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Which way for Opposition as Raila exits local political stage



 Azimio leader Raila Odinga takes a walk on the streets on his way to the CBD. [File, Standard]

Azimio leader Raila Odinga has dominated Kenya’s Opposition politics like a colossus for decades. Since he started gunning for the chairmanship of African Union Council, there has been a lot of attention on Kenya’s Opposition by many who would like to inherit his mantle.

Whether Raila ends up at the African Union or not, the possibility he might be retiring from Kenyan political scene provides us an opportune moment to review the status of the Opposition before a generational changeover. Questions of interest are the strength and weaknesses of the Opposition after decades of oversighting the government and the opportunities and threats facing the new generation of leaders.

The Opposition has played a vital role of fighting for the rights of citizens and greatly contributed in strengthening democracy in Kenya since the struggle for independence. A tribute to the valuable role the Opposition plays in Kenyan democracy is proposal by the NADCO committee to entrench the office of Leader of the Opposition in the Constitution. Such recognition is rare in African emerging democracies and an affirmation of the value Kenyan attach to the vital role the Opposition has contributed to our democracy. 

Specifically, the Opposition has diligently and fearlessly conducted its role of oversight by ensuring the government fulfills its constitutional mandate. Through street protests or in appropriate parliamentary committees, the Opposition has stood up to successive administrations sometimes at great personal cost. The Opposition has also been instrumental in rallying the public around national issues of concern and therefore helped to set the agenda in our national political discourse.

Despite these stellar achievements, the Opposition suffers from debilitating weaknesses which need to be addressed by our next generation of Young Turks. The most glaring weakness is lack of overarching ideologies that govern and give coherence to socio-economic policies. In absence of unifying ideologies, Opposition members aggregate around tribal interests or wealthy sponsors which limit their national appeal. Moreover, since ethnic mobilisation is invariably polarising, it destabilises the country and undermines evolution of a nationalist spirit. It is due to ethnic mobilisation that Kenya almost descended into civil war in 2007 and nearly fragmented into ethnic enclaves due to myopic secessionist talk by tribal kingpins seeking to endear themselves to their community.

Historically, opposition parties tend to have a short life span because they are purposely set up to win elections rather than advance an enduring ideology. The political landscape in Kenya is therefore strewn with wreckages of political parties that disintegrated after failing to get into power either through winning the elections or forming an alliance with the victors. Where opposition candidates make it to Parliament, many are easily compromised to support the State because their party loyalty is primary based on self-interest rather than ideological convictions.

At a policy level, lack of an ideology weakens our democracy due to lack of alternative conceptual framework. For instance, since Kenya economy is primarily driven by the visible hand of the government, policy choices have become hostage to vested interest of influential cartels. Kenya is therefore in dire need of conservative voices to make a case for the merits of reducing the role of government in our economy and giving a chance to the free market.

Turning now to the future of the Opposition as Raila’s generation exits the stage, a number of opportunities and threats are discernible. As an opportunity, the new crop of Opposition leadership is younger and better educated than previous generations. Hopefully better scholarship will give them a more nationalist outlook than the old guard whose perspectives has been weighed down by ethnic considerations.

An emerging opportunity that could also prove to be a threat is the proposal to entrench office of the leader of Opposition in the Constitution. On the upside, it will ensure State funding of the office and oblige the government to share necessary information to empower the oversight capacity of the office. On the downside, overly dependence on the government can make the office vulnerable to blackmail and manipulation.

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