The meeting between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga on Friday would have been a towering moment of nation building if it was not tangled in the messy aftermath of the nullified August 8 General Election and the controversial October 26 repeat vote. On face value, this is a mutually beneficial truce between two deeply bruised gladiators. Its political context, however, suggests something less innocent.
Whichever way you look at it, Mr Kenyatta is the de facto and de jure chief executive with full control of a unified and muscular state apparatus but with a clear legitimacy deficit. Mr Odinga himself has the solid support of a national constituency that feels hard done by successive post-colonial administrations, which he has leveraged to deny Mr Kenyatta the legitimacy a tidy closure of the 2017 election would bring. Mr Odinga’s belligerence has also driven him into a political cul-de-sac. Swearing himself in as the “people’s president” on January 30 ingratiated Mr Odinga and provided hope to a deeply disillusioned constituency, but alienated a key pillar of his political authority — the patronage of an international community that, like his constituency, shares the promise of progressive politics.
It is impossible to dismiss the potential of this meeting to rethread the frayed fabric of Kenya’s nationhood, but that is to be blind to the obvious. In one move, Mr Kenyatta has rebooted Kenya’s politics in a way that forces every major player to ground zero, presenting each with a delightful bowl of risks and opportunities. That includes him and his Deputy William Ruto whose conciliatory tone in the last month makes it naive to imagine that he had no hint about the Harambee House meeting.
It would appear this is a calculated move by an Executive confident that the political resources and control of the State apparatus gives them an advantage over anyone, however rough the political terrain. Mr Kenyatta is beautifully playing a game of risks.
Since the October 26 elections, Mr Ruto has appeared to scale back on his role as Mr Kenyatta’s political twin, signalling a more unilateral style of leadership in President Kenyatta’s second term. That means that even Mr Ruto is aware of how the political game is about to change, and his calm demeanour suggests that he is ready to play.
Mr Kenyatta’s predicament is that he will retire young with a lifetime ahead of him. With a two-term limit, a president sets his legacy within the first few months of his presidency. Today, Mr Kenyatta is preoccupied with something more banal than legacy — his circumstances after retirement. Mr Odinga has successfully manipulated popular disillusionment and cast Mr Kenyatta as the odious totem-head of a sinister political establishment. It is an uncomfortable reputation to go into retirement with, even with the comfort of a friendly successor and political establishment. Mr Kenyatta’s outreach to Mr Odinga blunts him as the tool of this disillusionment.
Mr Odinga is still very viable as a serious presidential candidate, but his warming up to Mr Kenyatta means that he will have less appetite, or capacity, to wage a dangerous street fight. But the President’s outreach now gives Mr Odinga an unlikely chance to redeem his stature as the edifice — no matter how cracked — of Kenya’s progressive politics.
Mr Kenyatta has the short-term to worry about too. Mr Odinga might be “jobless”, but he wields substantive influence, including in Parliament, that can jam Mr Kenyatta’s legislative agenda.
Mr Kenyatta will likely be aware of the risk of entangling himself with a particularly capable enemy that has a reason, capacity and intent to destroy him. Mr Odinga has repeatedly shown little shame in “co-operating” with the incumbent, and has twice successfully persuaded his support base to come along with the promise of state guaranteed booty. But he has also twice pulled the rug from under an incumbent’s feet.
The difference now is that Mr Odinga is exposed to the disappointment of unresolved constituencies that already read the meeting with Mr Kenyatta as an obscene reconciliation of two factions of Kenya’s political establishment. For Mr Odinga, this is also an opportunity to pre-empt political isolation. In the short term, he cannot trust his orphaned allies not to seek accommodation with Mr Kenyatta at his expense. In the long term, it is a gambit for a better end-game — constitutional amendments that will expand the executive, and probably improve the odds of his preferred successor.
Mr Kenyatta’s biggest risk is to alienate a reliable partner in Mr Ruto. A Kenyatta-Odinga rapprochement disrupts Mr Ruto’s exclusive access to the President by bringing in a third player. That makes a crowd of three proud alpha males who will quickly get nauseated by the other’s testosterone. If Mr Ruto bolts, it confirms the “Ruto betrayal hypothesis” that is gaining currency ahead of 2022, itself a euphemism for a more incendiary ethnophobic rhetoric.
Already, twining himself with Mr Kenyatta casts Mr Odinga as a false prophet that promised Canaan only to transactionalise his political support, leave behind an orphaned litter of principals and a disillusioned section of the population that feels done in. Mr Moses Wetang’ula, Mr Musalia Mudavadi and Mr Kalonzo Musyoka are modestly inspiring politicians, who already feel twice betrayed by Mr Odinga, and might find comfort yet leaning on Mr Ruto’s spine. The Deputy President’s advantage is that he has other alternatives to choose from in the trio’s regional bases.
This rapprochement similarly creates risks for Mr Ruto in his home base. Many in his core constituency were less enthusiastic than him to dissolve URP into Jubilee. He rode roughshod over Rift Valley’s aversion to their Mt Kenya kin. If this rapprochement leads to his marginalisation, he will be hard-pressed to give a good account of Jubilee’s returns. Mr Ruto’s support at home partly rests on the fact that he is presently the most viable candidate to capture the presidency, and this gives him a clear advantage over his sibling rival, Mr Gideon Moi. A rupture within the Jubilee Party will, however, make Kanu more acceptable across Kalenjin Rift Valley and improve Mr Moi’s appeal at home and nationally, if nothing else, as a counterweight to Mr Ruto.
Mr Ruto’s singular agenda today is to win the presidency in 2022. His trouble is that even if he is successful in inheriting Mr Odinga’s Nasa orphans, he has to successfully rewire Kenyan politics away from ethnic solidarity, and craft a new platform to build an electorally viable alliance of “small tribes” to fire his presidential plan. That assumes that the presidency will have much value left in it.
Seen in realpolitik terms, Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga have a common interest in changing the constitution. Both head Kenya’s two largest parties, and a parliamentary system would logically rig the field in their favour. For Mr Kenyatta, this means that he is able to wield power beyond his presidency as leader of Jubilee. It is more comfortable than entirely relying on the benevolence of a successor.
For Mr Odinga, a parliamentary system makes ODM’s strength the baseline for his political power, and guarantees a formal role in the State system. Besides, any major tremor within Jubilee would make him the front-runner in 2022. Such an arrangement would tether Mr Ruto to Mr Kenyatta, and means that succeeding Mr Kenyatta will be a continuation of the UhuRuto co-presidency.
Politics is a game of risks. Absolute victory means having an absolute control over risks. In one masterful stroke, Mr Kenyatta has pushed everyone into a minefield of risks. What is about to follow is a dangerous game of balancing risk. Mr Kenyatta’s control of the State apparatus affords him some comfort, but even he must play this dangerous game. The future is what it becomes.
Dr Kiprono Chesang is a Public Affairs Consultant. Views expressed here are his own. Twitter - @KipronoChesang