Foreign missions' efforts to settle Kenya's standoff draws mixed reactions

Police engage youths in running battles in Mathare 4A on Monday, March 27, 2023. [Collins Kweyu, Standard]

Foreign powers led by the US are working behind the scenes to resolve another political standoff in Kenya that poses a threat to regional peace.

The missions released a statement early this week, saying they were “deeply concerned” with the violence seen on Monday and called on leaders involved to find a swift solution to stop the demonstrations.

The statement was released by the American Embassy, and the Australian, Canadian and British high commissions. Denmark, The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden also endorsed the need for an urgent solution.

Their involvement came after Azimio leader Raila Odinga challenged their silence over alleged police brutality on peaceful protesters.

Despite earlier questioning their silence, Raila dismissed US Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman’s endorsement of the 2022 presidential elections. Ms Whitman described the polls as the "freest and most transparent" in the history of the country.

“Most of these diplomats have the audacity to misrepresent facts about our country. I don't know which country she was talking about, when she came here a few days to the elections," said Raila.

The foreign missions made it clear that there should be no discussions over who won the 2022 presidential elections and are in support of ambassador Whitman.

Current efforts by the foreign missions rekindle memories of the mediation process in the 2007-2008 post-election violence. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was the chief mediator in the violent aftermath of the 2007 election. His team's efforts ended deadly chaos that claimed over 1,000 lives in the country.

The foreign missions intervention in the current situation has drawn mixed reactions, with some civil society leaders and political players asking them to allow Kenyans to resolve their own problems.

Among those critical of the involvement of foreigners is Prof Peter Kagwanja of Africa Policy Institute who argues that the problem can be easily be resolved by a panel of local eminent persons.

“Let people not come here as if this country has a crisis because all that is needed is to bring about inclusive dialogue first to deal with the political future of the country and other things that have been raised like the cost of living,” says Kagwanja.

He also wants a discussion held on how best to secure the recognition of governance institutions that are entrenched in the Constitution without which the future of the country is threatened.

But political analyst Martin Andati thinks foreign countries will ultimately be involved and will play a big role in making the protagonists sit down and agree because local and international interests are at stake.

“The unrest happening here must definitely have been raised during the president’s visit to Germany and the European Union headquarters in Brussels, which makes it rather awkward for our leaders,” said Andati.

When the president was away, Raila alleged that senior government officials organised goons to attack and steal livestock and destroy property on the Kenyatta family's Northlands City land in Ruiru.

He questioned how the president could travel outside the country (Germany) and talk about attracting foreign investment, “yet back at home, he has put machinery for vicious attacks on local investments”.

"How do they sanction the setting of trees on fire and yet he wants to convince us he is mitigating climate change and real growth? asked Raila. 

Andati also argued that it becomes difficult for the president to go looking for investors out there when the country is in turmoil because very few businesses will put their assets in an unstable country.

He said Raila has a bit of influence and can be listened to especially in Germany because he went to school there, speaks their language, with their media also having a soft spot for him.

During his visit to Germany last week, President Ruto told international broadcaster Deutsche Welle that grounds on which Raila was holding protests are unjustifiable.

Pundits agree with the president that some of the grievances raised by Azimio are untenable, especially demands for the opening of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) servers to verify who won the elections.

“He knows it is a condition that cannot be fulfilled because who will do it? Is it the new commissioners? Is it the secretariat? Is it Ruto? They all cannot do it,” says Andati.

He thinks the servers issue and the reinstatement on the Cherera Four, are demands Raila included in the protests as part of his push for IEBC reforms.

However, there is a general consensus among Kenyans that a discussion should be held over some emerging issues like the independence of Parliament, the prosecutor’s office and the credibility of those who will manage elections.

Prof Gitile Naituli of Multi Media University concurs that there’s need to arrest the problem before it gets worse and is happy with the involvement of foreigners if they can help do it and return normalcy.

“It began as peaceful protests but now it has metamorphosed, leading to massive looting in towns and the primitive invasion of the former president’s family land and stealing of sheep,” says Naituli.

Lawyer PLO Lumumba was also not impressed when it was reported last week that an American Senator had come to the country to resolve the problem which he argues should be handled by Kenyans.

“Then we wonder why the white man has contempt for Africans. We should solve our issues without being cajoled by foreigners,” tweeted PLO.

He was reacting on Twitter to a newspaper headline that read: Mjumbe wa handisheki atua Kenya (Handshake envoy lands in Kenya) after Senator Chris Coons came and held talks with Raila and Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua.

Raila, who met Coons with other Azimio principals, also tweeted that they held a fruitful discussion on the importance of upholding the Constitution and the rule of law and agreed to keep the channels of communication open.

Coons, an ally of President Joe Biden, played a big role during the 2008 mediation between Kibaki and Raila and again returned in 2018 before the Uhuru and Raila handshake.

Both opposition and government leaders have in the past criticised the involvement of foreign governments in resolving political disputes in the country.

Although it was common for Kenyan politicians to accuse the West for allegedly interfering with Kenyan politics during President Moi’s one party rule, the trend again re-emerged in 2008 when Martha Karua then serving as Justice Minister.

She took a hardline position when the country was going through the post-election anarchy, cautioning the US and other western countries to “stop dictating to Kenya what to do” as pressure for dialogue between Kibaki and Raila mounted.

“And as for the diplomats threatening us, I will remind them we are not a colony and I certainly don’t think my team will take pressure or dictation from any other country,” said Karua.

The minister dismissed diplomats in the country as junior officers in the pecking order, adding that unless they were delivering concrete messages from their governments and not their thoughts, what they said was totally irrelevant.

In 2009, current National Assembly Speaker Moses Wetang'ula who was the Foreign Affairs Minister, snarled at Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson and former American ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger.

He became agitated after Carson cautioned Kenya that the US government would deny several senior officials in President Mwai Kibaki’s government travel visas to the United States.

Carson called a press conference at Ranneberger’s residence in Muthaiga in May 2009 to announce that the US government had enforced a travel ban on a senior government leader and warned another three he said were blocking political reforms.

Wetang'ula released a statement saying: “It is with regret that an assistant minister of a friendly country walks into our country uninvited, makes fairly unacceptable and reckless statements then leaves. Diplomacy expects certain minimum acceptable standards of behaviour.”

And Raila also attacked diplomats when he was serving as Prime Minister in 2010, when he dismissed Ranneberger as “a chatterbox” after he leaked to the media US cables that described him and Kibaki as anti-reformists.

Only negative news is coming out of Kenya into foreign capitals at the moment and tourism is among the most affected sectors because of demonstrations and the battles between police and rioters.

The effects are huge, with reports that the Nairobi Stock Exchange lost Sh8.5 billion last Monday as the economy also got hit through reduced revenue collections and taxes, as learning activities in many schools also remained paralysed.

Some outspoken senior leaders in the current regime have also dismissed what they describe as pressure on the president to hold talks with Raila but as happened in the past, watch out for Uncle Sam’s big hand as developments unfold.

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