A new round of bipartisan talks is set to begin in attempts to resolve Kenya’s political dispute that triggered widespread anti-government protests across the country in the past three months.
The negotiators – five from each side – were until Friday last week engaging to set the date for first meeting, which will set the agenda for the talks initiated following a face-to-face meeting between President William Ruto and opposition leader Raila Odinga facilitated by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo.
Unlike in the previous talks that collapsed in June after Mr Odinga-led Azimio Coalition pulled out, alleging lack of commitment by the governing side, the negotiating teams include members from outside Parliament.
Former Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka, who served as former President Uhuru Kenyatta’s peace envoy in South Sudan, is the most high-profile figure in the new round of talks having been picked to lead the opposition delegation.
The ruling Kenya Kwanza coalition’s team is led by National Assembly Majority Leader Kimani Ichung’wa.
The joint negotiations committee, however, starts its work against the backdrop of public pessimism about the commitment of the top leadership of the two coalitions to the cause.
In contrast to the abortive April negotiations whose start was preceded by separate TV addresses by President Ruto and Mr Odinga, the announcement of the latest round has been relatively low-key, with the task this time falling on the parliamentary majority and minority leaders.
Two statements sent to the newsrooms by the two parliamentary leaders within minutes of each other last Saturday contradicted each other on the agenda of the negotiations, which raises questions on the commitments by the two team to a striking a political settlement from the talks.
The two sides also appear keen to bring to the table some contentious demands in addition to the same issues that they couldn’t agree on in back in April, setting the stage for another tense round of talks.
Kenya Kwanza, for instance, wants the opposition to renounce ‘violent protests’ as a condition for the talks, and the agenda be restricted to the reconstitution of the electoral commission and constitutional amendments to implement the two-thirds gender rule for elective and appointive public offices, ring-fence the constituency development fund, establish the office of the Leader of the Opposition and entrench the office of Prime Cabinet Secretary.
Azimio Coalition is meanwhile demanding accountability for its supporters killed by police during the recent anti-government protests.
They want discussions to focus on the cost of living, an audit of the electoral commission’s electronic results transmission and tallying system in last year’s election, and rules to discourage defections by opposition MPs to the government side.
On Wednesday, President Ruto declined to respond to a journalist’s question on the agenda of the talks during a news conference he had convened at State House to speak about issues relating to food security.
Mr Odinga has similarly avoided commenting on the talks in public since his Mombasa meeting with the President.
With their authoritative voice missing in public, their more hawkish allies have moved in to fill the communication gap mostly with toxic public statements and social media propaganda.
The profile of coalition representatives on the joint committee has also been a subject of public debate in the past few days, with the Kenya Kwanza list particularly coming under scrutiny on social media.
“We can’t give you A team and you give us Z team… This is strategically meant to stall the talks even before they start,” said Fred Okango, a political party operative allied to the Azimio coalition, in a tweet responding on Wednesday.
Criticisms of the political profiles of Kenya Kwanza’s representatives, however, tend to overlook the fact that the coalition’s largest affiliate party, United Democratic Alliance (UDA), has a relatively youthful leadership.