 19 counties and they are moving to western Kenya this week. How can a team holding hearings in public places be called secretive? It is the media that are pursuing their own agenda. 

Before the Task Force starts to sift through the presentations and make its recommendations, might there be need for national dialogue – a ‘Kenya we want’ conference to make it more inclusive to give a sense of ownership?

The BBI is listening to Kenyans. People from 19 counties have spoken. More are lined up to speak. They are speaking about the kind of country they want. Nothing can be inclusive as getting the people to speak directly to the team about their fears, dreams and aspirations. However, should the BBI team advise that such a conference is needed, then we will deal with it. 

From the outset, “Building Bridges” was sold as an initiative by President Kenyatta and you to solve the historical grievances and suspicions – since the time of Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga – that have contributed to tense or violent political contests for more than a generation. Might that not have reduced it to a Kenyatta-Odinga or Kikuyu-Luo peace pact rather than a search for national healing and reconciliation?

As I have said, the BBI team is out there. They are not asking those appearing to present views whether they are Jaramogi or Jomo Kenyatta supporters or whether they are Raila (Mr Odinga) or Uhuru (Mr Kenyatta) supporters. Everyone is allowed to speak. I, therefore, don’t understand how a team speaking to all Kenyans out there can be a Raila-Uhuru affair.

Political temperatures have certainly calmed. You’ve dropped your claims to the presidency and Nasa has abandoned agitation for fresh election. However, new fault lines have opened up, as evidenced with the fact that Deputy President William Ruto’s constituency is clearly uncomfortable. Did you resolve one area of conflict and open up another?

At some stage, we will have to decide whether we have a country or not – or whether we want to act in the best interest of that country or not. In going for the BBI and the handshake, the President and I believed we were acting in the best interests of our nation. Personally, I believe I have spent most of my adult life studying, understanding and addressing the problems of Kenya as a nation. It is a role I intend to continue doing for the remainder of my life. I will always act in a way I perceive to be beneficial to the nation.

A sizeable populace in Jubilee’s core constituency (President Kenyatta’s Mt Kenya region and DP Ruto’s Rift Valley) is clearly hostile to the handshake and your enhanced role in national affairs. How do you address such concerns?

I have always had a role in national affairs. I don’t remember a time in my adult life when I have not been involved in national affairs and as I have said, I will continue to be involved. Whenever I feel the nation needs me, I will make myself available. It is a question of what I can do for my country, not what my country can do for me. That is the lesson I picked from my late father and most of the founding fathers I was privileged to meet.

Your Nasa co-principals – Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetang’ula – felt isolated after you went into the handshake without consulting them. Has Nasa met since then in an effort to bring everybody aboard? Is Nasa dead?

That is water under the bridge. There is no enmity between us in Nasa. But as I have said, we acted in the interest of the nation.

One consequence of the ‘handshake’ is that Nasa abandoned coordinated effort to keep the government on its toes. It is no longer operating as a team and there is a clear vacuum in opposition leadership. Except possibly for Mudavadi’s lone voice, there is nobody to pressure the government on such matters as economic mismanagement, the growing budget deficit, unfulfilled development promises and ballooning debt burden. Did you sell your soul?

We do not have to act as a team in order to pressure the government. It is only between 2013 and 2017 that Opposition acted as a team. Otherwise, over the years, and in many countries, each Opposition party acts alone to keep government in check. And there are many ways of ensuring the government does the right thing. We do not have to call press conferences and street protests if the government has shown it is willing to engage the Opposition on matters of national interest. When you look at the nine-point BBI agenda, you see all areas of concern are covered. We are pursuing everything that will make life better for Kenyans and that will ensure government works for the people. It is only the mode of doing it that has changed.

The “handshake” and the war against corruption, taken together, have served to stoke loud new battles between you and Mr Ruto. Does that compromise the quest for peace?

As a country, we will have to decide whether we would rather let corruption continue for the sake of peace, or fight corruption no matter the consequences. It is not for me to say. As at now, I think Kenyans want corruption fought and I am with them on that and willing to lead from the front.

Does premature jostling ahead of the 2022 elections endanger the prospects for BBI?

BBI is doing its work independently of what politicians are saying – give them a chance to do it. There is no evidence that they have been derailed or that they have been swayed.

You have been insistent that there will be a referendum, but the public has no idea what the referendum questions are. Is the campaign premature ahead of concrete proposals?

I have been saying that some of the changes our country needs would require a referendum, but whether we have one or not will depend on the recommendations of BBI. I have not dictated to them to come up with a referendum.

The most divisive issue has been proposals for re-introduction of the post of prime minister and various deputies to achieve more inclusive government. Would a PM be elected by popular vote or by Parliament?

This is jumping the gun. People are currently talking randomly and voicing their thinking. Let’s wait for the BBI.

There have been accusations that you seek changes in governance structure to get power that you could not win at the ballot.

With or without constitutional changes, there will always be voting in Kenya. This is not a monarchy or a military dictatorship. Leaders will always have to face voters, so the idea that one can be pushing changes to get leadership is cheap and simplistic, otherwise we might as well have left the single party regime to stay. We seek changes to improve our governance and our country.

In the event these changes are adopted, will you be gunning for president or prime minister in 2022?

I don’t want to get involved in prophecies and predictions. I want to help Kenyans to focus on what can be achieved between now and 2022, not from 2022 going forward.

After one year, the problems with BBI are evident. Looking at these challenges, what would you do differently?

I don’t see problems with BBI. It had challenges with funding which has now been resolved. It is on the ground and by the end of this week, the team will have covered close to half of our 47 counties.

The anti-corruption fight and referendum talk have generated a lot of political heat, and in addition we have the upcoming national census and constituency boundaries. Are we biting more than we can chew this year?

What would you wish we stopped doing? Do we stop fighting corruption? Do we stop holding the national census? Do we stop perfecting our constitution? Truth is, people who don’t want change will always look for excuses to postpone change. I don’t want Kenyans to buy that cheap trap.

A fiercely contested referendum might be politically divisive. Might it be wiser to first seek a broad national consensus before calling a referendum?

Again, I don’t want to jump the gun. I want the BBI to be allowed to do its work.