In our third serialisation of Oduor Ong'wen’s autography Stronger Than Faith: My Journey in the Quest for Justice, the author recounts how President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga took six weeks to form a bloated Cabinet weighed down by vicious skullduggery, suspicion and backstabbing
The signing of the (2007 peace) accord was the easiest part. Soon, the partners in the Grand Coalition came to terms with the fact that the question was how to make this system work. Even though adopting the accord helped end the violence, the deep divisions between the two sides meant that the odds were firmly stacked against the Grand Coalition government’s capacity to function effectively. Tensions could easily disrupt the ability to plan, coordinate, and follow up on policy decisions. This, as Raila later confessed, was not a coalition of the willing. Fear, suspicion and backstabbing among the operatives of the coalition partners became a persistent problem.
The problems centred on four closely related issues. The first was about the two sides agreeing on the composition of the Cabinet, followed by the creation and staffing of new executive offices. Even though the deal had established broad parameters for managing the Grand Coalition Executive, including requiring consultation between the president and the prime minister on all major appointments, the matter of determination of the exact size and membership of the Cabinet was left solely to the discretion of the two principals. The Constitution in force at the time required that ministers be MPs and stated that their function was to “aid and advise the president.” Over and above those stipulations, the accord required that “the coalition government to at all times reflect the relative parliamentary strengths of the respective parties.”
Practically, the requirement meant that Cabinet positions had to be shared between ODM and PNU on a 50-50 basis. The accord’s provisions regarding the establishment of the power-sharing Executive, however, did not specify how the portfolio balance was to be achieved. The first challenge Kibaki and Raila faced was how to put the principle of ‘balance’ into practice in the appointment of Cabinet members. We proposed that in establishing the balance, the ministries be classified into four categories; productive, service, infrastructure and administrative, and matched so that either side would preside over evenly matched dockets.
The Kibaki side would hear none of this, insisting on keeping those it had already distributed in January. While Kibaki and his PNU insisted on expanding the Cabinet to accommodate ODM, we wanted a smaller Cabinet of between 20 and 25 ministries. These two issues regarding the Cabinet took more than a fortnight to resolve. At the end of the day, Kibaki had his way. PNU retained the more powerful portfolios and the Cabinet was bloated to 40 ministries. Once a consensus had been arrived at on the political composition of the Cabinet, however, the accord did not spell out how functions would be divided across ministries or how new offices’ infrastructure and personnel needs would be met.
The mutual distrust persisted and created a second challenge: the risk of poor coordination across ministries. In his first term, Kibaki had shown a willingness to expand the size of the Cabinet in order to accommodate coalition partners, as had been illustrated by a reshuffle in 2004 that resulted in Kenya having 31 ministers, thereby making it the largest Cabinet in East Africa. There was thus a lurking danger that the coordination problems already created by having such a large Cabinet size would worsen if the number of ministers kept increasing. The two principals were lucky to have Francis Muthaura, an old hand in the public service who was committed to seeing the Grand Coalition succeed. As head of public service, Muthaura said it was essential to create structures and practices that would ensure ministers from opposite sides were regularly consulted and included throughout the entire policy-making process.
The third challenge was the need to reach a consensus on policy priorities that would guide the work of the Cabinet. Lingering animosity between the two sides had created a very real risk of deadlock in Cabinet decision-making, especially in the absence of a strong unifying agenda. PNU and the ODM had conducted their election campaigns on the basis of two distinct manifestos. In some respects, the policy platforms in those manifestos were not radically different from each other. For example, both promised increased investment in infrastructure as well as universal free secondary education and free health care for children younger than five years of age
But there were also radical departures from each other on policies that touched on governance and the distribution of power and resources. ODM promised to deliver a new constitution that devolved power from the central government to the local level “within the first six months” of its term. It also emphasised equity and social justice and included a proposal to create an expansive social protection programme that would provide a minimum level of income for extremely poor families. PNU, on its part, placed an inordinate emphasis on economic growth and said nothing about the constitution review.
