Prime minister upbeat on Kenya's power-sharing compromise

Posted in Africa | 04-Mar-08 | Author: Jeffrey Gettleman| Source: International Herald Tribune

Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga, left, and Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, right, look on after signing a power-sharing agreement in Nairobi, Kenya, Thursday, Feb. 28, 2008.

NAIROBI: Raila Odinga is a happy man.

On Sunday, he went to the beach and was pictured on the front page of Kenya's leading newspaper, The Daily Nation, lounging by the waves, wearing shorts and argyle socks.

On Monday, as he polished off a bowl of vegetable soup and sautéed fish at the Nairobi Club, Odinga seemed relaxed, chatty and upbeat - for the first time in weeks.

"Better half a loaf than no bread," Odinga said of a power-sharing agreement struck on Thursday that marries his political party to that of his rivals in the Kenyan government.

Odinga, 63, is Kenya's top opposition leader, and his decision to drop his claim to Kenya's presidency - which he says he rightly won - and to accept the newly created position of prime minister has helped pull this country back from the brink of chaos.

Last week, the governing party agreed to form a coalition government with Odinga's party, the breakthrough in a dangerous political crisis that erupted in December with a flawed election. The incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, was declared the winner of a new term, despite widespread evidence of vote rigging, setting off weeks of bloodshed, destruction and nationwide displacements that for a moment put Kenya's entire future in doubt.

The political violence has mostly calmed down, though on Sunday night more than 10 people were killed in western Kenya in clashes over contested land. Odinga, during an exclusive interview on Monday, credited the unstinting pressure by the European Union and American government with forcing Kibaki to compromise.

"They knew the game was up," Odinga said, referring to Kibaki's side, which had insisted for weeks that it would not share power with the opposition but finally conceded to just about every one of Odinga's demands except for the presidency itself.

Odinga said that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been especially influential - and tough. She visited Kenya last month, and by the accounts of Odinga and others with knowledge of her meetings, she gave Kenya's president a serious tongue-lashing and told him that his plan to prevent Odinga's team from getting any real power was "unacceptable."

People close to Kibaki have conceded that the foreign pressure did indeed play a role in Kibaki's about-face, especially from donor nations like the United States, which provides Kenya with more than half a billion dollars of aid each year.

Odinga says that pressure must continue. "We're still at a very critical stage," he said.

The next step is for Parliament to ratify the political agreement signed by Odinga and Kibaki. There are many questions to sort through, like how the government will function with essentially two bosses and what will happen to the vice president, a position that now seems to be eclipsed by that of the prime minister. Parliament is scheduled to meet on Thursday.

But the biggest question seems to be how Odinga and Kibaki will get along. The two had teamed up in 2002, when Kibaki won his first term as president. But they soon had a bitter falling-out.

Odinga said he had no problem working with Kibaki. He said his only potential problem was "the clique around him." He said this clique could persuade some Parliament members to skip the vote on the power-sharing agreement, which needs a two-thirds majority to become part of Kenya's constitution. So far, Kibaki's political allies have said that they will support the agreement, though some have continued to grumble about its ramifications.

Odinga seems to be cautiously optimistic. He spoke on Monday of the ministries his party wants to take over, including finance and internal security, and how he plans to provide better housing to help improve conditions in Kenya's slums, which had been incubators of violence during the election crisis.

He also said he was excited about the American presidential race and rooting for Barack Obama, who is half Kenyan and whose father was a Luo, Odinga's ethnic group.

Luos have felt marginalized for years, and there is an old joke in Kenya that has gotten a lot of chuckles lately that a Luo will be president of the United States before being president of Kenya.

"We beat them to it," Odinga said, laughing so hard his eyes watered. "I just wasn't sworn in."