News 2008


Reform or fall, Odinga warns new coalition

The Financial Times

By Barney Jopson in Nairobi

March 6 2008

The survival of Kenya's new coalition government will hinge on its success in pushing through constitutional and land reforms, Raila Odinga, the man set to be prime minister, has said.

Mr Odinga signed a landmark deal last week to share power with Mwai Kibaki, the president, whose hurried swearing-in after flawed December elections triggered the worst unrest since independence and shattered Kenya's reputation for stability.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Odinga said: "The coalition is premised on reform. First constitutional reforms, then land reforms, and then institutional and legal reforms. Its survival is dependent on how far it succeeds in bringing these reforms."

Legal moves to establish the coalition and create the prime minister's post will accelerate today when parliament opens and begins passing the required constitutional amendments into law, a process expected to conclude within two weeks.

The coalition will bring together an awkward array of allies-turned-enemies, as well as hardliners who feel their leaders conceded too much in the deal, which was brokered by Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations.

Asked what would happen if the coalition broke down, Mr Odinga said: "The two partners are almost equal in strength [in parliament]. So if one pulls out it will be very difficult for the other to continue . . . They'll be living on the precipice. It'll be a dangerous existence. But sometimes people like to take risks."

The coalition could last the five-year term of the presidency if both partners wanted to continue once reforms were completed, he said. "But if after they have achieved these reforms the feeling of the partners is that they should go for an early election, then they'll decide to go for an early election. But I don't want to pre-judge that."

Mr Odinga was speaking at a house in the Nairobi suburbs that served as the campaign headquarters of his Orange Democratic Movement. His newly appointed state security retinue milled around outside among a fleet of government-supplied vehicles that arrived only on Tuesday.

Defying a pre-election image - promoted by some Kibaki supporters - as an unpredictable radical, he sought to act as a statesman during the two-month crisis. Rabble-rousing was left to his lieutenants, but critics say he could have done more to stop violence that killed more than 1,500 people and forced more than 300,000 from their homes.

Yesterday his tone was conciliatory. "There is a general desire to see that this thing will work. I think that feeling is mutual. I sense it from President Kibaki himself," he said. The two men have a rocky history, however. Mr Odinga led Mr Kibaki's presidential campaign in 2002 after Mr Kibaki was injured in a car accident, but he says the president reneged on a backroom deal to make him prime minister in his first government.

"You cannot forget the past but you can forgive it," he said, adapting the message that Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's first president, sent to the former British colonialists who had imprisoned him during the independence struggle. "Everything in life is in the future. You don't want to continue to be buried in the past."

He said the coalition's priority would be to invest in infrastructure and restore property, vehicles, kiosks and businesses destroyed during the violence, which left east Africa's biggest economy in danger of contracting this year.

Among the government's biggest challenges was resettling displaced people, who fear returning to live among neighbours from rival tribes who had attacked them.

Attempts to defuse the deep-seated ethnic tensions inflamed by the election, which have their roots in land distribution and inequality, would include the creation of a permanent commission on ethnic relations and the devolution of power to the regions.

Mr Odinga said that in his role as "executive prime minister" he would be involved in formulating -policy proposals put to the cabinet by ministries and would be responsible for -policy implementation and tackling corruption. "What has happened in the past is a lot of good policies have been developed on paper, but you find they are not implemented," he said.

Canny outsider champions the poor

During three decades in Kenyan politics, Raila Odinga, 63, has cultivated the image of the battle-hardened outsider fighting for social justice and democracy, despite spending several years in government.

In the 1980s he spent eight years in jail - six of them in solitary confinement - for his opposition to one-party rule and alleged involvement in a coup attempt against the president, Daniel arap Moi.

He is regarded as one of the canniest operators in the fluid and opportunistic world of Kenyan political deal-making. While a paid-up member of the business elite - his company makes gas cylinders - he is also a champion of the poor.

His most fervent support comes from members of his Luo ethnic group, among whom he has the status of a tribal chief.

But he came within an inch of the presidency - and claimed to be its rightful winner - by unifying an array of tribes against the perceived dominance of President Mwai Kibaki's Kikuyu people.

For an interview transcript, visit