ANALYSIS: Uhuru Kenyatta changes the game in Kenya
Patching things up with opposition leader Raila Odinga casts doubt on whether Kenyatta’s deputy will ever be in power, and on how strong ethnic ties really are
Nairobi — Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is redefining the nation’s tenuous political alliances in a move that’s likely to help him consolidate power during his final term and leave his deputy William Ruto out in the cold.
Kenyatta has patched up a long-standing dispute with the main opposition leader, Raila Odinga, easing months of political tension in the East African nation over last year’s disputed election. The rapprochement has cast doubt over whether Kenyatta will honour an informal deal to support Ruto’s bid for the top job in 2022 in return for helping him secure two presidential terms.
"Kenyatta is playing divide and conquer by co-opting the opposition into his administration," said Robert Besseling, executive director of political risk advisory firm EXX Africa. "If Kenyatta endorses Ruto as his successor at this stage, he would become a lame-duck president for the remainder of his term. By reaching out to different political groups he leaves the succession in suspense and his own political stability more assured."
Odinga rejected the outcome of two presidential elections last year — the first was annulled by the country’s supreme court, while he and his supporters boycotted the second. In March, Kenyatta and Odinga agreed to work together to end political discord, and last month announced the formation of a joint team to implement new development programmes. They’re also considering a plan to re-introduce the post of prime minister and two deputies, as part of an initiative to boost political inclusion.
It’s unclear whether a political re-alignment or a change to the structure of government will bring longer term stability to Kenya
"The presidential system as currently exercised in Kenya is still a strong tool for exclusion," Odinga wrote in an opinion piece in the local Sunday Nation newspaper.
It’s unclear whether a political re-alignment or a change to the structure of government will bring longer term stability to Kenya, where most elections since the advent of multi-party democracy in 1991 have been marred by violence.
Parties have tended to revolve around leaders who can garner support among more than 40 ethnic groups, and alliances have typically been based on whether they can win votes rather than because they see eye-to-eye on policy.
The partnership between Kenyatta, who is a Kikuyu, the largest group, and Ruto, a member of the Kalenjin community, the third biggest, was one such pact built on shaky foundations.
The two were on opposite sides of clashes after the 2007 vote that left at least 1,100 people dead, before they teamed up to contest the 2013 vote under the banner of the Jubilee Alliance. The International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted them both for their alleged roles in the violence but dropped the cases after the government refused to co-operate with its probe.
Speculation about a degeneration in their relationship has been fueled by Ruto’s absence from several key political events, most notably Kenyatta’s announcement of his cabinet in January and his reconciliation with Odinga in March.
"The pact between Odinga and Kenyatta is a sword that cuts both ways," Murithi Mutiga, an analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said by phone from Nairobi. "It has stabilised the country, brought a sense of predictability and removed the cloud of uncertainty. But its effect is also to add a level of uncertainty to the Kenyatta-Ruto pact."
Presidential spokesperson Manoah Esipisu didn’t directly respond to questions as to whether Kenyatta intended sidelining his deputy, saying only that he had outlined his reasons for reconciling with Odinga in his annual state of the nation address. Ruto’s spokesperson, David Mugonyi, didn’t answer three calls and a text message seeking comment.
Odinga and Kenyatta want to unite the country, not sideline Ruto, according to Edwin Sifuna, secretary-general of Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement.
Odinga could ultimately be the biggest beneficiary of the political shake-up — he would be the stand-out favourite to win the 2022 elections if he secures Kenyatta’s endorsement and his health holds out — he’ll be 77 by the time of the vote. A former prime minister, Odinga has failed on four attempts to win the presidency. He is a Luo, the fourth-largest ethnic group.
Odinga and Kenyatta have said they don’t want to discuss the 2022 vote yet.
A Kenyatta-Odinga alliance could rope in Gideon Moi, the Kalenjin leader of the Kenya African National Union party and youngest son of former president Daniel arap Moi. Several other leaders of the National Super Alliance, a group of four opposition parties backed by a range of ethnic groups that united behind Odinga to contest the last vote, could also join.
"I have no doubt that Raila will be a presidential candidate in the next election with tacit approval and support of Uhuru," said Herman Manyora, a political analyst at the University of Nairobi. "We’re seeing an axis comprising Uhuru, Raila and Moi. Raila is likely to serve one term and pass the baton to [Moi]."