Political package remains the big agenda for constructive dialogue


President William Ruto and Azimio leader Raila Odinga at Nyayo Stadium while watching football match between AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia on May 14, 2023. [PCS]

Here’s the current narrative from one side of our elite political divide.  After 1997, we ended up with “cooperation”.  In 2008, we agreed on “nusu mkate” (half-loaf) or the Grand Coalition Government.  In 2018, we found ourselves witnessing a “handshake”.  From this side of Kenya, maandamano is leading us into another political arrangement to accommodate one person’s ambitions “when we have just started working”.  The occasional wag among us might do the math and suggest that this breaks the 10-year cycle of inclusive political accommodation; since these deals are “supposed” to happen in the incumbent’s second, not first, term of office.

 The opposing narrative begins with the view that the only election that was free and fair in recent memory happened in 2002.  If we ignore Kanu’s single-party sojourn from 1963 to 1988, then this is to say that 1992, 1997, 2007, 2013, 2017 and 2022 were all fraudulent elections.  This is why every presidential election that we have held since we got a new Constitution in 2010 has ended up in the Supreme Court.  That’s 2013, 2017 and 2022 for you.  The argument here goes beyond electoral process mismanagement to premeditated electoral injustice, fraud and impunity.

On this side of the planet, maandamano is the means to an end that may or may not be defined.

Now that we have press reports and other speculation that some sort of dialogue between Kenya Kwanza and Azimio is being framed, let’s treat the above as its raw and extremist opening positions.  Given this state of polarisation, the next question to ask is “what is this dialogue about”? 

 It is difficult to keep up with the Azimio issues that inspired maandamano, but we know they started with reducing the cost of living (restoring food and fuel subsidies), “opening the servers” (which became a forensic audit of the 2022 election), halting IEBC recruitment (to introduce new selection rules for commissioners) and “multi-party democracy” (stop poaching of Azimio MPs). It is unclear if the claims of bias in public appointments were also part of this short list of issues.

 As far as the public is aware, this was the basic agenda placed before the on-off bipartisan parliamentary committee, although it would appear from more recent press that the office of the official opposition leader was added to this discussion checklist.  In any event, nothing progressed.

 It is without doubt that recent enactment of a generally unpopular Finance Act 2023 – which had been stalled in our High Court - added significant new impetus to maandamano, the result of which is that the language quickly morphed from “opposition” to “anti-government” to “anti-tax” protests, especially in the international press.  Maandamano took a break this week, but one wonders what happens after the Court of Appeal’s Friday green light to the Act’s implementation. 

 Given this background, the short question is whether these are the issues that are still on the table.  For example, what would a dialogue to immediately reduce the cost of living actually entail?  What about that Finance Act; should it be repealed?  Should the IMF be involved in either, or both? Is IEBC commissioners recruitment already quietly progressing behind the scenes?  And, what might be the resolution to defections that have already happened, in addition to more that could or might?

 We are being realistic, not pessimistic, even though there could be other issues on the table which are not known to the public, such as shadow cabinet arrangements. The task for Kenya is to take the optimistic view that we have a chance to move from the extreme narratives described earlier.

 As a great opening, one perspective that must be put on the table and immediately denounced by both sides is the inflammatory “shareholder” narrative that certain members of the Kenya Kwanza administration have used to justify public appointments since they assumed office. Let’s just say “we are one nation” unity messaging and tangible committed action begins now.   And it’s probably high time to tone down on the egos, especially for the principals, in this moment.

 Now we come to the actual dialogue.  Last week, we spoke about the need for a political solution that drives the “people” (or “issues”) settlement.  Maybe that’s the wrong approach, and we instead need a people settlement to define the political settlement. Let’s brainstorm some thoughts today.

 To be clear, the people settlement is not about short-term gains around the immediate cost of living challenge, but speaks to medium to long-term issues around food on the table, money in our pockets, dignity in our daily lives and safety and security in all of our places and spaces.  Resolving these issues is a “whole of society” and multi-stakeholder undertaking, not a government project.

 This is probably the most useful way to constructively frame the national conversation we all need.

 As said last week, we have some of the raw materials to frame this dialogue for the people.  First, Agenda Four’s long-term issues from 2008 as an incomplete work-in-progress.  Second, whatever we can retrieve from the BBI experiment; noting full well that each of one its own nine issues represented an adverse evaluation of sorts on our Chapter 15 independent institutions and offices.

 There’s some less-heralded material too.  In 2018, between the end-January swearing-in of a “People’s President” and the early-March handshake, the opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) identified three substantive issues for the country at the time.  First, electoral justice (dealing with electoral impunity and fraud, the right to vote and respecting independent institutions).  Second, restructuring the Kenyan state (presidential vs parliamentary systems of governance, as well as consequential parliamentary and policing/security services reform).

 Third, strengthening and defending devolution (including politically and economically viable devolved units, control of land and natural resources, devolution of taxation and equitable sharing of national debt and regional rights to self-determination).

 The idea here was to process these issues through a People’s Assembly leading to a National Convention, and ultimately a fresh election (suggesting that the government already in place would now be interim).  As we know, the idea didn’t grow any legs, ultimately usurped by BBI in both process and content.  Yet, these were, and are, three big issues still worth bringing to the table. 

 What could be different this time is to group all of these issues – Agenda Four, BBI and others - into “dialogue packages”.  These packages are built around my oft-stated view on the three core roles of the unifying Presidency – (socio-) economy, governance and security – while adding a political package to begin addressing the political settlement.

 We are still brainstorming the framing of the dialogue so what might these packages comprise? 

 The socio-economic package focuses on the economic reform that is already at the centre of the Kenya Kwanza agenda (and we should allow them more space to get on with this work) as well as social reform that brings in the church, as well as non-state actors.  Social reform is about a new and fresh vision of Kenyan society, and it makes sense that this aligns with the economic agenda.

 The governance package represents a space that needs bipartisan and multi-stakeholder dialogue, not simply on the demand-side of enhanced transparency, accountability and integrity (including the war on corruption and impunity) but a better supply-side around an improved policy to results cycle (policy, planning, budgeting, implementation, results).  This package envisages dialogue on the need for urgent horizontal (whole of government) reforms around governance and rule of law; public sector, public finance (PFM) and parastatals; and digitalisation/digitisation agenda (ICT).

 The same bipartisanship will be required in addressing the sensitive security package. There is a national security advisory function already located within the presidency that is likely focused on external aspects (intelligence and defence) as well as internal ones (intelligence, interior and policing).  This could be buttressed by a more visible human security focus that embraces multi-stakeholder inputs to address political, community and personal security as cross-cutting constituencies, and food, health, environmental and economic security as cross-cutting themes.

 Finally, the political package. The simple way to split this is during elections and between elections.  This leads us to an electoral reform dialogue that focuses on electoral justice but also seeks to improve electoral management.  Then a democratic reform dialogue which speaks to the earlier NASA questions around restructuring the state and deepening devolution.  This is the really big package that needs bipartisanship in Parliament and multi-stakeholder participation in leading to what might be a more coherent constitutional reform moment than happened with BBI.

 Let’s call this my initial personal – maybe technical - take on elements of a constructive dialogue to guide our people settlement as a basis for the more complex political settlement still to discuss.  In other words, a positive take to shift us from the negative zero-sum lens we are living with today.