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Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta Raila Odinga

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Kenya: Odinga met President Kenyatta to avoid 'large loss of life', says advisor

President Kenyatta and NASA leader Odinga shake hands after meeting in Nairobi, 9 March 2018. Photo: AFP/Simon Maina

Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga decided to hold a surprise meeting with President Uhuru Kenyatta to prevent further bloodshed and possible ethnic conflict, a top advisor to Odinga has told RFI. The two rivals met on Friday for the first time since last year’s controversial election, surprising many by delivering a joint statement and announcing a programme to overcome their differences.

“The negotiations cover all the ills that Kenya has been suffering from and which have built up even more strongly in the last six to eight months,” said Salim Lone, a long-time advisor to the leader of the opposition NASA coalition.

Q&A: Salim Lone

Further discussions between the Kenyan president and the veteran opposition leader will cover “a vast agenda”, according to Lone. In particular, Odinga will pursue the holding of “free and fair elections by 2022” as well as rectifying the “utter marginalisation of millions of people”.

Kenyatta and Odinga have been at odds since the controversial re-run of last year’s presidential elections. The opposition boycotted the re-run of the August ballot which Kenyatta went on to win with more than 98 per cent of the vote.

The timing of Friday’s meeting was down to the establishment of an agenda for talks and the realisation that the opposition’s strategy could have led to widespread bloodshed, according to Lone, speaking to RFI by telephone from Princeton in the US.

“We did not want to meet with Mr Kenyatta without an agenda that would ensure that that meeting would be productive,” said Lone, explaining why such a meeting had not taken place before now. Furthermore, holding talks helps avoid possible violence linked to continued confrontations between NASA supporters and the security forces, the advisor added.

“It would have been even more lethal, the use of force, if we had actually begun to mobilise the thousands and tens of thousands people that we so easily could have,” said Lone. “The tensions are exceedingly high, I think everybody recognises that, and there was a fear that even a small spark could lead to some kind of ethnic conflagration,” he added.

More than 100 people were killed during Kenya’s prolonged election period, according to Human Rights Watch, citing research conducted since August 2017.

“I did not see where the current course of resistance was taking us,” Lone said, referring to the activities of the National Resistance Movement, which was established as an informal group to oppose the Kenyatta administration. “I don’t know where else this could have gone without a loss of life, a large loss of life.”

Odinga determined that “something had to give”, according to Lone. Using tactics of resistance and confrontation “looked like it was not going to work unless you were willing to suffer catastrophic loss of life”, he added, saying that previous attempts at protests and demonstrations were met with disproportionate use of force.

Reaction within NASA

Some figures within the opposition coalition have questioned Odinga’s decision to agree to the surprise meeting with Kenyatta. Miguna Miguna, a firebrand opposition politician who describes himself as a general of the National Resistance Movement, said Odinga was “betraying millions of Kenyans”. In a series of tweets, Miguna said the talks were a “cynical and hypocritical PR stunt”.

Lone denied that the meeting was a PR stunt, instead pointing out that Odinga is known for taking dramatic steps. He referred to Odinga’s previous political manoeuvres such as entering a power sharing agreement with Mwai Kibaki in 2008 which helped bring an end to ethnic violence following the 2007 polls.

“Many progressive people were genuinely concerned about this meeting between Raila and Uhuru,” said Lone.

“I believe that while people are bewildered, genuinely bewildered, and some are critical, I respect that, there is no problem with that,” said Odinga’s advisor. “A few of Mr Raila Odinga’s very close advisors have been very candidly discussing why the way this happened was not necessarily the way it should have happened,” he added, referring to Friday’s meeting.

A possible power sharing deal between Odinga and Kenyatta is not on the cards this time around, according to Lone. “There is no talk of that at the moment. Mr Odinga has repeatedly said after the last election that we cannot just have power sharing as a way out of the crisis we face.”

Neither will Odinga be asked by the government to drop the self-styled title of “people’s president” following a swearing-in ceremony at the end of January, the advisor said. “The issue of him having being sworn-in as the people’s president of Kenya is not an impediment to what will happen,” according to Lone.

Lone referred to the eight-page document released by the Kenyan government entitled “Building bridges to a new Kenyan nation”, saying that Odinga was described as ‘His Excellency’, an honorific title usually reserved for heads of state.

The document signed by both leaders covered a number of different themes including ethnicity, devolution and elections. But despite discussing a range of issues, it did not actually outline any measures that will be taken. Instead, the document said the leaders had “agreed to roll out a programme that will implement their shared objectives”. The implementation of this will be carried out by a specially created office led by staff from the government and Odinga’s camp.

“It will not be easy,” said Lone, in discussion of the task ahead. "But I don’t believe that the criticism is of a nature that one should say, 'Oh my gosh, we should have continued to struggle along the ways that we were,'" he added.

“I know he [Odinga] has a very specific plan in mind that he thinks could be successful, he’s not naive, he knows nothing is guaranteed,” said Lone, without elaborating further on such a plan. “I hope that we will see results fairly soon so that people know that this is not just a way to settle for the status quo.”