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Raila’s ‘Yes’ passion is also its poison

By | April 21st 2010

By Andrew Kipkemboi

One of the greatest assets the proponents of the Proposed Constitution have is Prime Minister Raila Odinga. In two of the past three contests, he has been on the winning side save for the disputed 2007 election. Yet as the ‘Yes’ side cranks up the campaign machine, Brand Raila could also be the ‘Yes’ side’s and perhaps, Kenya’s Achilles heel.

I couldn’t begrudge the PM for pushing what many feel is good for Kenya.

Yet in his push for the ‘Yes’ campaign, Raila is upping the stakes even when there is a window for dialogue and agreement.

Make no mistake, a ‘No’ team that feels that the PM has gone overdrive to demonise it is lethal. If pushed to a corner, the Church leadership and the politicians on the ‘No’ side will most certainly not give in. They will resort to slander and misinformation. Most of the people support the draft not because Raila is leading the crusade, but because they want to see change.

Most of us get prickled when we see Raila reduce everything to that depressingly familiar contest between himself and Agriculture Minister William Ruto. Yet this is more to do with the people than with their political contests.

Raila has been known to zealously take the fight to his opponents’ vacuuming supporters and crushing those who stand in the way. This is not the time for that.

Raila needs to be the moderating influence in national politics and inhabit the realm above the muddle. This way, he will not only peel off the antagonistic tag that hangs on his neck but also help his side of the campaign.

His pro-reform credentials notwithstanding, Raila has the knack of hypnotising his followers and attracting loathing in equal measure. To the PM, calling the ‘No’ side liars is an innocuous rallying for the truth. To his supporters and those opposed to him, it is a call for battle and the lines have been drawn.

Popularity contest

For those who see things as either black or white, no grey area exists. It is not all hyperbole, yet this ultimately isolates the moderates, who though they are agreeable to the ‘Yes’ campaign, would rather the formula changes. And therein lies the danger. From the talk on the streets to the barroom talk, the people have yet to understand that it is important to break bread with our adversaries without crushing their skulls.

No doubt, Raila is a popular leader and to survive competitive politics as ours, one has to win popularity contests. However, there is the danger of reducing everything to just that. That should not happen. You may ask, why do we expect more of the PM? Indeed, the PM means well for Kenya.

But on account of his stature as the second most powerful politician, it is in his interest to reconcile the different voices and halt the campaign for or against the Proposed Constitution from descending into the heights of 2007.

He can only do that if he can learn to listen and move with both groups, however diverse their opinion. No one is trying talk him out of his position. He needs to be tolerant. Tolerance does not mean the surrender of standards or turning a blind eye to what is wrong. He needs to do away with the sense of braggadocio and engage his opponents.

With hindsight, the cleavages that characterised the 2005 referendum festered on and precipitated the skirmishes after the disputed elections two years later. It should be such that the losers will accept the outcome and know that it is their right to harbour whatever opinion.

The PM must try to rise above the fray. The aftermath of the deeply divisive 2005 referendum fed the poisonous environment that detonated in 2007. It will take more to drain the poisonous well that is building up.

In parts of the country, the air still bears the rancid tang from the 2007 elections. There is the risk that the campaigns might excite raw passions.

It is saddening and repulsive when, for example, his lieutenants parade a gloating feeling of triumph as if this were an electoral contest.

Like many, Raila knows that a new constitution is the only opportunity remaining to rekindle hope for the nation’s future.

But a campaign driven ostensibly on the urge to grind down the ‘No’ side is not good for Kenya, because though most of the faithful feel that the clergy is on the wrong, they are aware too that the feet of the politicians are made of clay.

Different light

The folly is to portray those opposed as villains though we know that they are engaging in wanton subterfuge.

Raila may be on the right side of history, but it is important that the Prime Minister is seen in different light than those engaging in brinkmanship and distraction about the real contents of the Proposed Constitution.

Or it could be, as many (wrongly or rightly) believe, that Raila relishes contests and attrition even when none is warranted.

Though it is hoped that those peddling lies and misinformation will be hoisted by their own petard.

The writer ([email protected]) is The Standard’s Foreign News Editor.

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