Prime Minister Says Kenyan Politics ‘Are Not Ethnic’

EDITOR'S NOTE: As he lobbies for economic support from the United States and others, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga denies his country is bogged down by ethnic-based politics in an interview with Stephnie Hanson, news editor for the Council on Foreign Relations. For the full interview, please visit the council's Web site. A few excerpts:

NAIROBI, Kenya-Following disputed presidential elections in late 2007, Kenya exploded into ethnic-based violence. In February 2008, international mediators brokered a power-sharing agreement between President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga, who became Kenya's prime minister as part of the deal. Since then, little of the government's reform agenda has been executed and frustration within Kenya has mounted. Odinga, in an interview with CFR's Stephanie Hanson and other U.S. editors, dismissed reports that he has threatened to pull out of the power-sharing government, saying he would work to continue to press reforms in the constitution, electoral law, and the judiciary.

You have made some public statements of frustration and exasperation with the government and threatened at points to pull out. First, do you have any intention of doing so, and under what conditions?

I have not threatened to pull out. We will not pull out because pulling out would amount to surrender. Our position is that we won an election but our victory was stolen. We agreed to compromise so that the country can move on and that we use this position to produce reforms that will ensure this country does not in this future get itself in the difficult situation that it found itself in last year.

Could you outline your three most important reform priorities?

Number one, the constitution. We do have a draft constitution. There are only a few areas that need some attention. Number two, the electoral law reforms. Number three, the reforms in the judiciary and the police.

Can you elaborate on your vision for a new constitution and what the main elements in that constitution would be?

This country, like many other African countries, has suffered from overconcentration of power in one institution. This was done through a series of amendments that have been introduced since independence which moved power from the periphery to the center. We started with a fairly decentralized system, a kind of quasi-federal system of government. That was removed and replaced with a unitary, highly centralized form of government where the institution of the presidency has emasculated all other institutions of governance-what we call the imperial presidency.

We want to dismantle that and introduce checks and balances to the system. We want to devolve power to give the regions more say in planning and execution of the development agenda. We want parliament to play an oversight role and the executive to implement the vision. Then we want a judiciary that is truly independent in function and is corruption free. If we could do this and have a clear separation of powers, we would be able to have a better system of governance to ensure democracy and respect for human rights.

One Kenyan student I spoke to referred to the Kenyan government as an arranged marriage by the United States. Can you characterize the relationship now and the support you receive from the U.S. government?

I don't know that the U.S. government was involved in arranging the marriage. That is [one] opinion. I don't know whether [the United States] wants to preside over the divorce as well.

The United States played a major role in the negotiations, in pushing for some kind of compromise, along with the European Union, the UK, the UN, and the African Union. So there were many matchmakers. The United States has continued to play a role in assisting us move forward. I don't know whether they have been overzealous to the extent of trying to get into the bedroom. I want to leave that to others to judge.

We would like to see more support from the United States. What we are asking for from the United States is engagement at an economic level. We are not expecting handouts from the United States. We want to see more trade between the United States and Kenya. We want more access to goods manufactured in your country and vice versa. Secondly, we would like to see more American tourists come to Kenya. Thirdly, we want to increase cooperation in the field of security and terrorism, the war against piracy. Our economy has been very badly affected by piracy in the Indian Ocean. We don't have the capacity to police the waters of the Indian Ocean.

There is a lot of concern among Kenyans about corruption. What can the government, and you personally, do to address corruption?

Corruption is of serious concern to us. Corruption exists in virtually all societies. It is only what is done about it that differs. If it is tolerated, then it becomes entrenched, it becomes systemic. We are coming from a time when corruption was highly tolerated, and the institutions that have developed over the years that were tolerating corruption-the police force, the state law office, the judiciary, and then there are the oversight bodies against the government itself. We are dealing with this issue of corruption. That is why I emphasize a lot the issue of reform in the governance structure.

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