News 2008


Power-sharing: conflict or compromise?

By Stephanie Holmes

BBC News

Monday, 10 March 2008

Kenya's parliament is preparing to usher in a power-sharing agreement, brokered to bring to an end to months of ethnic violence sparked by December's disputed election.

But with the country still reeling from the political bloodshed - which displaced some 600,000 people and left at least 1,500 dead - can President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga simply now govern side by side?

Under a deal reached in late February, Mr Odinga will become prime minister -a position that is yet to be formally created - in a narrowly split parliament.

But other key issues - about the exact division of power between prime minister and president, as well as how the different ministries will be shared among two parties with differing political agendas - have yet to be thrashed out.

'Secure cocoon'

Power-sharing will not solve a conflict, says Michael Kerr, of the London School of Economics (LSE), rather it will provide a way of managing and regulating it.

"The institutions themselves will not fix your problem. Like a plaster will not fix a broken bone."

Critics of power-sharing say such deals fail to address the reasons behind conflicts and actually entrench political, ethnic or group divisions, rather than resolve them.

Mr Kerr does not agree: "Those divisions are already there. What power-sharing does is it recognises those divisions and institutionalises them.

"A cynic, or realist, might say you have the continuation of war by diplomacy in politics, which is a common historical theme."

Vasu Gounden, the founder of Accord - the African Centre for Constructive Resolution of Disputes - says power-sharing will only work where certain fundamental conditions, including socio-economic stability, are already in place.

"Power-sharing in Kenya will not be easy because there has already been a fracturing within society," he said from Durban.

"Both parties are very equally matched and know their strengths and they have come through a process of extreme conflict."

Struggle for the centre

He cites Burundi - where a power-sharing government was set up in 2001 - as an example of the challenges faced by governing with a such an agreement.

"When you find that political parties are operating on the basis of positions and power - not politics and ideology - then there is a very protracted and deep struggle for power at the centre.

"Parties find it very difficult to reach consensus and it becomes a continuous struggle that can lead to paralysis of governance."

In Burundi, he points out, continued conflict within government prevented any legislation being agreed for eight months.

In South Africa, as the country made the transition to multi-party democracy with its first free multiracial elections in 1994, political violence between supporters of the Inkatha Freedom Party and the African National Congress claimed thousands of lives.

The ANC's Frene Ginwala, speaker of parliament between 1994 and 2004, remembers that after such violence, a power-sharing deal was the only way forward.

"Very often, when we were unhappy with compromise, Mr Mandela would say: 'Yes, but what is the alternative? The alternative is that you are going to inherit, you are going to rule over, a pile of ruins'," she said.

With Kenya's political violence estimated to have cost the country some $1bn in damage to the economy as well as ruining its image as a haven of stability within the continent, Mr Kibaki and Mr Odinga may well have come to a similar conclusion.

Falling out

"The experience of violence, the threat of ethnic violence would probably bolster the political will of both sides," Ms Ginwala said.

She is at pains to emphasise that though they may have traded barbs this time around, the two men were once political allies.

Mr Odinga's support was vital in getting President Mwai Kibaki elected in 2002. But after he later failed to follow through on a promised power-sharing government with Mr Odinga, the two fell out.

"We mustn't forget that they fought the [2002] election together, as part of the coalition. I hope this is what they will hark back to, rather than the last few years when they disagreed so much," she said.

Difficult personal relationships with people at the opposite side of the political divide are one of the challenges of making a power-sharing government work, says Mr Kerr.

'Battlefield struggle'

"Of course there is an awful lot of personal antagonism and difficulty; there is an awful lot of grief and memory from the conflict.

"Many of the participants involved in Northern Ireland at the moment, many would see them as being either the main participants in, or provocateurs of, a lot of that violence," he said.

In Kenya too, international observers accused political leaders of fomenting the ethnic tensions between their supporters' base.

But he insists that power-sharing in Northern Ireland provides an "incremental approach to dealing with long-term divisions within society," allowing memories of violence to fade, albeit slowly.

Accord's Mr Gounden says that building a strong relationship between the two men at the top of the political pyramid in Kenya will be key to ensuring consensus lower down.

Yet he underlines that conflict is at the very heart of all political relationships - within Africa and beyond.

"I don't think there is anything different in Africa, it is just that the economic situation on the continent and the literacy levels might be different, so the struggles turn out to be not just a boardroom struggle for power, but a battlefield struggle for power also."