Sunday, January 4, 2009




By Oscar Obonyo

As outraged Kenyans protested against the endorsement of media raids in a draconian law by President Kibaki, matters were bubbling in the delicate Grand Coalition Government.

Reports indicated all was not well as a line was drawn between friends of the media and the hawks in Government over the punitive Communications (Amendment) Bill 2008 signed into law on Friday.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga has called a crisis meeting of ODM ministers and legislators to reassess the party’s "standing in Government" this Wednesday.

The PM considers the development as a slap in the face after he had publicly assured Kenyans that the President would not append his signature to the controversial Bill.

The move by the President has caused ripples in the media fraternity but there are indications that it could have even more devastating effect on the Government.

Of great concern is that the simmering tension in Government could have dire repercussions on the political stability, including derailing the ongoing reform agenda. Raila meets ODM top guns on Monday afternoon to address national crises. Sources said the agenda is food shortage, ECK, media freedom and state of the coalition before the joint party NEC and parliamentary Group meeting on Wednesday.

Close associates of the PM and Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka have confided in The Standard on Sunday that they were not consulted over the decision to assent to the Bill.

"The move is unpopular with the people and our feeling is that the President wants to go down with everybody, forgetting that some of the key players like the PM and the VP have a political future beyond 2012. Of course Raila and Kalonzo will resist his unorthodox manouvres," a minister observed.

Current crisis

Our sources trace the current imbroglio to political developments towards the end of last year. The source of the friction was the manner in which the cancellation of the annual State House dinner dance was communicated.

According to our sources, the PM and VP were kept in the dark until the eleventh hour. The PM reportedly received a call from an official of State House informing him of the cancellation, while a Permanent Secretary reportedly conveyed the VP’s message via a phone text message.

"However, the VP is not making a public protest about the whole matter because the President is his boss and only him knows best how to handle the issue if he feels aggrieved," added a close associate of Kalonzo.

Nonetheless, the politician explains that the VP’s record on Press freedom is clear: "As far as he (Kalonzo) is concerned, it is not over yet. Media owners should now dialogue with Government on the offending clauses and sort out the standoff."

For Raila, though, it is a different story. There is a strong feeling among his allies that Kibaki disregards his opinion and "acts as if he won a clear mandate to run the country alone".

Although the National Accord and Reconciliation Act 2008, which ushered in the Grand Coalition Government, places the PM at par with the President, in practice the story is different.

ODM founder member Mr Mugambi Imanyara says the party leader and members were ignored during the signing of the Bill. This, he observes, casts aspersions on the Grand Coalition Government.

"Even as we convene on Wednesday to agree on the way out, the general feeling within the party leadership is that we shall sponsor a private member’s Motion to delete all the offending clauses," says Imanyara, the party’s Secretary of Legal Affairs.

Surprise turn of events

Meanwhile, a senior PNU party operative and close ally of the President has expressed surprise at the turn of events. Noting that the President has "a lot of respect for the PM and consults him frequently on matters of national interest", he blames the PM for "acting emotionally" over the Media Bill question.

"I know for sure that the President and the PM get along very well and are in agreement over a number of issues. What I do not understand, however, is how these decisions eventually get overturned," he says.

The Standard on Sunday has established that the two leaders routinely hold briefing meetings every Wednesday mid morning, either at State House or Harambee House.

"Even when he wanted to effect changes on diplomatic postings to our embassies abroad, he dispatched (Head of Civil Service) Mr Francis Muthaura to the PM’s office to compare notes. And because ODM leaders protested heavily about the list, the changes have not been effected two months on," says the official.

Nonetheless, ODM feels aggrieved and will this Wednesday meet to iron out burning issues. Top on the agenda are the Media Bill, the rising fuel and food costs as well as the question of the Electoral Commission of Kenya. Members are irked by what they perceive as interference by the Muthaura over the transition process after the disbandment of ECK.

Weighty matter

"The matter is weighty. On Monday morning the PM will meet top advisers and party officials to consult ahead of the NEC (National Executive Council) and PG (Parliamentary Group) meeting on Wednesday," divulged a party official.

"We want to draw a clear line of what ODM can take or can’t take in this union. We are quickly losing identity and we want to remain loyal on the platform that we campaigned for," he added.

And while ODM appears to have taken a uniform and firm decision on the Media Bill, there are divided voices for and against the Bill within PNU, ODM-Kenya, Narc-Kenya and Kanu.

Although several MPs in these parties support the new law, Nairobi Metropolitan Development Minister Mutula Kilonzo, of ODM-Kenya, leads the pack of those against.