For the past year, Kenya has been on a worrying political trajectory. Following disputed elections in August – which were nullified by the Supreme Court in September – the political system has been on an uneven keel. Having boycotted the “fresh” elections in October, opposition leader Raila Odinga refused to recognise the legitimacy of president Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory that, in the absence of his main rival, was inevitably won in a landslide.
For his part, Kenyatta, having won the repeat poll and sensing that international donors had little appetite to support Odinga’s claims to power, demonstrated no inclination to compromise. Instead, government rhetoric suggested that while the president might be willing to sit down and talk to the opposition about how to achieve development, the 2017 elections, and the quality of Kenyan democracy, was off the table.
This political impasse had begun to generate considerable political instability. Over 100 people died in protests and clashes relating to the election controversy, significantly increasing the political temperature. Moreover, while an opposition ceremony to swear Odinga in as the “People’s President” passed without incident once the government made the decision to remove the security forces from the streets, the aftermath of the inauguration demonstrated that this was not part of a broader process of reconciliation.
Instead, the ruling party quickly moved to criminalise the National Resistance Movement that Odinga had launched to contest Kenyatta’s victory, and deported Miguna Miguna, the controversial opposition leader who had presided over the ceremony. Although these steps were triggered by the inauguration, they were part of a wider pattern of democratic backsliding that has included:
- Verbal attacks on judges following the nullification of the 8 August election, and continued political pressure on the judiciary to rule in favour of the government.
- Ignoring court orders relating to the detention and deportation of Miguna Miguna – which the High Court has now ruled was illegal.
- The further politicization of the media, including threats to journalists writing stories that would embarrass the government and pressure on newspapers to cancel the contracts of critical columnists.
- Forcing three TV stations– KTN, NTV and Citizen TV – off-air so that they could not cover Odinga’s swearing-in ceremony, and then keeping the broadcasting ban in place for almost a week.
Against this backdrop, a prolonged political crisis appeared to be a genuine risk. Instead, backroom negotiations – in part spurred by the efforts by the international community to negotiate a compromise ahead of the visit of the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – led to an unheralded breakthrough. Following months of bitter disputes, on 9 March 2018 President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga announced that they had made up and were now “brothers”.
However, while the agreement was welcomed by many Kenyans as it promised to give rise to a period of greater political stability and cohesion, it raised as many questions as it answered. Although it is clear what President Kenyatta has gained through the deal, most notably recognition as the country’s legitimate executive and an end to opposition protests, it is unclear exactly what the deal will deliver for Raila Odinga. The agreement that has been circulated is low on details and includes no firm commitments that would bind Kenyatta’s hands when it comes to media freedom, respect for the judiciary, or even electoral reform.
In turn, this has raised questions about whether the deal between Kenyatta and Odinga is based on a compromise about the reforms needed to strengthen Kenyan democracy, or represents a personal deal between the two leaders to work together to protect each other’s political interests. Those close to Kenyatta and Odinga have suggested that the agreement is rooted in their concern for their legacy and desire to avoid conflict. But a more cynical interpretation is possible, namely that one of the main gains the two men have realised by joining forces is to outmanoeuvre rival leaders from their own alliances who hope to replace them as presidential candidates come the next election in 2022.
For Kenyatta, the potential of a longer-term political alliance with Odinga reduces his dependence on two of his potential successors within the Jubilee govermment – Gideon Moi and Willian Ruto. Similarly, the deal benefits Odinga by easing his reliance on Musalia Mudavadi, Kalonzo Musyoka and Moses Wetangula – three supposed allies within the National Super Alliance (NASA) who failed to turn up to support his inauguration, prompting widespread rumours that the opposition coalition had fragmented.
As Kenyan political leaders begin to adjust to the latest in a long line of reconfigurations, there is only one thing that can be said for certain: further political realignments are likely, and the parties and alliances that contest the next elections will not be those that competed in the last ones.