Raila ties fate to constitution reforms

There is no doubt that Prime Minister Raila Odinga has decided to champion the cause of reforms in Kenya. At every opportunity, Raila cannot help expressing his desire for change in government, in the economy, in the security forces and the judiciary as well as in society.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga in traditional dress

Prime Minister Raila Odinga in traditional dress

As a high ranking government official in a coalition where he considers himself equal to the head of state, Raila feels he has an opportune moment to implement his vision for Kenya.

Long considered an outsider by Kenya’s post-colonial elite, Raila has no qualms about upsetting the status quo. He wants land reforms, he wants to redistribute wealth, he wants the poor to gain access to cheap housing. Critics say Raila wants to take from the propertied classes and give to the poor. The fears that Kenya’s elite have about Raila stem from his late father’s communist leanings back in the 1960s.

Former Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga made sure his son was educated in the former East Germany. In turn, Raila named his first born son – Jaramogi’s grandson – after Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro.

Though currently a member of Kenya’s exclusive club of billionaires, Raila hasn’t lost his pro-reforms bearing. He has been among the leading proponents for constitutional reforms. However, Raila’s reform agenda is frustrated by the kind of people he has been consorting with.

After the 1997 elections where he performed poorly, Raila joined the KANU party of ex-President Daniel arap Moi in a move that quite predictably ended in disaster. Moi is an avowed enemy of everything that Raila stands for and only courted Raila to give KANU a parliamentary majority. Raila’s alliance with Moi helped improve the Odinga family business but did not achieve the reforms he sought. If anything, Moi trapped Raila in a land scandal that is yet to be resolved to this day.

In 2002, Raila joined Mwai Kibaki to defeat Moi. Kibaki is a known conservative who served as Moi’s Vice President for eight years. Kibaki is more comfortable playing golf with the rich and famous than consorting with the average Kenyan. Infact, it is said that Kibaki’s conservative leanings are more hardline than Moi’s. On winning the Presidency, Kibaki replaced Moi’s portrait on Kenya’s currency with that of first President Jomo Kenyatta. Kibaki is Kenyatta’s protege.

After Mwai Kibaki won the 2002 polls, the reforms process hobbled from crisis to crisis. In 2003, Kibaki ally John Michuki announced that the purpose of constitution reforms had all along been to remove Moi and since the goal had been achieved, it was no longer necessary to proceed with the reforms.

Realizing that Kibaki was never going to change anything, Raila joined forces with former Moi elites who were shunted to the opposition after 2002. These included Uhuru Kenyatta, William Ruto and a bevy of politicians from the Rift Valley, Western Province, Eastern and Coast. Many of these characters had spent the Moi years denying the need for reforms but were now using the same against Kibaki. Whether Raila was aware of this reality is difficult to say.

Interestingly, Raila and the ex-KANU elites campaigned hard for the rejection of a draft constitution championed by Kibaki. The 2005 referendum marked the death and burial of constitution reforms in Kenya.

With the formation of the Grand Coalition in 2008, the Moi elites found themselves back in government with Kibaki. They are now one big, happy family where Raila’s insistence on reforms is like a lone voice in the wilderness. Nobody was ever interested in reforms. The clamour for constitutional change was a weapon used in winning popularity. And it certainly worked like a charm!

Characters that were nationally despised during the Moi years suddenly became champions of democracy thanks to the reform agenda. Of course, they learnt their lessons well from the Kenyatta remnants who used the clamour for reforms to hammer ex-President Moi. Now that the Kenyatta remnants and the Moi stooges are enjoying the trappings of power together, why should they care about reforms? Ironically, Raila played a huge part in bringing them together.

For sure, Raila has pegged his political life on reforms in Kenya. Unfortunately, he is going to end up sorely disappointed. The truth is that nobody in Kenya really wants to change the system. Even the international community will be happy with piece-meal reforms that don’t alter the overall political and economic equation in Kenya. Yet, for all the signs, Raila keeps harping on the constitution review agenda.

Time is already running out. The next General Elections are scheduled for 2012: just about three-and-a-half years from now. The team running the Interim Independent Electoral Commission does not have support staff. They need to recruit tens of thousands of staff and train them within three years. Kenya does not have a voters register. Constituency boundaries are yet to be reviewed. The spectre of violence looms large as memories of the 2008 post election violence remain etched in the national psyche.

President Kibaki is serving his last term in office and has no incentive to bring about reforms. The government is packed with people from the Kenyatta and Moi eras all of whom lack the will to enact meaningful changes.

With these factors in mind, Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s dream for reforms may remain as elusive as it has been for a long time. He should work to win over the stubborn minds in Kenya’s political and economic system. Appealing for public sympathy only portrays him as a dangerous populist who must be stopped at every turn. The business classes still distrust Raila.

Yes, the Kenyan system sucks. But Raila cannot change it by himself and that’s the harsh reality.

3 Responses

  1. A very excellent piece on Raila’s predicament. A most difficult conundrum for a man whom I believe wanted real change at some point in his colorful political career. This is one of the most insightful pieces I’ve read regarding our elusive constitution. Keep up the good job!

  2. So through his political journey of the past decade or so, Raila has consistently chosen to partner with anti-reformers. But in the end, when no reforms are enacted or implemented, it is because he has no people to work with, yet he wants the reforms sooooo badly. Hmmmmm……perhaps that’s why he got saved. Politics is hard.

  3. Your style is unique compared to other folks I’ve read stuff from. Thank you for posting when you have the opportunity, Guess I’ll
    just bookmark this site.

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