Sunday, September 14, 2008



By Standard Reporter
September 14, 2008
Sunday Standard

Mr Salim Lone shadowed Prime Minister Raila Odinga at the PM’s lowest moment. The veteran journalist who last week left his job as Raila’s spokesman was with the Orange Democratic Movement leaders on December 29, on the day their dream of taking over State House burst like a bubble.

It was the day Lone was to write the lights went out on Kenya. Nine months later, as he exits the public glare and Raila’s shadow, Lone speaks of that day with Raila.

It is the beginning of his road to writing a book on Kenya after December 30 – also referred to as the Black Sunday – when Electoral Commission announced results of the disputed presidential election.

Mr Lone admits that initially, he was reluctant to take up the role of spokesman for the Orange Democratic Movement and its presidential candidate Raila Odinga.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga confers with outgoing PM’s Spokesman Mr Salim Lone in the thick of post-election dispute.

"I was convinced Raila and his outstanding national team would win comfortably and he did not need me. But by November, the communication front was not doing well," he said on Friday. When he took up the job, he decided the priority was "to get the world to know the Raila I knew."

"I knew Raila as a serious thinker with fabulous ideas on the economy, and how to unite the country. But throughout our campaign, the international community, including diplomats in Nairobi, felt Kenya would be better off with President Kibaki for continuity," he discloses.

"It was important to get the world to know Raila because he had undergone three decades of sustained demonisation as a communist, tribalist and dictator.

In Central Province, some people believed Raila was anti-Kikuyu. Kenyans can now see those were lies," Lone says, on reflection.

The interviews Raila the presidential candidate did with the foreign press made a difference abroad and among diplomats in Nairobi.

One with The New York Times earned him a call from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, thanking him for a great interview.

Lone recalled his many conversations with foreign diplomats in Nairobi. Up to the time Kenyans went to the polls last December, they still thought Kibaki would be a better bet for Kenya.

"Their perception of Raila had changed, but the change was minimal. International opinion change gradually. They saw Raila as an activist, an oppositionist not ready to be president," he said.

Foreign diplomats, he said, knew about the corruption in President Kibaki’s regime and the polarisation of the country. But they still believed he could provide continuity and they thought him more predictable.

The greatest challenge

Lone says international opinion began to shift with the massive irregularities that dogged the polls and how Raila responded to the development.

"The moment Raila came out as one who was willing to sacrifice his ambition for the sake of the country, opinion shifted. That made a huge difference," he said.

Today, as he leaves, Lone believes there is a good working relationship between the PM and President Kibaki. But he cannot bet on the coalition holding together until the 2012 General Election.

"The President and the PM have a good relationship. The PM has gone out of his way to ensure the President and PNU have no reason to fear he would not help hold the country together. The coalition could hold up to 2012, but there is no guarantee. A lot depends on the Constitution," Lone argued.

He says there is still a problem with division of power, which could cause problems.

On a positive note, Lone says he sees the gradual emergence of a new coalition of reformers from across the party divide, which could finally push the country forward.

"I see it happening. I see positions shifting. Thanks to suspicions that have been allayed, people from across the divide are increasingly willing to work with the PM."

However, he wants more room for the civil society, fearing that in a coalition like Kenya’s, it could be too easy for both sides to find a common purpose and make agreements that are not in the best interests of the people.

Tight schedule

"One thing we must not allow to happen again is to cover up the issues that have not been addressed in the last 40 years; land, poverty and joblessness. Any one of these issues is enough to destroy this country. If there is conflict again, and we are not out of the woods yet, it will be much worse than witnessed earlier this year," he says.

But the greatest challenge is tribalism.

"It is truly frightening to see even learned people dismiss what someone is saying by referring to that person’s ethnic origin. Education, of course, makes the difference. But we need a huge new national programme from early childhood to get us to know each other and recognise that we all wish for the same things and can actually obtain them faster if we don’t divide along ethnic lines."

"But tribalism is also boosted by official policies which promote some groups and marginalise others. We need to think of affirmative action along ethnic lines without sacrificing merit and competence," Lone says.

Working for Raila, Salim says, comes with a heavy toll, although he is happy with what he achieved.

"Keeping pace with Raila is not easy. I don’t know how he manages. He is a dynamo. He works late in office and is the first to arrive the next day. I don’t know any single day Raila is not working. We all worry about his health."