Africa, Headlines

POLITICS-KENYA: Big Cabinet, Bigger Challenges

Kwamboka Oyaro

NAIROBI, Apr 18 2008 (IPS) - The oaths of office have been taken, and solemn pronouncements made about the ills that have dogged Kenya's past, and the way to address these in the future. Now, can the East African country's vast new coalition government move from talking the talk to walking the walk?

A vehicle that was set alight by suspected Mungiki members in Nairobi. Credit: Julius Mwelu/IRIN

A vehicle that was set alight by suspected Mungiki members in Nairobi. Credit: Julius Mwelu/IRIN

This is the question that Kenyans woke up to Friday morning, along with their biggest ever cabinet – a grouping of some 90 ministers and deputy ministers whom it is hoped will lead the country to recovery after the destruction unleashed by disputed Dec. 27 polls.

The coalition government, sworn in Thursday, includes members of President Mwai Kibaki's Party of National Unity (PNU) and Raila Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). Now prime minister, Odinga had accused Kibaki of rigging the presidential ballot to win a second term in office. Allegations of election fraud were followed by widespread violence that claimed over a thousand lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of Kenyans – the clashes fuelled by longstanding ethnic resentments and anger over economic disparities.

Kibaki and Odinga agreed to form a joint government at the end of February, during crisis talks mediated by former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan.

While it was envisaged that posts would be shared equitably, the PNU has retained control over many key portfolios, notably finance, justice, defence and foreign affairs – raising concerns that the ODM may ultimately feel too marginalised to continue within the unity government.

Ministries headed by ODM members include those for local government, public service and agriculture.

"The other side (the PNU) was arrogant, and since they had claimed victory (in the elections) they wanted to cling to powerful ministries to show they were more entitled to power than ODM," says author and political analyst Peter Ombui.

"But Odinga salvaged the country from doom. In that aspect, he is the big winner."

Deborah Okumu, executive director of the Kenya Women's Political Caucus, a non-governmental organisation based in the capital of Nairobi, believes the ODM still has the chance to make a mark in government.

"I don't think Odinga lost out, although that is the perception among his supporters. If his people take up their ministerial roles with gusto, they will transform their ministries and make them as powerful as any other," she told IPS. "I have been a civil servant and I know a ministry is as powerful as the minister."

Nonetheless, Kenyans remember all too clearly that an earlier government which brought together Kibaki and Odinga failed.

Ahead of the 2002 polls, Odinga threw his support behind Kibaki's National Rainbow Coalition, reportedly in exchange for a pledge that he would be made prime minister. By 2005, however, this arrangement had collapsed, with Odinga leading a campaign to oppose a new constitution that entrenched a powerful presidency.

Then there is the sheer cost of the cabinet, which has 42 ministers. Thanks to the new – some say overlapping – posts created to accommodate both the PNU and ODM, the cabinet now includes almost half the Kenyan parliament. What with the salaries of ministers, their deputies and staffers, the allowances given to cabinet members, and the range of perquisites they have access to, the cabinet will be a considerable burden on the public purse – this in a country where close on 23 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, according to the latest United Nations Human Development Report, and almost 60 percent on under two dollars daily.

The cabinet that Kibaki led ahead of December's ballot had 34 ministers, and former president Daniel arap Moi's teams a maximum of 28.

"I know there has been some debate about the size of the government, but what is important is that we do have a government," said Annan, in Nairobi to witness the swearing in of ministers.

Over recent weeks, it seemed doubtful at times that a new cabinet would be put in place, as the PNU and ODM were at loggerheads over the allocation of powerful ministries, civil service and parastatal posts. This led, in turn, to fears of a return to widespread violence.

A cabinet was finally agreed on Sunday.

"We have been to hell and back. Never again in our history must we return to those times…We must preserve our dignity and remain united," said Odinga Thursday, after being sworn in.

The ODM leader is the second person to hold the post of prime minister in Kenya; the country's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, held the position at independence in 1963 before scrapping it the following year to create the presidency.

Other guests at Thursday's ceremony included Moi, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Tanzanian Prime Minister Peter Mizengo, Rwandan Prime Minister Bernard Makuza, Burundian Vice President Yves Sahinguvu – and former Malawian president Bakili Muluzi.

The immediate priorities for the new government include resettling those displaced in electoral violence. Over the longer term, it will need to draft a constitution that devolves power, and deal with social inequities, notably concerning land ownership.

The extent of the difficulties facing the authorities was immediately made apparent by the actions of the banned Mungiki sect, essentially a criminal gang composed principally of members of the Kikuyu ethnic group.

The discovery of the beheaded corpse of jailed sect leader Maina Njenga's wife prompted violence in various parts of Kenya over recent days during which several people are said to have been killed and many more arrested. The group reportedly alleges that police were responsible for the wife's death – an accusation authorities have denied.

While the swearing in ceremony was underway at State House, the presidential residence, the sect struck at various locations in Nairobi and elsewhere, burning vehicles.

Government had ruled out discussions with the group over ending the violence; but in his speech, Thursday, Odinga indicated his willingness to hold talks with the Mungiki. After this pronouncement, Njenga called for sect members to cease their attacks.

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