Hardline positions threaten Kenya political ‘ceasefire’ ahead of talks

Saturday April 15 2023
Azimio La Umoja for negotiations team

Members of the team picked by Kenya’s opposition Azimio La Umoja for negotiations with the ruling Kenya Kwanza alliance. The parliament-led bipartisan talks agreed could collapse prematurely after the two parties took hardline positions on various issues even before the first meeting. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL |NMG


The parliament-led bipartisan negotiations agreed between Kenya’s President William Ruto and opposition leader Raila Odinga could collapse prematurely after the two parties took hardline positions on various issues even before the first meeting.

Whereas Mr Odinga has announced that mass protests to agitate for a lower cost of living and electoral justice may resume in under two weeks, the government has stated that the talks will strictly deal with the ongoing process of constituting electoral body.

Mr Odinga had on April 2 called off the weekly protests by opposition supporters, which shut down Nairobi and some western Kenya towns in the second half of March, to give the negotiations a chance following a political truce with the President.

But on Thursday, he told a meeting with civil society organisations in Nairobi that the demonstrations would return after the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadhan and proceed alongside the parliamentary talks.

The ruling Kenya Kwanza coalition on Tuesday picked its team of seven legislators to negotiate with their opposition counterparts, but was categorical on issues that will be put on the table.

Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga

Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga addressing his supporters in Nairobi on March 30, 2023 during mass demonstrations. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


First major test

The 14-member taskforce faces its first major test of agreeing terms of engagement during its first meeting, most likely next week, after days of bitter exchanges between ruling coalition and opposition politicians over proposals presented by either side. A major sticking issue is the demand by Mr Odinga that the president agrees to a forensic audit of the electoral commission’s electronic results transmission and storage systems to verify the true winner of the last presidential election.

The president’s political allies see acceding to a forensic audit as giving the opposition leader a platform to continue questioning the president’s legitimacy.  The Supreme Court upheld Ruto’s victory by a narrow margin in the August 9, 2022 election after hearing a petition by Odinga in September.

Kenya’s opposition leader Raila

Kenya’s opposition leader Raila addressing a gathering in Nairobi on April 13, 2023 where he announced that public protests will resume after the end of Ramadhan. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NMG

Whistle-blower dossier

But the Azimio coalition leader maintains his victory was stolen, citing a contested whistle-blower dossier alleging massive vote rigging and a public statement by four dissenting former electoral commissioners describing the results used by the former chairman of the elections management body, Wafula Chebukati, to declare Ruto the winner as opaque. A veteran of Kenya’s pro-democracy movements of the 1980s, Mr Odinga took his grievances to the streets late last month, forcing President Ruto to agree to talks after the protests increasingly became violent and threatened the country’s fragile economy and political stability.

With his Thursday announcement that the protests are to resume later this month, the Azimio leader has thrown a spanner in the works for the parliamentary negotiations that the President had hoped would relieve the pressure on him to deal with the high cost of living that has seen his approval ratings fall.

While his agitation appeared to lose momentum with the early April truce, his capacity to mobilise another round of protests and cause the Ruto administration more trouble is not in doubt.