Kenya: A reform deadline for the rivals

Politicians gathering in Nairobi and Geneva this week candidly admit that time is fast running out for the Grand Coalition to implement its promised reforms, without which Kenya will face more chaos at the next elections due in 2012. Such an analysis, although shared across party lines, does little to galvanise action among the political class. For most, the dominant issues revolve around the mooted candidacies and alliances for the 2012 elections. The fact that politicians are putting themselves forward as presidential candidates presupposes there will be no substantive changes in the constitution – such as cutting the president’s executive powers – before the next election.

For civic activists, this pause – or possibly halt – in the planned political reforms is very damaging. The Kofi Annan Foundation’s 30-31 March conference in Geneva on progress in the implementation of the reform programme became an instant controversy in Nairobi, which speaks volumes about Kenyan politicians’ priorities.

Instead of addressing substantive issues such as the obstacles to reform, senior figures in President Mwai Kibaki‘s Party of National Unity chose to feign outrage after incorrectly claiming that their President had been summoned to a civil society conference by the Annan Foundation without due protocol. The PNU insisted the conference was an attempt to renegotiate the accord that it had signed with Prime Minister Raila Odinga‘s Orange Democratic Movement a year ago. So the PNU version drummed up nationalist press coverage, providing a diversion from the central question asked at the conference and almost constantly among the political class in Nairobi: why is there so little progress on implementing the scheduled programme of electoral, judicial and economic reforms as part of the Grand Coalition accord?

The subsidiary question is why the government still acts as if it has a right of impunity for itself and its business allies on issues such as corrupt enrichment, while at the same time it has done nothing to rein in the murderous tendencies within the security forces now practising targeted assassinations of human rights activists (AC Vol 50 No 6). Some 20 activists have received credible threats against their lives and are in hiding.

A pause in hostilities
As several speakers at the Geneva conference argued, Kenya’s leading politicians now see last year’s accord as a ‘cease-fire’ agreement – a pause in hostilities which might have permitted a more constructive approach to tackling the causes of last year’s political violence. If not, then the cease-fire will give the more ambitious politicians the space to regroup and position themselves to benefit from the changing alignments. Alongside high-minded talk of institutional reform, formerly bitter rivals such as Odinga and Justice Minister Martha Karua are forging alliances in preparation for 2012. Karua’s transformation from crouching tiger to baby-kissing politician at the conference surprised even hardened observers of the Kenyan political scene.

The ‘untouchables’ alliance – not represented in Geneva – groups Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta (marshalling a substantial Kikuyu constituency) and Agriculture Minister William Ruto (making a strong pitch for the leadership of the Kalenjin in the Rift Valley that saw some of the worst of the political violence last year). Kenyatta and Ruto were named by the state-funded Kenya National Commission on Human Rights as organisers and financiers of the violence, and they have been widely referred to in other investigations. Alongside these potential presidential candidates and alliances of candidates, there are tentative moves by Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula and Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi.

The success of last year’s mediation process – a joint venture between Kenyan diplomats such as Bethuel Kiplagat (known for his work in Mozambique), General Lazarus Sumbeiywo and foreign mediators such as Annan – emphasised Kenyans’ lack of trust in their own institutions. But the main weakness of the accord was its failure to secure commitments from all sides on dealing with impunity and the lack of accountability. This has pushed proposals for referring the perpetrators of political violence to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or to local tribunals into a highly politicised arena. When Parliament rejected proposals for a local tribunal (albeit with international judges) to try perpetrators, some opposition came from MPs who were hoping for jobs in a future government led by someone vulnerable to prosecution. It now appears that this year’s scandal (AC Vol 50 No 4) over the distribution of state-subsidised maize was linked to attempts to buy votes for those politicians vulnerable to prosecution.

The best chance of success seems to be a truth and reconciliation commission, but one lacking the South African Commission’s powers to grant immunity from prosecution. Civic activists in Geneva were sceptical that a local tribunal would be able to cut through the political protection rackets, although such a tribunal may be allowed to operate under constraints – in preference to troublesome referrals to the ICC. ‘Kenya is not El Beshir‘s Sudan,’ one politician remarked, exasperated at the idea of a referral to the ICC. Few politicians in Geneva or Nairobi seem willing to face the reality that this is one of Kenya’s most unpopular governments. Many of the MPs and ministers, whose tax-free annual emoluments exceed those of US Congress, came to power on the back of chaos.

The view from the grassroots is damning. The Grand Coalition is neither keeping to its commitments on political reform nor does it seem motivated to promote employment and cut poverty, or to improve food distribution and healthcare. Across the ethnic battle lines, activists and aid workers hear bitter complaints about wealthy politicians supplying guns and pangas (machetes) and disappearing when the bullets start to fly.

Civic activists such as Gladwell Otieno and John Githongo speak of a wider mobilisation beyond the urban centres. So did Annan in his concluding remarks and proposals for a national conference-style dialogue on a new constitution to drive broader reforms of the judicial system, the electoral commission, security services and prison system, and representivity across the government services.

To stand any chance of success, it would need the broadest social backing – including the churches, trades unions, student groups, professionals and women’s associations. Those who feel threatened by the reform of the police service, public service and judiciary will fight back hard. On top of the popular pressure, regional organisations and outside mediators may need to talk to Kibaki and Odinga to show commitment to the reforms.

Parliament has adopted the reports of the special commissions under last year’s accord but is delaying the etablishment of an independent and efficient electoral commission. That blocks a long line of reforms: without a credible commission, there can be no constitutional referendum, no national census, voters’ register and redrawing of electoral boundaries. The same sort of sectional politicking that is holding back reform of the electoral commission is slowing down progress on picking members for the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission.

Several activists are calling for the sacking of three public officers who are blocking reform – Police Chief Hussein Ali, Chief Justice Evan Gicheru and Head of Public Service Francis Muthaura. So far, Prime Minister Odinga has warded off such calls, but the targeted assassinations and the growing crisis over the obstruction of reform means he may have to act against these officials if he wants to hold together his own support base.