Letter from Africa: Is Kenya building bridges to nowhere?

An opposition supporter challenges police during a protests following elections in Kenya in October 2017
Violence broke out when the results of the October 2017 election were announced

In our series of letters from African writers, journalist Waihiga Mwaura asks whether Kenya’s divides can ever be bridged.

Twenty-one months ago, Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga and his bitter rival President Uhuru Kenyatta kissed and made up – metaphorically.

In fact they shook hands for the cameras – in what became known as “the Handshake”.

President Uhuru Kenyatta (L) and Raila Odinga (R) shaking hands in February 2018
Image captionThe handshake between President Kenyatta (L) and Raila Odinga (R) ended a political stand-off

It ended months of tensions following disputed elections, which always tend to be highly divisive and deadly in Kenya.

The two leaders agreed to put together a team to find a way to end such instability.

This taskforce, known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), was to look at nine issues – including ethnic antagonism, corruption and devolution – thought to be among the greatest challenges since the country became independent in 1963.

‘Educating parents’

After 18 months travelling around the East African nation, the BBI has just delivered its finding – to much fanfare.

Mr Odinga told those gathered for the launch that before the process began, the nation had been on the “brink of a precipice”.

The president added: “We were not in a good place as a country. We were divided. There were no-go zones for certain communities.”

The pair were unified in embracing the BBI’s recommendations.

Some of the key proposals include:

  • Introducing the position of a prime minister as a way to dilute power
  • Giving Kenya’s 47 counties bigger budgets to implement development schemes
  • Making the cabinet leaner and more representative of the nation
  • Giving corruption scam whistleblowers 5% of any funds recovered.

Another suggestion in the 156-page report is to introduce parenting classes “for all new parents so that they know how to properly instruct, correct, rebuke, and support their children”.

Some have hailed the report as unifying, comprehensive and the beginning of the process of rebuilding the nation.

They also applaud the taskforce for not substantially increasing the tax burden on Kenyans by introducing many constitutional posts as had been rumoured would happen.

‘Long working hours not tackled’

But the document is also facing its fair share of opposition.

Some critics say that in the aftermath of the 2007 election, there were various reports and committees that looked into the causes of the violence that pointed to irregular land allocation and various economic crimes and human rights abuses.

A Kenya private security guard in Nairobi - archive shot
Image captionKenyan workers, such as private security guards, often work long hours for low pay

Why not dust down those files instead of spending money on a report, which, according to MP Patrick Munene, cost 10bn Kenyan shillings ($97.5m; £75.5m) to produce.

The report comes at a time when the government is facing a financial squeeze – as the finance minister has put in place austerity measures to contain spending.

I was particularly struck by the sentiments of one security guard on the day the report was released.

He asked me about its content and I gave him a brief summary.

He then complained that what he had heard so far did not in any way address his current challenge – long working hours (usually 12-hour shifts, six days a week) with little pay.

In a job where the minimum monthly wage of $131 is rarely honoured and where you are penalised for being off-duty even if you are sick, he had hoped that the report would address his working conditions and those of thousands of his colleagues in the security sector.

What about the opposition?

The congratulatory conviviality of the official launch left one wondering about the state of democracy in Kenya.

The president appeared to be more in tune with Mr Odinga than members of his own party – making several question again whether Kenya’s opposition has lost its voice.

President Uhuru Kenyatta (front left) and Raila Odinga (front centre) at the launching of the BBI report - November 2019
Image captionThe BBI report was launched amid much razzmatazz

In a year of numerous revelations regarding corruption in the public service the opposition, since the historic handshake, seems to have neglected its whistleblower function.

For example, it has remained strangely quiet on scandals like that uncovered by the central bank governor, who accused former treasury officials of using “abracadabra” conjuring tricks to distort budget figures.

When the chief justice accused the executive arm of government earlier this month of trying to deliberately “cripple the judiciary” through budget cuts, the silence from the opposition benches was deafening.

At a time when the national blood blank is running short of blood – with allegations that blood is being sold on the side, politicians seem unmoved to investigate.

The BBI recommendations have a long way to go before they are adopted – and may even have to go to a referendum if the constitution is changed.

But for the “wananchi” – the Swahili term for ordinary citizens – the process is symptomatic of a political class unwilling to cross a bridge from their side of privilege to see how people are struggling on the other side.

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