Sunday, 7 April 2013

Kenya: Uhuru should tread with care on devolution, keep an eye on Raila

Posted  Saturday, April 6   2013 at  16:30

As Kenyans swear in their fourth president, the stage is set for a potentially exciting run of events.
The country kept the peace in spite of all the doomsayers’ predictions. Statements of goodwill from erstwhile critics have given Uhuru Kenyatta a positive grounding as he steps up to the presidency.
By extending an olive branch to his opponents and promising an inclusive government, he has raised hopes that political transition can quickly give way to investor confidence and citizen calm; conditions for boosting the economy. The people could be forgiven for already seeking a peace dividend.
Yet all is not straight forward at this early stage. Two areas of political engagement are emerging as sticky and with the potential to greatly affect how well the incoming president steers the ship of state over the coming years.
First and most urgent is the simmering stand-off between counties and the national government on the management of transition and the substantive division of power between representatives of the national and devolved government.
Second is how to deal with a wounded Raila Odinga who seems set on upping the ante on coming parliamentary contests and extra-parliamentary combat.
Implementing devolution was always going to be a challenging assignment for any one assuming the presidency but for Uhuru, a number of added challenges make it even more daunting.
First, he assumes office when the roadmap to devolved government is both incomplete and mired in intense territorial contest and distrust. Opponents of genuine devolution are acting as if they have him in their corner.
Yet the political base of his partner, William Ruto, is historically home to the most consistent crusaders for devolution over the past 50 years and their support cannot be taken for granted.
Emotions are rising among governors who seem more united in their quest for real power than they are as party representatives.
The opposition is spoiling to seize on this stand-off to not only portray itself as the champion of the hugely popular devolution, but also to return to their taunts against the new president over his commitment to the Constitution.
This matter can cut the political honeymoon short if not handled with care. But President Uhuru Kenyatta can easily offload this yoke at minimal political cost by reassuring the country that, first, he is committed to the word and spirit of devolution as envisaged in our Constitution.
Second, that the balancing act between the security and other national functions represented by county commissioners and the legitimate demands of county governments can be achieved through structured and dignified engagement. And third, that he will be the calming presence as we seek to effect greater autonomy at the grassroots while retaining our national unity and identity.
Mr Odinga presents a different challenge for the incoming president. He represents decades of accumulated goodwill and resourcefulness. He has a nationwide network of loyal supporters chastened by defeat in the last elections but unbowed in their self-assuredness.
One strong streak that marks out the Prime Minister emeritus is his ability to smell out popular courses and move quickly to own them. Already he has fired warning shots across the bow. He is presenting himself as a friend by speaking a language that sounds melodious to the ears of governors and other elected county leaders who are getting agitated as their triumph is subsumed under the greater triumph of those who have won state power.
In a country where party identity has shallow roots, letting the opposition gain root in the souls of the governors can be a costly mistake by any new government.
One big challenge the opposition poses for government is going to be in the Legislature. The Jubilee Alliance has done well to attract smaller parties to its corner in a way that promises a working majority in the two houses of Parliament.
Of course this has raised complaints from both Raila and Kalonzo Musyoka, with the latter describing it as an attack on democracy. One could remind the two that they are past masters at post-election alliances. Cushioning the government side with numbers is helpful, but it is not the whole story.
The calibre of persons Cord has brought into elective office boasts a superior pedigree compared to their colleagues from Jubilee. Looking at key names in both houses of Parliament suggests that the government legislators will have their work cut out for them.
One way of limiting losses for the government is to avoid one weakness that bedevilled the Kibaki government: casting away political goodwill by embracing unpopular causes and surrendering the high ground to the opposition.
How the new government deals with devolution is the first of many such challenges to come.
Dr Mukhisa Kituyi is a director at the Kenya Institute of Governance

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