By Silas Apollo
Initially, the idea was to compel the government to rein in the high cost of living in the country, among other things.
When the Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition called for the country-wide mass protest early this year, the decision was a response to the rallying call from Kenyans asking the government to lower the high cost of commodities.
The coalition, led by ODM leader Raila Odinga, accused the President William Ruto-led Kenya Kwanza administration of introducing punitive levies and policies on Kenyans and pushing the cost of essential goods and commodities to exorbitant levels.
And true to the promise of using mass action to force the government to the negotiating table, talks began between the ruling Kenya Kwanza coalition and the opposition, paving the way to end the protests.
Mr Odinga and his allies in Azimio argued that the bi-partisan talks would address the skyrocketing commodity prices and a revision of the high taxes introduced by the government – both of which were the driving force of the protests.
The coalition also wanted the talks to address concerns around electoral reforms and auditing the 2022 presidential elections, which it argued were part of the calls for mass action.
Two months into the talks, however, concerns soon emerged among Kenyans, supporters of the coalition and critics of the negotiations on what had become part of the agenda for discussion.
The National Dialogue Committee also faced criticism over using public funds to facilitate the talks amidst calls for austerity in government expenditure, even though committee members dismissed reports of withdrawing and spending funds from the exchequer.
And just like it had been the case with previous talks, such as the collapsed Building Bridges Initiative, Mr Odinga and his allies were also accused of using the platform to consolidate political power – discussing political positions and power-sharing deals.
The Kenya Kwanza administration also came under heavy criticism for proposing discussions around the creation of new seats in government, such as that of the office of the Prime Cabinet Secretary and the enactment of the National Government Constituency Development Fund, among other issues.
These new developments would soon sow seeds of discord and mistrust among members of the public, with a survey conducted by research firm Tifa in September indicating that less than half of Kenyans supported the talks.
Many of those interviewed in the survey accused Mr Odinga and President Ruto of using the talks to advance personal interests.
A statement released by the two coalitions spearheading the talks also argued that some of the areas of discussions debated and agreed on were the creation of the position of official leader of the opposition, the office of prime cabinet secretary, the enactment of the two-thirds-gender rule among
The two teams further added that other points of discussion ratified by the two coalitions were the streamlining of the NG-CDF, the National Government Affirmative Action Fund and the Senate Oversight Fund in line with the Constitution, inclusivity in public service, boundary delimitation and other governance issues.
In its survey, Tifa argued that a sample of views from Kenyans showed that only 48% of Kenyans strongly supported the ongoing bi-partisan talks, with 19% strongly opposed to the talks and another 13% neither supported nor opposed the talks.
A further breakdown of the figures by Tifa showed that only 20% of those surveyed believed the talks could succeed, while 21% thought otherwise.
“Only about half of Kenyans strongly support the current national dialogue talks, with nearly one-in-five strongly opposed to them,” the survey showed.
“However, such support is slightly higher among opposition supporters as compared with those of the Kenya Kwanza government, which stands at 53 per cent versus 48 per cent,” it added.
Thuku Mburu of the International Commission of Jurists Kenya argues that the ongoing talks, just like previous political arraignments and talks such as the collapsed BBI project, have morphed into a platform for political posturing by the political class.
The human rights activist and lawyer argues that while the talks could, at the very least, lead to a compromise and offer solutions to some of the issues and concerns raised by Kenyans, the political elite also stand to gain.
“Political bipartisan talks in Kenya represent a complex dance among the political elite as they navigate power struggles, forge alliances and negotiate positions of authority.
“It is important for Kenyans to understand the motivations behind these talks and to underscore the challenges they pose to inclusivity and democratic governance,” Mburu told the Nairobi Law Monthly.
However, the calls for dialogue and political discussions in the country are not a new phenomenon. Political negotiations are nothing new. Before the bi-partisan talks between Kenya Kwanza and Azimio, President Uhuru Kenyatta initiated BBI talks. Likewise, the second term of the Kibaki presidency resulted from political negotiations, and President Moi mooted the corporation government plan.
But just like with the BBI initiative and those before it, the current talks have also come under criticism over how the agenda for discussions have been tailored.
Political commentator Mark Bichachi argues that the exclusion of talks on issues touching on the cost of living in the country has been the breaking point of the ongoing discussions.
“Many of these political discussions and engagements have always been about the elite and not the common man or the issues the citizens face. And that is what we have witnessed with the ongoing bi-partisan talks,” Mr Bichachi told the Nairobi Law Monthly.
But even as the criticism and public uproar continue to pile up, the National Dialogue Committee, in the last week of October said, was shifting its discussions on the thorny cost of living, an item the Kenya Kwanza faction had initially opposed.
The committee, led by Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka and National Assembly leader of majority Kimani Ichung’wah, said that the team had sent out invitations to several experts to give their proposals on the issue.
The decision came in the wake of disapproval from some team members, including Narc-Kenya party leader Martha Karua and her DAP-K counterpart Eugene Wamalwa, over a failure by the team to discuss the cost of living issue.
Both Karua and Wamalwa threatened to boycott the talks if the cost of living issue was not discussed, a move largely linked to growing concerns and displeasure from supporters of Azimio and most Kenyans.
“We have started tackling the difficult question of the cost of living. We have resolved that beginning next week; we shall be inviting a number of experts to help us crack the numbers and be able to have proposals that will ease the burden Kenyans are bearing,” Inchung’wah said.
“We continue to appeal to all of you to help us raise adequate resources for next month. We have bills pending at the Bomas of Kenya,” he added, saying that the team will explore immediate, medium, and long-term solutions.
Mburu, in his estimation, argues that while the talks have the potential to shape the country’s trajectory, the outcomes must be evaluated to benefit the citizenry, not just the political elite.
“The outcome of political bipartisan talks can significantly impact democratic governance in Kenya. On one hand, these talks may facilitate compromise and consensus-building, advancing policies that benefit the Nation,” he said. (