Kenyan weekend unity government bonding retreat ends in a major fall-out

NAIROBI – Kenya’s troubled coalition government has plunged deeper into crisis after a weekend retreat intended to heal its rifts fell apart because members could not agree what issues they had gathered to discuss.

Mwai Kibaki, president, and Raila Odinga, prime minister, quit their safari park retreat by helicopter on Saturday having succeeded only in underlining the depth of the rivalry that has paralysed the one-year-old coalition. 

The two men, former electoral rivals who signed a power-sharing deal to end last year’s bloody post-election crisis, are facing a backlash from ordinary Kenyans angered and disillusioned by the coalition’s policy inaction and corruption.

The weekend retreat was called as part of an effort to win back public support by showing the coalition was not indifferent to peoples’ concerns, but it never got started because the two sides arrived with different agendas. Mr Odinga told reporters on his return to Nairobi: “We want to be honest with Kenyans and report to them that unfortunately we were unable to agree on anything during this retreat.

“We were unable to agree on tackling the most pressing issues, and therefore the meeting collapsed.”

The prime minister’s half of the coalition wanted to discuss a long list of specific issues, including some of those responsible for the government’s rock bottom popularity: alleged extra-judicial killings by police death squads and the weakening economy.

But Mr Kibaki’s side had arrived at the retreat with a shorter and more general list of discussion points. “PNU [Mr Kibaki’s party] saw this as a public relations exercise,” James Orengo, lands minister and an Odinga ally, told the Financial Times.

Mr Kibaki has not acknowledged the coalition’s difficulties as explicitly in recent months as Mr Odinga.

But to ordinary Kenyans the collapse of the retreat is likely to reinforce a belief that most politicians are more concerned with their own interests than those of the country.

At a conference in Geneva last week to assess the peace accord, many of the Kenyan participants warned that failure to carry out reforms agreed as part of the deal – including changes to the constitution and land allocation – risked provoking an even greater crisis than the violence last year.

In spite of the coalition’s paralysis, western diplomats do not expect it to fall apart in the near future because that could precipitate a new election, for which neither side is prepared. Financial Times