By Patrick Mathangani
Wikileaks claim Prime Minister Raila Odinga attempted to suspend former Agriculture Minister William Ruto to divert attention from his family’s involvement in the Sh2 billion maize scam.
Secret cables sent by US Ambassador, Michael Ranneberger, to Washington and now released by WikiLeaks allege Raila wanted to create confusion when he said he was suspending Ruto and Education Minister Sam Ongeri. It claims Raila wanted public debate to focus on the two, and not his family’s role in the scandal.
Ranneberger also gives an unflattering assessment of the PM, whom he says is increasingly being perceived as "unable or unwilling to govern effectively and move forward the reform agenda".
Behind the scenes
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One of the cables reveals the behind-the-scenes pushing and shoving that culminated in Raila ‘suspending’ the two ministers, over the affair. However, the US believed Raila took the action not only because he wanted to be seen as fighting corruption, but to divert attention from his family’s involvement in the maize scandal.
The maize and education scandals came to light in January 2009. The following month, Kibaki suspended key officials in the Agriculture and Education ministries, a day before Raila announced he was sending the ministers home.
"We have credible reports that members of Odinga’s family, presumably with his knowledge and/or involvement, were involved in the maize scandal. Thus, at the time he made his dramatic February 14 statements, Odinga was facing serious pressures on both the corruption and constitutional review issues," wrote Ranneberger. The cable at the beginning says the family of President Kibaki was also involved in the maize scandal.
Ongeri’s ministry was being probed over the disappearance of millions of shillings meant for free education programme.
The envoy continued: "It seems highly possible that Odinga made the announcement regarding Ongeri and Ruto knowing that it would cause a huge political and constitutional flap, and thusa divert focus on both the corruption and constitutional review issues.
Alternatively, Odinga may have miscalculated that he could ‘roll’ Kibaki to go along with his actions because Kibaki would not want to be seen as supporting ministers tainted by corruption."
The embassy attributed claims of corruption by the President’s and the Prime Minister’s families to "multiple sources".
Two senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office – PS, Mohamed Isahakia and Chief of Staff Caroli Omondi – resigned a day before Raila attempted to suspend the ministers.
However, Kibaki immediately issued a statement revoking Raila’s action, saying the Prime Minister does not have any powers to suspend ministers. Raila issued another statement the following day, insisting the National Accord, which created the Coalition Government, gave him such powers.
Pursuant to consultation
But according to the cable, "the legal authorities are not completely clear. While Kibaki has the constitutional power to appoint ministers, the National Accord states that ministerial appointments and removals shall be made pursuant to consultation between the Coalition partners."
The cable reveals the fierce competition between Raila and Kibaki, who both wanted to be seen as anti-corruption champions. This happened at a time of deep differences over the constitutional review and the scandals, which posed one of the most serious threats to the PNU-ODM partnership.
"Kibaki, like Odinga, also wants to be seen as spearheading anti-corruption actions, so one-upsmanship is at play. Members of Kibaki’s family may be involved in these or other corruption scandals. Kibaki may have calculated that sacrificing senior-level personnel short of ministers would be enough to placate the public," says the cable, referring to the suspension of officers in the ministries.
"At the same time, Kibaki is likely to have been urged by Uhuru Kenyatta not to take action against Ruto since the two are working closely together, possibly with a view toward the 2012 presidential election."
On Raila’s leadership, the ambassador says there is increasing disillusionment in the ODM camp, although he says critics’ views that he is in a weakened position are "wishful thinking".
Writes Ranneberger: "The ODM seems both directionless and less united than before."
He wrote that Ruto "has been openly hostile to Odinga and is working closely with the Kibaki side, so Kibaki has an interest in protecting Ruto. The corruption within the Ministry of Education likely reaches very senior levels on Kibaki’s side."
The cable also reveals Ranneberger’s concerns over delays to the constitution-making process, after Raila raised objections to contentious issues that had been agreed on in the Naivasha meetings.
Raila was opposed to a presidential system of government as agreed upon by a parliamentary select committee, in which his party and interests were represented.
It says on February 12, soon after the agreement was clinched, the US Embassy learnt that Raila had held a meeting with advisers on renegotiating provisions on the contentious issues.
When Ranneberger called Raila, he confirmed this was the case, saying the PSC had exceeded its mandate.
"How could Odinga walk away from the agreement when Odinga’s top people are in the PSC and participated in the meetings under instructions from Odinga?" the Ambassador asked.
"Odinga had no response to this, but nevertheless insisted that key provisions must be reopened," continues the cable.
Ranneberger warned that the differences were causing ethnic tension, which could give rise to violence.
He says: "Ruto certainly sees that as an option. Odinga knows that he does not have the votes in Parliament to support his actions (given that Ruto can control at least 12 or so MPs), and, therefore, may be tempted to see fomenting public unrest as his only option."