Kenya politics: Power struggle


A dispute over corruption allegations has rapidly descended into political point-scoring between the members of Kenya’s unity government. Although both sides remain publicly committed to the coalition, further internecine fighting is likely.

Two years after the February 28th 2008 peace accord between Mwai Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU) and Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) brought an end to post-election violence, the grand coalition remains intact–just. However, a new crisis has erupted and cabinet meetings suspended because of the ongoing battle for influence between the two sides and their respective bids to be seen as the most committed anti-corruption fighters.

In mid-February President Kibaki suspended five civil servants and three bosses at the National Cereals and Produce Board for 90-days, pending investigations. The move followed a forensic audit by accountancy group PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which uncovered a KSh2bn (US$26m) fraud in Kenya’s subsidised maize scheme, and an internal probe exposed corruption totalling some KSh103m in the donor-backed free primary education scheme. Although, typically, no ministers were implicated, permanent secretaries in the education, agriculture and special programmes departments, and in the prime minister’s office were dropped, as was the prime minister’s chief-of-staff, Caroli Omondi.

Within 24 hours, however, the prime minister, Raila Odinga, had announced the suspension of the agriculture minister, William Ruto (ODM), and education minister, Sam Ongeri (PNU), also for 90-day periods. President Kibaki responded by revoking the ministerial suspensions and declaring that the prime minister had overstepped his authority; this prompted the ODM to declare a formal “dispute”, calling for the intervention of Kenya’s chief external mediator, Kofi Annan, and announcing a boycott of cabinet meetings. Mr Odinga claims that the national accord gives him the power to discipline ministers but the PNU, backed by attorney-general Amos Wako (on whom the US recently imposed a travel ban), disagrees, saying that consultation is required. In fact, it is not clear which side is correct. Mr Annan is non-committal about fresh mediation, but has postponed a conference to review the peace accord from end-March until September because of the tensions. The row has also exposed divisions within the ODM, especially between Mr Odinga and Mr Ruto, who, alongside tourism minister Najib Balala, has refused to accept the ODM’s cabinet boycott.

The dispute threatened to intensify after the opening of parliament on February 23rd, when the ODM submitted a revised list of members to serve on the crucial House Business Committee (HBC), dropping Mr Ruto and replacing him with ODM chairman (and industrialisation minister) Henry Kosgey. Mr Ruto tried to block the move, but the ODM hierarchy in turn threatened to block government business and eventually prevailed. The re-opening of parliament also highlighted the year-long split between the ODM and PNU over who should chair the HBC but, with no consensus in prospect, the speaker, Kenneth Marende, kept the post (on an interim basis). Parliament will therefore be able to function–and both Mr Kibaki and Mr Odinga insist that the coalition will remain intact–but deep divisions both between and within the main parties will continue to hamper policy implementation, and may impede attempts to formulate a new constitution, which have been making some headway.

It is hard to say who has won the most political capital from the dispute to date. Mr Odinga’s authority was dented when the president overturned the suspension of Mr Ongeri and Mr Ruto (who may now decamp from the ODM to the PNU, taking fellow members of the Kalenjin tribe with him). Against that, the prime minister may win some credit from voters for appearing to take a harder line on corruption than Mr Kibaki.

However, it is clear that the recent conflict has less to do with tackling corruption than scoring political points in the build-up to the 2012 election. Both sides remain publicly committed to the coalition, but lingering mistrust points to further internecine fighting, which will hamper the implementation of key socio-political reforms.