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February 22, 2019

And now comes the year of reaching out and compromise


If you follow American politics, you will know by now that a surprise win by a Democratic Party senatorial candidate in a by-election in the state of Alabama seems to have affirmed that the Democrats are well on their way to gaining control of Congress in the 2018 mid-term elections.

It was a major surprise because Alabama has unfailingly voted in Republicans in state-wide races for about two decades now. The Kenyan equivalent would be an ODM party candidate winning a senatorial race in Murang’a or Nyeri county.

So now the Democrats can realistically look forward to winning plenty of congressional seats in 2018, and then, come 2020, “casting President Donald Trump into the dustbin of history” as some have delicately put it.

This is of some relevance to us here in Kenya, because of what President Uhuru Kenyatta has been urging for some weeks now: That we put the election and campaigns behind us; and that those who lost should wait until 2022 to try their luck again.

Sounds very reasonable. But here is the odd thing: That is precisely the opposite of what our political history suggests is the best path for Kenya right now. What works very well in the US does not necessarily work here.

What has made for some degree of political stability here in Kenya – the stability without which no prosperity is possible – is that just as soon as a President is sworn in, he begins on the urgent task of making the difficult compromises that will lead to his absorbing his previous rivals into his government.

Consider our founding President, Jomo Kenyatta. He was sworn in back in 1964. But by the next General Election, in 1969, he and the other key politicians in his Kanu party had managed to persuade their arch-rivals in Kadu to dissolve their party and join the governing party. In the process, they also abolished the Senate as well as the regional ‘majimbo’ governments through constitutional reforms.

Indeed, the only period during which such an absorption of the parliamentary opposition did not occur was in the 20-year period roughly from 1970 to 1990, when Kenya was a classic authoritarian single-party tyranny. This is a period now often defined as a long dark night for the nation.

For as soon as there was a return to a multiparty dispensation in 1991, you found that (now retired) President Daniel Moi after winning the 1992 election managed to bring into his Kanu party almost the whole contingent of Western Kenya MPs who had won their seats in that election through Kenneth Matiba’s Ford-Asili party.

And after the 1997 election, which Moi again won, he brought in the entire NDP, which drew its electoral strength mostly from “Luo Nyanza”. This was done by a merger of two parties: Kanu and NDP.

It involved no less than the now former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga – back then famous mostly as having spent nearly a decade as a political detainee of the Moi government – not only joining Moi, but also being elected as secretary general of the very party that had imprisoned him in the days of the single-party state.

And finally, retired President Mwai Kibaki: He won the presidency in 2002 on his third attempt, facing off against Moi’s chosen heir, Uhuru Kenyatta, and former Cabinet minister Simeon Nyachae. But by the time Kibaki went into the 2007 General Election to seek a second term, one of the more influential members of his Cabinet was none other than Simeon Nyachae.

And following his reelection in 2007, not only did he have his chief rival in that election, Raila, as the PM, but he also had his former rival for the presidency back in 2002, Uhuru, as a Deputy Prime Minister.

The historical record leaves no doubt, then, that Kenyan presidents have in the past invariably worked on creating a sense of “inclusion” by reaching out to their political rivals.

In the next month or so, it will be clear whether or not Uhuru has decided to accept this political reality.

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