Ruto-Raila conflicted ties seen as main hindrance in push for talks

When President William Ruto met Azimio leader Raila Odinga during the Kip Keino Classic Continental Tour Nairobi 2023 at Kasarani Stadium on May 13, 2023. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

Religious leaders and other voices of reason have called for sober talks between President William Ruto and opposition leader Raila Odinga to create sanity, but can the gulf of mistrust that exists between them provide for any meaningful dialogue?

Their relationship blows hot and cold as they sometimes meet and talk, especially when Raila appears at some national functions where Ruto is present.

You will see some fist bumps hi fives and an exchange of barbs with little bitterness. It happened at the burial of freedom hero Dedan Kimathi’s widow Mukami in Nyandarua and later at a sports event in Kasarani where they engaged in small talk. However, the toxic relations resulting into name calling after retreating to their political camps confounds observers. 

For President Ruto and Azimio supremo Raila, that mysterious relationship is not new. It has been that way, one day they are together pushing for one common agenda on the same front, the next day they go at each other with no blood spill though.

The two leaders this week continued  chest thumping and relishing in throwing barbs at each other while addressing crowds as loss of dear lives in the country continued out of clashes between police and demonstrators.

President Ruto called Raila mzee wa kitendawili and yule mtu wa maandamano in Kericho early this week as he blamed the ODM leader and former president Uhuru Kenyatta for chaos rocking the country.

He then told supporters in Isiolo on Thursday that by covering their heads with cooking pots or demonstrating on the streets, the Azimio leaders will not lower the cost of living and that all the opposition wants is to be allowed into government through the back door.

Speaking from an undisclosed location, Raila responded by telling the president that he “does not want anything to do with his rotten loaf” as he called on Kenyans to continue fighting for their rights as citizens because each of them and their leaders all have a responsibility to lower the cost of living in the country.

The two leaders reinforced their positions, as the President responded to mass action demonstrations called by Raila with his own well- choreographed roadside rallies either before or after officiating functions and opening projects.

Urged on by their supporters, neither appears ready to yield ground despite calls for sobriety, responsible leadership and level headedness from religious leaders, the diplomatic community, civil society and peace loving Kenyans.

Religious leaders have condemned the mayhem they are witnessing which is threatening to divide the country because of unbridled politics and lack of concern over the people’s socio-economic challenges and safety.

National Council of Churches of Kenya Secretary General Rev Canon Chris Kinyanjui is among those who have called on both leaders to stop talking at each other from horse backs and instead sit and exchange ideas.

“Ni sharti yule ameshinda aongee na upinzani. Kuongea na upinzani sio handisheki ama nusu mkate, ni kusema kwamba hata wao wako na nafasi ya kutoa maoni yao (The winner has to talk to the loser. It is not about them joining government. They also have responsibility of contributing to governance),” says Rev Kinyanjui.

The head of the protestant churches council reminded the two leaders that Kenya uses a presidential system which like in the United States demands for talks and agreements over contested issues like the recently enacted Finance Act 2023 that has been temporarily stopped by the courts of law.

Religious leaders want the suspended bipartisan talks to resume without further delay with the sole agenda of reconstituting the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) through consensus.

He regretted that the government side has become belligerent and aggressive, ignoring efforts by the clergy to limit confrontation and in the process forcing the opposition into the demonstrations that could have been avoided.

“The opposition appears to be ready for dialogue but they complain to us that the other side is not listening to their proposals on addressing the cost of living and efforts to bring lasting calm in the country has been ignored,” said the prelate.

Raila insists that the Kenya Kwanza government forced them to go to the streets after refusing to dialogue on five demands they had tabled during the bipartisan talks that collapsed.

New efforts to bring Raila-Ruto to the negotiation table

“We are not to blame. Kenyans know what they want. They have a right to speak out when life is unbearable. The State can also not force Kenyans to pay high taxes and chest-thump about it. That era ended with the former constitution,” said Raila last week.

Religious leaders have now proposed that the issue of the cost of living addressed by a national dialogue conference for all to agree on the painful measures to be taken if any instead of using public participation exercise that ignores views raised by a majority of Kenyans.

They have also called on the Kenya Kwanza government to live up to their campaign promises because they told people that the cost of living was high and their immediate priority should have been how to lower the burden.

Political analyst Martin Andati thinks the president and his deputy are attempting to use draconian tactics and brute police force which will only taint the country’s human rights record and even lead to isolation of its leadership.

“They are doing the same things the Kanu leadership used to do during the one party rule before 1991 but they were defeated and furthermore the country has changed because the 2010 constitution that gave citizens a lot of powers in a very strong bill of rights,” says analyst Martin Andati.

 Civil society activists also argue that things will never be the same again regardless of the nostalgia those in power may have for the strong arm tactics and police brutality that was applied against them and opposition leaders in the past.

Both groups fought hard for change through leaders like the late Alexander Muge and Joseph Gitari (both ACK), Timothy Njoya (PCEA), Nding’i Mwana a’Nzeki (Catholic) and Dr Willy Mutunga (Human Rights Commission) among other activists and opposition politicians.

Scholars also urged the judiciary to robustly defend civil liberties through independence of the judiciary for which Kenyans will be proud, especially if jurisprudence and principles guiding courts will continue being clear and consistent.

Meanwhile religious leaders are now prepared to set the agenda for discussions between the government and the opposition by not allowing either side to bring unnecessary and untenable demands on the table.

Rev. Kinyanjui revealed that they will not be seeking to listen to issues from both sides because religious leaders have discussed and digested what has been raised and so only those that are relevant will be laid on the table at separate forums for quick resolution.

Leaders should also be prevailed upon to tone down their language especially the use of strong words like tutasafirisha Raila na Uhuru (we will transport Raila and Uhuru) used by President last week.

“It is difficult to understand what the president meant when saying tutasafirisha. Is it to transport them out of the country, to their rural homes or to an unknown place?” asks Andati with caution that such arrests will only smear an egg on the government’s face because free movement of those leaders will be quickly restored by the courts.

The Catholic has church raised its powerful voice and called for a sane and peaceful style of leadership which Archbishop of Nyeri Antony Muheria said is crucial in dealing with the rising political tension.

He cautioned leaders particularly those in power to be humane, empathetic and compassionate, instead of being arrogant, rough, insulting and imposing brinkmanship which he said is wrong.

“Violence, hatred and threats will not help in solving problems. Instead, political leaders should hold conversations on how to come up with permanent solutions, as advised by religious leaders,” said Muheria.

He further cautioned that should the bipartisan talks take place, then they should focus on the plight of the poor because in as much as taxes are good for the country as a whole, the effect they have on the poor should be also discussed.

Constitutional lawyer Bobby Mkangi who served on the nine-member Committee of Experts that harmonized the 2010 constitution final draft before it was handed over to the parliamentary select committee has praised efforts religious leaders are making for Ruto and Raila to embrace dialogue.

“We must have voices that can be trusted and which will bear some influence to both sides and also speak for all including leaders and the common person on the negotiating table. That is what the religious leaders provide,” says Mkangi.

He said those chose to lead tthe talks should also be equipped with necessary negotiating skills and inform principals to stop chest thumping.