Poisoned chalice? Jitters in Azimio over proposal for new office for the Opposition leader

Azimio la Umoja principals Kalonzo Musyoka and Raila Odinga at a requiem in Bondo, Siaya County. [Emmanuel Wanson, Standard]

A tough task awaits Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition’s dialogue team in its quest to block the proposal for the creation of the office of the Leader of Opposition amid fears that it was a poisoned chalice with the potential of causing a major disruption.

The creation of the office is among the top items that Kenya Kwanza is fronting ahead of the talks. In the formula, President William Ruto’s coalition envisions an opposition funded by the taxpayer to conduct oversight.

It is an idea that the president appears to hold close to his heart and was among the major issues he addressed during his tour of the Mt Kenya region ahead of the planned talks to help diffuse tensions with the opposition.

But in a case similar to a doctor prescribing medicine a patient suspects may prove fatal, the opposition is not keen on the idea. What is making the proposal intriguing is the prospect of the seat being occupied by Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka while ODM’s Raila Odinga is out on international duties.

This will not only upset the prevailing pecking order in the opposition, leapfrogging Kalonzo ahead of 2022 Azimio running mate, Martha Karua but also relegate Raila’s allies to the fringes of opposition politics. 

Already, Kalonzo is leading the Azimio team to the talks with Raila’s blessings and is increasingly becoming the voice and the face of opposition, with his command headquaters, SKM Centre hosting major Azimio briefings.

To many, Raila is an institution whose currency in Kenya’s political sphere has created careers and his absence is likely to create orphans in regions which have helped define Azimio politics.

Political analyst Dr Charles Nyambuga says if Kalonzo gets the position of the Leader of Official Opposition, he will be a step ahead of the rest of Azimio principals.

“He has the ability to mobilise. After Raila, Kalonzo comes in next in terms of a strong solid support base. None of the other Azimio principals has a sold backing. Definitely, he is on top of them,” he says.

And as the dialogue team prepares to meet to set an agenda for the talks, Azimio appears to be approaching them with fractured opinions over the creation of the office.

While some Azimio members are entertaining the idea, others believe the creation of an office to be funded by the State could weaken the opposition.

The Sunday Standard has established the proposal is among the issues the team tasked with delivering fruitful results for the coalition party is trying to harmonise ahead of the talks.

A number of leaders told The Sunday Standard that Azimio should not accept the proposal and should let it continue with its work the way it has been operating.

The dissenting voices believe Azimio will be committing political suicide that will impact even future governments. They argue a post funded by the government will leave the opposition at the mercy of successive governments.

“We are hoping that our team will not fall into this trap. This is the same problem we have with county assemblies. Most of them cannot successfully oversight the Executive because they are funded by the administrations they are expected to oversight,” said a senior Azimio MP.

According to the MP, such a proposal will have adverse effects even on future governments if the team endorses it and pushes for its inking into law.

“Imagine a scenario where we entrench the post in the Constitution and then a weak the opposition that can easily go to bed with the government comes into play. It will be like the auctioning we are witnessing between MCAs and the Executive,” he said.

According to Azimio insiders, the team is yet to decide on its position on the matter but will decide once it is formally presented in the bi-partisan talks.

Migori Senator Eddy Oketch said the proposal is Kenya Kwanza’s and they are not willing to discuss as Azimio.

He claimed their areas of focus remain addressing the cost of living, electoral injustice in terms of audit of 2022 election, IEBC reconstitution and stopping interferences with political parties.

“Kenya Kwanza wants to distract us from these core issues, by talking of things that are not even constitutional. Azimio won’t engage on any proposals that aren’t constitutional and anchored in law,” he said.

Another ODM MP, who asked not to be named, claimed that political parties are already receiving funding from the Political Parties Fund that can also be used to support oversight and their other political activities.

“This is not the reason Kenyans went to the streets and it must not be a subject of discussion in the talks. We have our lawyers and good brains and we know they will make the right decision,” said the MP.

Some members of the coalition as well as observers, however, believe the proposal is timely and will help improve oversight of the government.

Analysts argue that the creation of the office will ensure that the country has a structured opposition that can hold the government to account.

According to Nyatike MP Tom Odege, the office was there in the past and was held by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Kenneth Matiba, and Kijana Wamalwa, among others, at some stage.

He claimed the creation of the office will only strengthen the opposition and cannot weaken the office.

“In all commonwealth democracies including the UK, the office is funded by the government so the issue of the office being compromised should not arise,” he said.

Rongo MP Lilian Gogo echoed his comments and said that the creation of the office will ensure there is separation of powers and reduce the opposition’s dependency on the government.

She claimed that having a budget allocated within the law will enhance oversight.

Political commentator, Barrack Muluka said the office was a major omission in the Constitution 2010 and should be reconsidered.

He said the importance of infusing it into the Constitution will ensure that there is an alternative position all the time to the position taken by the government in power.

“That alternative voice should come from an organised environment which can only be an organized official opposition,” Mr. Muluka said.

He said the opposition is currently everyone’s responsibility and there is no one to hold account for any of the excesses that might come from that opposition space.

“When we are told for example that the Finance Bill is bad then the opposition should give us an alternative Finance Bill that they propose,” he said.

According to Muluka, if there should be a matter that needs to be spoken about, there should be a shadow cabinet for the national treasury to speak to.

Mark Bichachi, another commentator, claimed that the proposal will reduce the tensions the country witnesses after every election.

“It will bring closer oversight. They will be equals who oversight each other,” Mr. Bichachi said.

He argued that an opposition office funded by the government is the safest way to ensure that there is oversight.

“It is a better way of doing things other than to expect that Raila Odinga and Martha Karua continue to defend the Kenyan people when they are not given the office and resources to do so,” the analyst said.

Kisumu East MP Shakeel Shabbir who was elected on an Independent ticket, however, believes the proposal is ill-thought.

He believes State funding of the opposition will weaken the effectiveness of the office.

He raises concerns about the opposition leader’s physical location, wondering whether they would be situated outside parliament.

Last week, Ruto told journalists in Mount Kenya that he supports the idea of the creation of an office to be funded by taxpayers. His bi-partisan talk team led by Kimani Ichung’wa have also fronted the proposal and is among the list of items they will present in their discussions.

“I support the Office of the Leader of Opposition as part of improving governance in our country, as part of making sure that Kenyans can hold their government to account using the opposition. I am in great support,” Ruto said.

Azimio allied leaders from Mt Kenya region have opposed any proposal to establish the position giving the condition that the proposal must be out into a referendum question.

Jubilee party Secretary General Jeremiah Kioni said they would support the proposal only if it goes to referendum.

“Creation of such an office will interfere with the Presidential system of governance as enshrined by the 2010 Constitution as it will convert the system into parliamentary system of governance,” Kioni said.

On his part former Murang’a Governor Mwangi Wa Iria maintained that entertaining such a topic that sought to change the structure of governance would attract litigation.

“But it’s a good move because it will automatically pave way to a referendum so that as Mt Kenya region we shall agitate for our rights such as equitable share of resources and one man one vote one shilling,” he told The Sunday Standard.

According to Wa Iria, Azimio is opposed to any discussion that will not focus on the cost of living and accused Kenya Kwanza of preaching water and drinking wine.

“While talking to masses they incite them that they are opposed to discussing power sharing but they forget that creation of the office of the Opposition and embedment of the office of the Prime Cabinet Secretary,” Wa Iria said.

Political expert Pius Kinuthia opined that the discussion to establish the office of the Opposition was meant to cure the winner take all mantra as proposed by the Building Bridges Initiative Act.

 (Additional reporting by Blake Keen and Ndung’u Gachane)