PM Odinga hopeful for Kenya, Zimbabwe coalitions

NAIROBI (Reuters) – Prime Minister Raila Odinga has forecast Kenya's rocky and heavily criticised coalition government will stick together until a 2012 election despite critics' predictions of a split or collapse before then.

"We are working very harmoniously together," Odinga said of his relationship with President Mwai Kibaki.

One of Africa’s severest critics of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, the Kenyan premier also urged the world to respond positively to efforts by that country’s prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, to restore financial aid.

Odinga and Tsvangirai, who are friends, are both partners in coalition governments with presidents they say stole elections that they fought as opposition candidates for the top job.

"That coalition in Zimbabwe is modelled on our power-sharing arrangement," Odinga said in an interview on the lawn of his Nairobi home on Sunday. "I was myself very pessimistic about Robert Mugabe as a reformer … I think the best way to get rid of Mugabe gradually is by empowering Tsvangirai."

Despite their distaste for Mugabe, Europe and the United States should respond positively to Tsvangirai’s tour to drum up financial assistance for Zimbabwe’s unity government, he said.

"If Tsvangirai can demonstrate he can deliver, that way Mugabe’s power will begin to wane … The aid should be tied to reforms and tightly monitored, so that it does not end up in the hands of Mugabe and his cronies."

Mugabe said both Tsvangirai and himself were in "difficult" situations, with entrenched bureaucracies up against them.  

Many Kenyans say the Kibaki-Odinga coalition has become dysfunctional, with distrust and wrangling between both sides holding up political reforms, measures to alleviate economic hardship, and the anti-corruption fight.

The pair came together to end post-election violence in 2008 that killed at least 1,300 people and paralysed parts of the economy. Though they restored peace, there is widespread disillusionment with the government’s record in the last year.

ECONOMIC PROSPECTS

Various civil society groups, and even the Anglican Church, have called for new elections before the next scheduled ones at the end of 2012. But Odinga said that was melodramatic talk.

"Certainly yes, I have confidence this coalition will stay together until the next general election, and I am also confident that we can deliver the reforms with the support of the international community," he said.

"It is not all the time that we agree as coalition partners … but we try to negotiate those disagreements so consensus is reached. There are areas where there’s been progress, but there are areas where there’s still room for improvement, where you encounter resistance to some changes… It will take time."

Odinga said private business leaders’ accusations that government paralysis was hurting the Kenyan economy as much as the global financial downturn were wide of the mark.

"I have a very close relationship with the business sector, and I don’t see that there are any impediments that will hamper the economic growth coming as a result of disagreement within the coalition," he said.

Kenya’s 7.1 percent growth in 2007 plummeted to 1.7 percent in 2008, due to the election crisis, drought and the global scenario. The government predicts 2-3 percent this year.  

"We expect it might be better, but we don’t want to tell people it’s going to be three percent or four, then eventually it comes down to two or less than two percent. That’s why we are giving those pessimistic figures," Odinga said.

"We are expecting that next year the economy will rise, we think the worst is past and real growth will start next year."

Odinga, a charismatic crowd-worker, said he understood Kenyans’ unhappiness. "The people are very angry because they are hungry," he said, noting widespread economic hardships.

"Even in the USA, even in Europe, support of the government is not constant. There are times when support is very low, then it comes back again, and so on. I don’t think that what we are seeing here is unique."

Odinga, who comes from the same Luo ethnic group as Barack Obama’s Kenyan father, said he was not disappointed the U.S. president’s first visit to sub-Saharan Africa would be to Ghana.

"Ghana is symbolic. It was the first African country to gain independence from Britain in 1957. Ghana is very advanced in its transition to a democratic form of governance," he said.

"If Obama were to come to Kenya as the first country in Africa, it would send some very wrong signals that he is coming here merely because of some organic relationship that he has with this country. So in fact it is good."