JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Kenya’s fractious government is facing its biggest challenge, as its two top leaders – President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga – face off in a corruption scandal.
At issue is the simple question of who is in charge, and whether the shaky, bickering coalition government will hold together long enough to pass a new Constitution that will make such political crises a thing of the past. If the government falls apart, the consequences could be severe, including a return of the ethnic violence that killed 1,300 and displaced hundreds of thousands after the elections of December 2007.
“This is the biggest test for the coalition government,” says Wafula Okumu, a researcher on East Africa for the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane (Pretoria), South Africa. “This coalition government was always intended to be a transitional government, and it is not viable for the future.” But if the government falls apart now, he adds, before Kenya’s parliament creates a new constitution and new system for credible elections, the country could descend into “another round of violence.”
Once a regional model
Long considered the most stable, most functional country in Eastern Africa – with a prosperous agricultural sector, a multiparty democracy with a vibrant free press, and with a port and highway and rail system that supplies most of its neighbors with food and fuel – Kenya has fast turned into a country that seems perpetually at the brink of political collapse.
As the base for most United Nations and aid organizations working in East Africa, including Sudan, Kenya has become too important to the international community to simply let fail. But getting Kenya’s political leaders to get along – as former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan did in January and February of 2008 – has become increasingly difficult process.
The current crisis began last week, as an investigation revealed that top members of Kibaki’s cabinet had sold off the nation’s food stocks of maize at the height of a drought, and had diverted millions of dollars of US and British direct aid intended for Kenyan schools. The results of the investigation were intended to remain silent, but leaks to the media showed that the scandal mars members of both Prime Minister Odinga’s party, Orange Democratic Movement, as well as President Kibaki’s Party of National Unity. Agriculture Minister William Ruto belongs to the ODM, while Education Minister Sam Ongeri belongs to the PNU.
This weekend, after both the US and British governments suspended education aid to Kenya because of the scandal, Odinga asked for Mr. Ruto and Mr. Ongeri to resign until the investigations were complete. But President Kibaki overruled Odinga, and reinstated the two ministers, saying that the prime minister did not have the power to fire ministers.
Bring back Kofi Annan
On Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi defended the Prime Minister, and called on former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to return to Kenya to help resolve the crisis. Mr. Annan is in many ways the midwife of the current coalition government, having mediated the violent post-election crisis where both Kibaki and Odinga claimed victory in the Dec. 27, 2007 elections.
Odinga’s stand against corruption – even against members of his own party – puts him in good stead with Kenyans tired of leaders who seek political office merely for personal profit. Recent polls show that Odinga is the most trusted politician in Kenya, with just under 40 percent support from voters. It also plays well for international donors such as the US and the British government, who have increased pressure on the Kenyan government to get its financial house in order, or to risk losing future foreign aid.
“[Odinga] took action. He got the first resignations to happen because of corruption. He forced Kibaki to act,” says Aly-Khan Satchu, a political and economic analyst and owner of Rich Management in Nairobi. “[Odinga] is showing the world, ‘I’m trying to do something about corruption,’ so he’s going to come out smiling.”
Even as he reinstated the two ministers linked to the corruption probes, President Kibaki was quick to note that this should not be seen as an endorsement of corruption. Kenya’s fight against graft “will be successfully fought when we do so in accordance with the Constitution and the due process of law,” Mr. Kibaki told reporters.
Yet while Raila Odinga may look good to the international community, his position within his own ODM party is weakened, as former allies within ODM, including the embattled agriculture minister, throw their support behind Kibaki in a new tribal alliance of Kikuyus, Kalenjins, and Kambas. “If you do the tribal math, Raila’s in trouble, because he rode on the back of Ruto and the Kalenjins to get elected,” notes Mr. Satchu.
Yet, if past political crises are a guide, the international community will intervene to push Kibaki and Odinga back to the negotiation table, diplomats and analysts say, a fact that puts tribal politics on the backburner. Says Satchu: “This is a key moment.”