The dialogue agenda part III: Why talks are going nowhere


It has been said that the absence of war is not the same thing as the presence of justice. This is some of the language that only fleetingly emerged in the national settlement that followed 2007/08 post-election violence. Instead we ended up with the 2008 peace, or political ceasefire, that the Grand Coalition Government of the time represented. We could say the same thing about the Building Bridges “handshake” that followed a decade later; it gave us a fragile peace.

If the hard question in both cases is whether or not these political settlements helped us to fully address our long-term issues (Agenda Four; BBI), the short answer is no.  But this is a nuanced answer. The ultimate nation-building (or re-building) goal that underpinned both “projects” was never supposed to be about an event or series of events, but a sustained process of continuous improvement built on constructive national conversations. Simply, the idea was to in-build continuity into our nation-building, not to fight after every election. I canvassed this point a fortnight ago, and threw the gauntlet of imagination at Kenya Kwanza as the people in charge.

Here’s one “bigly different” way (as Donald Trump might say) to think about this. Call this the “meta” perspective drawn from my “meta to nano” framing of Kenya. In this view, the constitution is not the foundation of our Kenyan “building structure”, but the roof that shelters and protects us all. Our foundation reflects our values and virtues; as well as our diversity. One might argue from this that our roof is strong but our foundation is weak, or as commentators put it “Kenyans are not ready for the constitution”. Lest we forget, our political elite are Kenyans!

The real power of the “meta” perspective can be found in three interrelated constructs. Think about that Kenyan building. First, to repeat from the beginning, justice is a pre-requisite for peace (lasting peace is a justice outcome). Second, justice - as the first floor above the foundation – offers balance between our security on one hand, and rights and freedoms on the other. Think, say, about our police as not just a security force, but a justice and rights institution. 

Third, a sustained peace flowing from justice as the second or upper floor in our building as the lever driving individual and national prosperity on one hand, and human progress on the other. You can draw the picture yourself, but a quick take is we are super-keen on immediate prosperity, part-keen on more gradual human progress and anxious for a peace that is not necessarily a justice outcome that balances, to repeat, security and rights. Katiba isn’t enough. 

For the record, a “meta to nano” - or meta-macro-meso-micro-nano - perspective on Kenya would bring a macro lens to resources (building our human, social, knowledge, physical and economic capital), a meso view to fix inequality (gender, geographical, inter-generational and social exclusion), a micro picture on addressing family or household basics (food, basic rights (education, health, shelter, water, community etc), access to assets and income opportunities, participatory governance and safety, security and accessible justice), and a nano viewpoint that speaks to the needs and wants, as well as rights versus responsibilities, of the individual citizen. 

We have digressed slightly into a story for another day. If we fly back from outer space to Planet Kenya, the real question is if our dialogue is already turning out to be a “dialogue to nowhere”.

From what we have observed in the past week, it is definitely not a dialogue that takes us to the higher thoughts described earlier. Or the simpler idea of “dialogue packages” covered last week.

To quickly recall, the idea was four dialogue packages: socio-economic, governance, security and political. Under socio-economic, constructive input to Kenya Kwanza’s ongoing economic reform, plus a social reform package to get us to reflect on and reframe our values and virtues. 

Mt. Kenya leaders say no to handshake as president Ruto two enters day 2

Under governance, demand and supply-side packages focused on horizontal reform across government. On security, a human security input to Kenya Kwanza’s ongoing external and internal security efforts. Finally on political, a “during elections” package of electoral reform, and a “between elections” package of democratic reform, with a focus on the key institutions.

Naturally, these were ideas from a parallel universe, but my sense this week is the dialogue agenda on the table is underwhelmingly short-term, and more transactional than transformative. That these talks don’t even have a name (dialogue on what? for what?) is the first sign of illness.

Then there are the subjects on the table. A week ago, the Azimio side of the dialogue settled on five issues: high cost of living, audit of the 2022 presidential election results, IEBC reconstitution, inclusivity in national affairs and respect for political parties in line with katiba.

But in their recent meeting invitation to the Kenya Kwanza side, inclusivity was dropped and replaced by the amorphous “outstanding constitutional matters” (governance issues, checks and balances and boundaries delimitation) while restructuring was added to the demand to participate in reconstituting IEBC. This is either great adaptability/flexibility, or more indecision and chaos.

Which is not to say that the dialogue issues offered by Kenya Kwanza are particularly exciting from a maandamano perspective. With high cost of living and Finance Act off the table, we are left with IEBC’s reconstitution plus legislative ideas to establish, embed or entrench the 2/3rds gender rule, Constituency Development Fund and Offices of the Official Opposition Leader and Prime Cabinet Secretary (read, Prime Minister). The hidden twist here is constitutional change.

It doesn’t help that the Kenya Kwanza language has more caveats than the health warnings on a cigarette packet, so, “we (they) will not participate in any manner on any issue that undermines any arm of government or undermines our laws and the constitution” and they will not “engage on any matters that are of a personal or private nature”. You can almost smell the tear gas fumes!

 Then we get to the teams selected for the dialogue. In the earlier, now stillborn, bipartisan parliamentary talks, Azimio reportedly complained that they were going in with “Team A” but Kenya Kwanza brought “Team D” to the same table. Similar sentiments have been offered, by multiple observers, in the past week. To crudely paraphrase one TV commentator, “one side looks like a delegation that has come to negotiate, the other like a gang that has come to fight”.

There many missing parts to this dialogue process. I have attempted to frame it in terms of the bigger, long-term issues that Kenya’s nation-building project must still address. Yet, to repeat, the content looks more transactional than it is transformational, on both sides of the divide. It is temptingly easy to conclude that the real agenda – cost of living aside - is still not on the table.

But it is more correct to observe that neither is the notion of multi-stakeholder involvement. By narrowing the issues, we have left the table to another cabal consensus among our political elite. And since we – the people - are not seated at the table we are, yet again, part of the latest menu.

As the people, here’s a “shareholder” reminder of the 2022 presidential election numbers where we began. From every 100 votes, roughly 99 went to the two main candidates. Rounding the numbers between them across our political regions, that was 21 out of every 27 votes in Mt Kenya and 12 out of every 16 in the North and South Rift as President Ruto’s majorities, and 13 out of 15 in Nyanza, seven out of 11 in Western, five out of seven votes at the Coast and Lower Eastern each, four out of seven in the North and five out of nine in Nairobi as Raila’s wins.

Make what you will of this official data in the context of who is and who is not interested in dialogue in a country that was basically split right down the middle in 2022.

And then consider that, while the 2022 election is definitely over and we have a duly elected president, it would be a tragedy if we didn’t find a way to make this dialogue a consequential nation-building project for the long-term, not a moment for perfunctory fixes. We continue to live in hope, but after observing the past week, we seem to be pursuing a “dialogue to nowhere”.