Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Raila the performer


With interventions on the Mau Forest crisis, the Grand Regency Hotel sale, and now the Port of Mombasa, Prime Minister Raila Odinga is displaying a rare kind of leadership as he defines the functions of his new office.

The power-sharing agreement he signed with President Kibaki gave him a position that was hardly defined. Whoever got such a post could either assume vital executive power or be no more than a glorified messenger. Indeed, many of Mr Odinga’s allies were apprehensive that he had been short-changed, particularly because he did not get direct responsibility for any of the key dockets like Internal Security, Provincial Administration, or Finance.

On the other side, many of President Kibaki’s people were quite satisfied with a deal that granted them a respite from the post-election violence, while giving Mr Odinga what looked like a premiership with very little power. Many of the PNU nabobs were wont to smirk that as long as Mr Odinga got a long motorcade and appropriate security detail, he would be quite happy, and it would be back to business as usual.

The fact is that it is no longer kazi iendelee. Mr Odinga has grabbed an ill-defined office and shaped it powerfully in his own inimitable way. There is now no longer a question of what power-sharing meant. The early efforts to use Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka to cut Mr Odinga down to size have been abandoned, and it is now quite clear that the Prime Minister stands right next to the President in terms of the pecking order. Constitutionally, the President still wields almost untrammelled executive power, but the nebulous responsibilities given the Prime Minister might, in fact, have been a blessing in disguise.

“General co-ordination and supervision” actually came without limits, and that is being seen by the way in which Mr Odinga has the freedom and latitude to exercise his influence over virtually all functions of Government. He is helped partly by President Kibaki’s laid-back style and distaste for micro-management, so that what used to be seen as a gap in the running of Government has now been more than adequately filled.

With the President in his usual repose, it is Mr Odinga who has moved in to crack the whip across all functions of Government. President Kibaki has always talked about accountable and efficient Government, but it his former arch-foe, Mr Odinga, who is out in the field whipping everybody into line. Most refreshingly, Mr Odinga has shown that he is not afraid to step on a few toes. The Mau Forest and Kenya Ports Authority interventions could for him be very tricky politically.

Leading the drive to clear the Mau of illegal settlements and removing the ports boss has brought him into direct conflict with some of the key constituencies for ODM, but the Prime Minister has faced down MPs from Rift Valley and Coast provinces, respectively, who have taken him to task over the initiatives. In the process, he has displayed that getting work done for the betterment of Kenya is for him more important that transient political considerations. He has made a powerful case for saving the Mau, and the MPs from the region who had been complaining have been forced to tone down their demands lest they be seen as supporting the destruction of such an important national resource. At the Port of Mombasa on Monday, Mr Odinga minced no words in restating his conviction that the vital facility cannot be left to the mercy of incompetent management. Even more important might have been the strong style in which he dismissed claims by local MPs that the removal of the Ports Authority boss amounted to removal of a Coastal.

Mr Odinga restated the principle that KPA is a vital national facility for which management must only be entrusted to the most qualified and deserving person rather than merely going for a local. The emphasis on qualifications and expertise over ethnicity, discrimination and even affirmative action amounts to an important policy pronouncement that might irk many of Mr Odinga’s allies schooled in the politics of the ethnic card.

Mr Odinga has been extremely busy since he assumed office, becoming the face of Kenya on the international forum, and energetically pushing the country’s case in the global economic community. Those who had earlier dismissed him as a socialist or communist might be dumbfounded by the way in which he has courted Western investors. But it is clear that he is far more than just an effective salesman. He seems to be driven by a missionary zeal to see Kenya succeed as a showcase of development, but for that drive to succeed, political stability is vital and that is where things can become a bit complicated.

While his performance so far might have pleasantly surprised former foes around President Kibaki who thought he was the devil incarnate, there are many in Mr Odinga’s own camp who now think he is now supping with the devil.