Yesterday morning, we published an editorial titled “Time’s Ripe for an Ufungamano Initiative”, in which we made the case that the proposed talks between William Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza and Raila Odinga’s Azimio La Umoja One Kenya shouldn’t be left to the two protagonists.
Borrowing heavily from history, our primary thesis was that left to their own devices, politicians will almost always give the people the shorter end of the stick in the course of their deal-making. We hence called for the inclusion of other well-meaning players in the room and at the table, so as to broaden and safeguard the conversation in the interest of Wanjiku.
To our mind, there was no better illustration of such a pro-people intervention than the Ufungamano Initiative of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which was independent enough to keep politicians in check (as was humanly possible) during the constitution making process.
We thus called for the birth of an Ufungamano Initiative, so to speak, since the resolution of the ongoing Ruto-Odinga impasse – if we reach a point of resolution, that is – could potentially result in far reaching legal and constitutional alterations (as has been the case with such post-election squabbles). A semblance of an Ufungamano Initiative, therefore, would act as the third multi-partisan player in seeking solutions to the present state of affairs, as opposed to leaving Ruto and Odinga to continue playing their who-blinks-first game on Kenyans.
There is of course a symbolism in the literal Ufungamano building, coming with its decades-long history of playing host to important political conversations and movements. However, the bigger point was for actors such as religious groups (who anchored the Ufungamano Initiative), civil society, student and grassroots movements, and so on, to coalesce at Ufungamano or elsewhere and begin interrogating the Ruto-Odinga tussle and go beyond, so that the conversation graduates from Ruto and Odinga to the Kenyan nation.
But then, later last evening, Raila Odinga tweeted an invitation to Kenyans to show up at Ufungamano for what he called a civil society-led meeting to ‘‘discuss important issues affecting our nation.’’ By all means, Odinga has a right to call a meeting of Kenyans and host it anywhere. But in line with our editorial from yesterday morning, we would like to plead with him and his coalition that they please protect the space that is to be occupied by third parties who will/may partake in the national conversation started by himself and William Ruto.
Historically, part of those who will constitute the third player (there could be more players in the end) in these Ruto-Raila talks is the civil society, who must then appear to be non-aligned to either Ruto or Odinga, much as they may have points of convergence. This means that as Odinga goes on with his democratic rights of assembly and association at Ufungamano, the optics will be that he is trying to get the civil society on his side, so that he has an upper hand when facing Ruto. Of course the civil society isn’t homogeneous, but whatever representation will be present at Ufungamano – even if well meaning – could be seen to be endorsing Odinga over Ruto, at least optically. In fact, had the meeting been convened and publicized by the civil society, who would then have invited both Ruto and Odinga for the meeting or scheduled separate sessions with each one of them for a start, then the story would be different.
It is our plea therefore, to Odinga as the convenor of the Ufungamano meeting, that he strives to appear not to be seeking endorsements against Ruto from groupings which are supposed to keep both Odinga and Ruto in check. This is because if the civil society (and other third party players) occupy the high ground (by remaining non-aligned), then it will be beneficial for both Odinga and Ruto, and Kenyans, since there will be an understanding that much as Odinga and Ruto are perceived (as they should, they are politicians after all) as partisans (even if well meaning), there will be others in the room who will be helping them think of Kenya, not of power and its trappings.
But if Odinga doesn’t encourage the civil society to be independent (even if he’d like to be allies with them), and the Ruto side considers Odinga and the civil society to be bedfellows, then Odinga will be committing the same sin he is accusing Ruto of – of single handedly picking a Ruto-friendly electoral agency for 2027. Much as the civil society won’t be an umpire in the Ruto-Odinga talks, the role it plays mirrors that of a neutral, trustworthy third party.
Further, that Odinga is holding the meeting at Ufungamano isn’t lost on those who appreciate the symbolism – Ufungamano is the home of pro-people initiatives. This then means that Odinga could be purposely trying to dress his cause as one that is fully pro-people (and he could be right, and the causes could be aligned). But in the context of a Ruto-Odinga brawl, such alignment (especially with the civil society) will appear partisan.
Odinga should therefore protect the sanctity of Ufungamano, for the sake of future generations (because future needs for an Ufungamano Initiative may arise), the same way he should protect the civil society from falling into traps which may make their participation in these and other talks cumbersome. We all remember the evil-society label, when an online hatchet job was executed to smear civil society for supposedly working with one political side against another during the ICC cases in The Hague.
We shouldn’t go back there.