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Kenya's Next Presidential Race in Full Swing

  • Michael Onyiego

Part 3 of 5-part series: Kenya: The Pace of Reforms
See Parts 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5

February 28 marks the third anniversary of Kenya’s coalition government, formed in after violence surrounding the country’s disputed presidential poll. Though much work remains in Kenya’s reform and reconciliation agenda, the race is already heating up for elections in 2012.

It is just more than three years since a disputed presidential election between President Mwai Kibaki and current Prime Minister Raila Odinga nearly tore Kenya apart. After nearly two months of ethnic violence swept across the country, a deal was reached between the two to form a government and move the country forward.

The election rivals have spent the better part of the past three years trying to enact reforms to prevent a repeat of that brutal episode.

The power-sharing experiment born out of that chaos has been, at times, contentious and progress has been slow. But Kenya’s politicians are looking ahead to Kenya’s next poll in 2012.

With President Kibaki due to complete his final term next year, Prime Minister Odinga was pegged by many as a strong favorite to become Kenya’s next president. Mr. Odinga is wildly popular in many parts of the country and was applauded by both international and local observers for working with the president to deliver the country’s new constitution.

But the Prime Minister is under attack from all sides, as longtime rivals and former allies seek to establish their bids. And as the fight intensifies, no aspect of Kenya’s politics is out of bounds. Opposition politicians - such as Parliament Member Jamleck Kamau - have recently accused Mr. Odinga of using the International Criminal Court to secure his candidacy.

“The whole ICC process has been politicized and has become a tool for some people to ascend to power,” he said.

Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and former Higher Education Minister William Ruto were among the six named by Court Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo suspected of organizing and funding Kenya’s post-election chaos. Both Kenyatta and Ruto are seen as Mr. Odinga’s main competition in 2012.

But the challenge from Ruto is perhaps most damaging. He is the dominant political figure in Kenya’s populous and volatile Rift Valley Region and served as a key ally during Mr. Odinga’s 2007 campaign.

But relations between the two were strained in 2010 after Ruto broke ranks with the Orange Democratic Movement Party and campaigned against the new constitution. After Ruto was demoted to the Ministry of Higher Education from the prestigious Agriculture post, links between the two were severed completely. Ruto has since become a key ally of President Kibaki.

“ODM is a national party and will continue to remain a national party. Individuals will come and go from a political party,” Odinga said.

He has downplayed the significance of Ruto’s shift. But his exit may have triggered more worrying trend.

In recent months, a political storm has raged around the alleged alliance formed by ICC targets Kenyatta and Ruto, as well as Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka. The group, which can be seen campaigning together across the country, has been dubbed the “Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Kamba Alliance,” in reference to ethnicity of each member.

Some analysts fear such a group could re-ignite the violence seen in 2007. Parliament Member Martha Karua, also seen as a viable candidate in 2012, has similarly denounced the alliance.

“The days, therefore, of urging people to belong to one party are over. May I ask my brother Uhuru and his colleagues to a new democratic Kenya, where competition is the order of the day,” Karua said.

Controversial former-president Daniel Moi, himself a Kalenjin, has also denounced the alliance, arguing it excludes much of Kenya’s other ethnic groups. The members of the so-called KKK alliance have vehemently denied that their agenda revolves around ethnicity.

The Head of Programs for the Nairobi-based International Center for Policy and Conflict, Paul Mwaura, agrees. Mwaura says the election in 2012 has much higher stakes than tribal rivalries.

“The fight is for continuation of impunity in Kenya, for that infrastructure not to be broken,” he said.

In its nearly 50 year history, Kenya has struggled with massive corruption throughout its public sector. Politicians have been at the center of nearly every major scandal and an estimated one-third of the country’s budget is lost through graft.

The analyst said the 2012 poll could mark a turning point in Kenya’s reform efforts.
But Mwaura also tipped the new constitution as a tool in the fight against ethnic politics. Kenya’s new laws call for the decentralization of powers through the creation of a senate as well as regional governments. The laws also limit presidential powers, by requiring parliamentary approval for Cabinet appointments.

Mwaura believes this could focus political matters on local issues, instead of ethnic alliances and power. “It makes the presidency unattractive. It is not something that you must die for. Because you cannot give goodies the way you want as per the old order,” he said.

More than 1,300 people were killed and 300,000 driven from their homes during the violence in 2007 and 2008. Kenya’s new constitution has been heralded as a critical step towards national healing, but many other items of the peace process remain unfinished. There is still a long way to go before Kenya’s next presidential poll and many hope Kenya’s coalition government can prevent the ethnic clashes of the previous election from re-igniting in 2012.

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