The political marriage between ODM and PNU was rocky ab initio. The work of governing had first to wait while the coalition partners feuded over the allocation of Cabinet positions for a full six weeks. This standoff, with hindsight, was a blessing in disguise. It set an important precedent for the coalition’s responses to future impasses by creating avenues for back-channel communication between Kibaki and Raila’s respective camps. It worked to break the deadlock over the composition of the Cabinet. Raila had accepted Kibaki’s invitation for a secret rendezvous and flew to the secluded Sagana State Lodge at the foothills of Mount Kenya. He was accompanied by Mohammed Isahakia while Kibaki was accompanied by Muthaura. “I was there with only one person,” Raila said, “and he [Kibaki], too, was with only one person. And after long, long haggling, we agreed on what was thought to be a compromise.” Free from the pressure of being surrounded by hangers-on, the two leaders were able to “compromise in the interest of the country” and finally agree on a Cabinet list.
The Sagana settlement initially met resistance, however, particularly from the ODM side. PNU had retained four of the five most powerful portfolios (finance, internal security, defence, and energy), and ODM got only local government. But Raila successfully sold the deal to his supporters by pointing out that “we probably got the best in terms of service to the people.” By emphasising that control over service ministries such as water, agriculture, roads, housing, education, and health gave ODM a prime opportunity to demonstrate its capacity to deliver, he eventually convinced most of his supporters to go along with the arrangement.
In addition to reaching a consensus on a list of names to fill Cabinet portfolios, a further important decision taken at Sagana was to interchange parties within each ministry – that is, to share management responsibility. Drawing on a strategy he initially used as a diplomat during his time at the East African Community, Muthaura proposed a system whereby “if the ODM got a ministry, they would have a minister who is ODM, but the assistant minister would be from the PNU.” Under this system, he said, no ministry could have any secret cards under the table. Both principals accepted Muthaura’s proposal, and extended the practice to the appointment of permanent secretaries.
In the past, Kenyan permanent secretaries had wielded enormous influence over Cabinet performance in their roles as accounting officers, meaning that each was responsible for ensuring that all money allocated to his or her ministry would be spent appropriately (the role of permanent secretary was the highest technocratic position in the civil service). Under the terms of the agreement, Kibaki would make those appointments in his role as president. But he did so according to the formula created during the Sagana consultations. That created accountability and checks and balances. The idea was to create, despite the power sharing, a coherent and functional Cabinet structure.
With discontent surrounding the appointment of the Cabinet and key public service positions quelled, the focus shifted to service delivery. The Cabinet was not only bloated. It was deeply polarised and as such implementation of coherent policies in the wake of a tense atmosphere would require the development of a shared policy framework, the establishment of enabling processes, procedures and mechanisms. Policy coordination and motivation in getting ministries to focus on policy implementation rather than internal competition was direly needed. In responding to those challenges, ministers and bureaucrats drew on fledgling structures that had been created by the Narc administration. It was agreed that a national strategy building upon the Economic Recovery Strategy be pursued. Since there had been developed a national compass called Vision 2030, to which both Kibaki and Raila had subscribed before the latter was kicked out of government after the 2005 national referendum, it was not difficult to convince the two sides to draw a programme building on the Vision. Besides, to help reduce the risk of gridlock, they decided to retain both performance contracting and the practice of convening Cabinet committees instead of the whole Cabinet, two systems the Narc administration had put in place.
As soon as Cabinet appointments and staffing decisions were complete, the president and prime minister established a joint task force to develop a single coherent policy framework that would guide the work of the power-sharing Cabinet. The aim was to define policies that would help achieve the action items in the matrix attached to the accord the parties had signed. Building on the campaign manifestos of ODM and PNU, the task force worked on the Medium-Term Plan. The task force was co-chaired by Prof Anyang Nyong’o, representing ODM, and former Vice President Prof George Saitoti.
Once the coalition government was in place, our role as the strategy team was rendered redundant as Raila now had the government bureaucracy to advise him. We consulted on a need basis when he wanted to bounce off some ideas of a political nature. My only official engagement with the Grand Coalition Government was my appointment into the Police Reforms Implementation Committee. The committee made a raft of reform proposals, including the enactment of the National Police Service Act, overhaul of the police training curriculum, establishment of the Independent Policing Oversight Authority, and the development of the Police Code of Conduct, among others. A decade later, I feel this was a waste of effort and opportunity as nothing has significantly changed.
Stronger Than Faith: My Journey in the Quest for Justice
Author: Oduor Ongwen
Publisher: Vita Books, 2022
Copyright 2022, Oduor Ongwen
Availability: Distributed by African Books Collective (ABC)