Why coalitions in Kenya are usually doomed to fail from the onset

ODM Leader Raila Odinga with President Uhuru Kenyatta during ODM NDC 2022 at Kasarani Stadium on February 26 2022. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Reports emerged this past week that Azimio la Umoja One Kenya coalition council chairman Uhuru Kenyatta is expected to resign. Jubilee party vice chair David Murathe said the retired head of state would be stepping away from party matters to focus on his peace project. Murathe also spoke of there being no need to have “two drivers steering the same bus” (read Azimio), pointing out that the bus now had one driver in the person of ODM leader Raila Odinga.

Although Uhuru is yet to make any statement on the matter, talk of his stepping down from his current role in the coalition and other events recently witnessed in both Azimio and Kenya Kwanza have stirred discussions around longevity of such outfits. To some, the coalitions only serve the purpose of winning polls.

Questions have been raised, for instance, on the opposition-led coalition birthed by Uhuru and Raila for the latter’s 2022 presidential bid, remaining politically relevant, if recent developments within some of its affiliate parties is anything to go by.

The fate that befell Narc, Cord and Nasa coalitions in 2004, 2016 and 2018, respectively, now appears to be hanging over Azimio like the sword of Damocles.

Scholar and political analyst Macharia Munene argues that the Azimio coalition “died a long time ago, after its presidential petition was dismissed by the Supreme Court”.

“It died long ago but this is the order of things. Coalitions come and go after serving a particular purpose, which can either be attained or not,” says Prof Munene.

He has seen almost all coalitions engage in blame-game when they lose and those winning imploding for shortchanging each other in the alliance.

Verbal exchanges between Jubilee and ODM leaders have only made things worse: “I yearn for the day we will be locked in one room with Jeremiah Kioni, so that we can tell each other the truth,” said ODM Secretary General Edwin Sifuna on a TV show.

The Jubilee side led by Kioni and Sabina Chege had accused ODM of shortchanging the other partners in the allocation of parliamentary leadership positions.

Amukoa Anangwe contends that coalitions in Kenya emerged from the realisation by political players that they could only win through forming tribal alliances.

“Ours is a pseudo democracy because the whole process of managing political parties and coalitions to the appointment of electoral managers is open to manipulation and other challenges,” says Prof Anangwe.

Analysts point out that proponents of coalition politics in Kenya first realised that actualisation of the concept would have encouraged power sharing in government.

They envisaged to create inclusivity so that no community and its leaders are left out of the country’s top leadership.

Trouble in coalitions started with the National Rainbow Alliance Coalition (Narc) that won elections in 2002 when opposition politicians united to oust independence party Kanu from power.

Despite enjoying a lot of goodwill and winning the elections by a landslide, the coalition didn’t last long and began disintegrating soon after President Mwai Kibaki beat Kanu’s Uhuru Kenyatta.

“Look at how quickly Narc collapsed as soon as they got into office; they began fighting over who was getting the bigger slice of the pie,” says Munene.

He says this is the nature of all coalitions in Kenya because they are purposed for narrow political gains without long-term goals.

Muted fights

That is why celebrations turn into ugly open or muted fights over sharing of positions of Cabinet and principal secretaries among other positions.

Complaints that the Kenya Kwanza coalition allocated almost three quarters of principal secretary positions to President Ruto’s Rift Valley and Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua’s Mt Kenya backyards is a case in point.

Political parties in the nascent alliance are already engaged in supremacy battles with the dominant UDA party, whose leadership decided to field a candidate in the recent Bungoma senatorial by-election.

Munene argues that what transpired in Bungoma is a sign of what will soon bresult in fights because supporters were told Kenya Kwanza was supposed to be one united entity.

Other coalitions like Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU) formed before elections in 2007 faced similar predicaments.

The PNU party, whose chairman Noah Wekesa worked hard to bring as many parties as possible on board, was a minority party in Parliament with Raila’s ODM grabbing a majority in the contested election.

To shore up numbers in Parliament, Kibaki convinced Musalia Mudavadi and his United Democratic Forum (UDF) to support PNU.

Mudavadi had defected from ODM to form UDF after complaining that Raila had refused to honour a 2003 gentleman’s agreement that he supports his candidature in the 2007 presidential elections.

In 2013, because President Kibaki was not seeking re-election having served his constitutional term limit, the PNU disintegrated into factions.

President Uhuru Kenyatta followed suit with another coalition between his TNA party and his then deputy William Ruto’s URP.

The two parties were later dissolved and merged by the Registrar of Political Parties to form the Jubilee Party with other smaller parties.

Despite the dissolution, two distinct groups emerged in Jubilee after 2013 following claims that Ruto had pushed for a 50-50 share of appointments in the Jubilee government.

Parties aligned to Amani and other parties joined Jubilee for a post-election coalition with the justification that there was a need of national cohesion.

State largesse

The main motivation, however, as has been the practice, was to benefit from various government appointments and state largesse.

Soon after the election, the parties signed a coalition agreement with Jubilee, which was deposited with the Registrar of Political Parties.

The coalition increased Jubilee’s numerical strength in Parliament to 233 out of 349 seats, 16 seats fewer than required for a two-thirds majority.

The 2012 CORD MoU disagreement led to the departure of Kalonzo Musyoka and his Wiper party from the coalition before the 2017 elections.

And so his departure led to the birth of the Nasa coalition.

Mudavadi, with his new Amani National Congress (ANC) party, returned to join Raila and Wetang’ula in the new outfit, while Kalonzo decided to run for president on the Wiper party ticket.

Although legal mechanisms for dispute resolution within party coalitions and political parties are provided for in the Constitution, infighting continues after every election.

After 2017, the giant Jubilee party fell victim to the fight between President Kenyatta and his deputy, who earlier began his campaign to succeed him.

Again the dispute arose from a gentleman’s agreement between the two before 2013 that they would support each other to run for two terms each.

President Kenyatta, however, chose to support Raila, leading to a sharp division in his government amid open rebellion from his deputy and his allies in Parliament. In the process, Ruto joined the United Democratic Alliance party, seriously weakening Jubilee which sided with Raila’s ODM to form the Azimio One-Kenya Alliance.

Before joining Azimio, Kalonzo had joined Mudavadi and Wetang’ula and Kanu’s Gideon Moi in forming One Kenya Alliance (OKA) after differing with Raila.

Musyoka was again demanding that the 2012 MoU be honoured, which the Wiper leader put on the table as part of negotiations.

Mudavadi and Wetang’ula bolted out, arguing that Raila reneged on his promise to support other principals to run for presidency.

As for Uhuru’s rumoured resignation, Munene says the former Head of State would be acknowledging the reality that Azimio is long dead.

“Being chairman of Azimio gives him the privilege of interfering in the political processes when he should not be doing it,” says Munene.