Politicization of BBI Could Be Detrimental to the Quest for National Unity

The Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), born out of the March 9, 2018 handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, is intended to end ethnic antagonism in Kenya and foster national unity. According to the BBI’s spearheading committee, this would in part be achieved through the expansion of the executive arm of the government by introducing the posts of a prime minister and deputy prime ministers to accommodate more ethnic representations in the country’s apex leadership. While this proposal itself is not enough to ensure ethnic inclusivity in Kenya’s leadership, it is nevertheless a welcomed step. It is, therefore, important that politicians separate the BBI’s proposals and debates from the 2022 succession politics. To start with, politicians should allow the bipartisan BBI task force to take the lead in organizing and conducting sensitization meetings over the contents of the task force report.

Political Battles

Political dynamics in the country have changed significantly since the ‘Handshake’, fueling suspicions that BBI may have been designed to influence the 2022 succession. Politicians perceived to be supportive of the Deputy President William Ruto, an aspirant for the presidency in 2022, have increasingly become uneasy over the supposedly growing influence of Raila Odinga in state affairs. They charge that Odinga is riding on the BBI to consolidate his political support for the presidency in 2022 other than pursuing reconciliation and national unity. Odinga’s camp, on the other hand, contends that BBI is not driven by political considerations, but it is essential for the country’s future.

Nevertheless, the Handshake and BBI – their politics notwithstanding, provide an opportunity for Kenyans to chart a course to shared prosperity. President Kenyatta has termed the Handshake as an innovative home-grown approach to resolving political disputes and ensuring the stability of the country. More so, the initiation of BBI attracted nationwide support from Kenyans viewing it as a means of ending ethnic-based politics if media reports are anything to go by. However, the more the political realignment over 2022 heats up, the more the quest for unity take a back seat raising memories of other missed opportunities in Kenya to build national unity.

Missed opportunities

Kenya’s first unity misstep occurred after independence in 1963. Kenyans, inspired by their victory over colonialism, rallied behind the vision of its leaders to end poverty, diseases and ignorance besides guaranteeing the Country’s security and territorial integrity. The pulling together (Harambee) philosophy that was championed by the late founding President Jomo Kenyatta (1963-1978) stood a chance of building a country devoid of ethnic antagonism but  unfortunately the administration gradually embraced ethnicity as a tool for political mobilisation and resource allocation, thus putting Kenya on a wrong footing. Leaders and communities perceived to be less supportive of the government were excluded in national conversations while those thought to be loyal were flooded with development projects and appointments to key government positions. The government of the late president Daniel Toroitich arap Moi (1978-2002) followed in this footstep to ensure the longevity of his regime.

The ascendancy of former president Mwai Kibaki to power in 2002 created another opportunity to strengthen national ties, but this too was missed. With former President Kibaki, Kenyans   supported his candidature with the purpose of ending the ruling party’s, Kenya African National Union (KANU), grip on power and usher in fresh political leadership. However, competing political interests and self-preservation led Kenya to one of her worst ethnic clashes and post-election violence in 2007/2008.

Recently, Kenyans joined hands and adopted a new constitution which prescribed multiple legal solutions aimed at fostering inclusivity and equitable sharing of resources. For example, the 2010 constitution introduced the devolved system of government, requirement for ethnic balance in public appointments including the cabinet and robust systems of check balances to ensure compliance. However, the lack of or under implementation of many provisions on multiple fronts has lessened the constitutions’ impact and therefore   nationhood process has continued to lag behind.

Safeguarding BBI

In the ongoing quest for national unity, a consensual rather than an adversarial approach to the BBI proposals, should be employed. First, the BBI task force should not use rallies organized by politicians to seek Kenyans feedback on the Report to maintain its reputation of neutrality. The task force’s should organize its own   conferences and meetings, accessible to ordinary citizens, in all counties across the country. More so, communication channels should be created to enable cost-free submission of individual and group memorandums on the report. This will enable most Kenyans including those in diaspora to participate without the need of physical presence. However, this should be preceded by a comprehensive, Taskforce led, civic education program on the content of the Report and the effects of its proposals to enable an informed public engagement. The Program should be conducted through mediums that are easily accessible to the majority Kenyans.

Secondly, the political elites should consider slowing down their ‘sensitization’ meetings and instead present their views directly to the spearheading task force for consideration in the final draft. While this might look like a tall order given the political landscape, it is nevertheless a necessary step to take the conversation forward. This will help to win over sceptics by eliminating doubts that the Initiative is being used to strategize for 2022 succession politics. More so, a calm political environment is necessary for a sober national conversation on the substance of the report.

Finally, it is important that leaders from all political parties should be honest with the public on the possible outcomes of the Initiative and avoid raising unnecessarily public expectations. It should be made clear that the scope of the Initiative is to build national consensus on the need for and how to forge national unity and inclusivity in governance both at the local and national levels. Given that BBI is an initiative for posterity, it is important that it should be considered devoid of selfish political interests, otherwise Kenya will continue to grapple with the challenges of negative ethnicity in the foreseeable future.

Elvis Salano is a Research Assistant at the HORN Institute.

Photo: (From Left) Deputy President William Ruto, President Uhuru Kenyatta, and Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, during the launch of BBI report at the Bomas of Kenya on Wednesday, November 27, 2019. (Photo Credit: DPPS)

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