“Into Africa” podcast with Judd Devermont of CSIS features discussion of Kenya’s BBI and Ken Opalo’s research on development of legislature

I am sure that readers here will be aware by now of Judd Devermont’s “Into Africa” podcast for the Africa Program at Washington’s Center for International and Strategic Studies. Let me highlight a recent edition of particular interest, which opens with a discussion on Kenya’s BBI or Building Bridges Initiative.
CSIS Into Africa Podcast:
February 6, 2020

How have African legislatures evolved and how do they shape political competition across the continent? Ken Opalo (Georgetown University), Janette Yarwood (U.S. House of Representatives), and Tyler Beckelman (U.S. Institute of Peace) sat down with Judd Devermont to explore new approaches to strengthening legislative institutions. Guests also weigh in on the agenda behind Kenya’s Building Bridges Initiative and the ongoing Anglophone conflict in Cameroon.

Background Reading:

President Uhuru Kenyatta greets ODM leader Raila Odinga during the National Prayer Breakfast at the Safari Park hotel. [Evans Ouma, Standard] “Waxing spiritual, Raila Odinga lights up Prayer Breakfast”

For a more detailed discussion of Ken Opalo’s new book, see Episode 79 of Kim Yi Dionne and Rachel Beatty Riedl’s great weekly Ufahamuafrica Podcast.

This week’s featured conversation is with Ken Opalo(@kopalo), an Assistant Professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He talks about his newly published book, Legislative Development in Africa: Politics and Postcolonial Legacies. Long-time listeners might recall that Ken was on the show back in 2017, ahead of the Kenyan elections. Have a listen to Rachel’s conversation with Ken about his book and about his next project, which examines government provision of public goods, like health services. Their conversation begins at 13:36. 

#BBIReport: Even American Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer testified to Congress during the 2008 Post Election Violence that Kenya critically needed “land tenure reform”

On the question of Kenya land reform, let me take a very long quote from Father Gabriel Dolan’s weekend column in The Standard: “BBI Team cannot close eyes to unanswered questions on land”:

How in God’s name can you produce a 156 page report entitled From a Nation of Blood Ties to a Nation of Ideals and have nothing to say on the matter of land? What about the politically instigated land clashes? What about the land grabbing that was modus operandi of the governing elites and their cronies for a half a century? This could hardly have been an oversight; more like a deliberate decision to ignore the subject matter! 

Worse still, sceptics even suspect that the content on land was expunged as it was in the TJRC report. Is the BBI team suggesting that the land question has been resolved and everything is hunky-dory? Is there no recognition that there are many unresolved ethnic issues over land ownership? How can they devote a whole chapter on corruption and just dwell on the pilfering of the coffers when the looters only headed there after they had grabbed most of the public land? How can they really talk about addressing inequality and not acknowledge that a few powerful families own up to two million acres of land while the poor are forced to build homes on river banks and slopes prone to landslides? Put another way, does the BBI team believe that land is not a matter that must be dealt with at this time, or do they imagine that it will resolve itself?  

The only obvious justification for such a grave and deliberate omission must be that the authors did not want to ruffle the feathers of their appointing godfathers. They wanted to present a very sanitised and safe report. In other words, this report was intended for the most part to maintain the status quo and keep wananchi occupied while nothing of substance would really change. When the political class praised the proposed reforms, you can be assured that they see the BBI as a means to consolidate and reinforce their power, not surrender it. When the rest speak of real change, the elites get worried and conspire to silence you.  

Just in case you suffer from amnesia, the Ndung’u Report revealed that there are 200,000 illegally acquired land titles, whose acreage totals over a million in the hands of thieves. How many of those has the National Land Commission or the EACC repossessed? Advocates of real change should be very angry because the BBI was designed to maintain, not challenge or restrain, the ruling class.

Now going back to the period of the Post Election Violence. On February 7, 2008 when the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Africa Subcommittee held a hearing on “The Immediate and Underlying Causes and Consequences of Kenya’s Flawed Election” (in addition to being asked about the then-unreleased USAID-funded IRI exit poll) Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer provided testimony about the roots of the underlying persistent violence associated with contestation for political offices in Kenya and stated explicitly in her prepared submission “land tenure reforms are critical to end the current crisis and prevent future ones” (p. 9 of Hearing Record linked above).

Let me also highlight the testimony of Katherine J. (Kate) Almquist, then Assistant Administrator for Africa at USAID:

“. . . since longstanding issues about land tenure were among the factors fueling the crisis in western Kenya, we believe that supporting reform relating to land tenure and property rights will be critical. There is a compelling need for land reform, leading to the security and regularization of tenure and property rights. A draft national land policy and related implementation plan are already in place, and there has been broad consensus among Kenyans that this draft national land policy reflects national sentiment.

USAID is already a partner in the land sector, and we anticipate increasing our assistance in this regard.” (pps. 12-13 of Hearing Record).

Important Kenya BBI reads, and my comments

Patrick Gathara, Al Jazeera English: “Kenya’s BBI is the political elites’s attempt to rewrite history

Waihiga Mwaura, BBC: “Letter from Africa: Is Kenya building bridges to nowhere?

Gov. Anyang’ Nyong’o, Star: “We need honest and patriotic debate on the handshake report

US Embassy: Ambassador Godec’s Remarks for National Dialogue Conference, September 11, 2018

Star news report, Nov. 28: US Ambassador McCarter hails BBI report as key to unity

My comment: I have read much of the report in some detail, but still working through some sections. When Ambassador McCarter hails the report and suggests that Kenyans should not comment until they have read it, he does let us know that it is intended to be an elite consensus to be handed down into Kenya’s democratic politics such as it is.

Figures on internet penetration in Kenya are, inevitably, as inconsistent as figures on Kenya’s population. Some assert that more than 85% of Kenyans have internet access, but so much of that is strictly mobile and expensive for data that reading the full report while suspending comment is quite a big ask. The Ambassador obviously is a very quick reader based on the timing of the release and his comments to The Star.

On substance, I find Kenya’s elites to be smart, well educated and well spoken, so it is no surprise that within the details of the report I find a lot of exposition that is appealing to me. How seriously is it to be taken? One has to compare the track record of these elites to past performance, which while giving no guaranty of the future, is the most tangible thing to go on in trying to guess whether they are serious. That part does not weigh in favor of getting too excited about the document one way or the other.

As an example, look at the recent US attack on Senator Amos Wako for his alleged corruption as Kenya’s attorney general during the Moi and first and second Kibaki Administrations at the same time he was a key member of the BBI effort. So what does my government really think about the BBI process?

Beyond that, what I would need to know myself, and what I would think Kenyans would need to know is how the specific decisions reflected in the report were made. The report is very ambitions, and arguably internally contradictory, in making profound recommendations for the shape of Kenya for generations to come. How did the BBI team decide to stress on one hand the idea of going back to try a “nation building” exercise of coming up with some type of “national ethos” for Kenya,while also committing to doubling down on and even expediting the notion of regionally confederating and then federating in an East African state? Are either of these goals realistic and if both are, are they compatible?

What was the process for deciding that industrial manufacturing for a regional market was the best way to address the employment crisis? And so on.

[Update: I have completed my “close reading” of the full document. What I will add is that there are a lot of worthwhile specific items included in the recommendations toward making Kenya’s government more effective/efficient/ fair. These represent collectively a substantial amount of thought and effort and I do not take that lightly; collectively they could if fully implemented quickly accomplish very significant incremental improvements, but do not seem to me to suggest something profoundly transformational. Aside from the issues I mentioned above, the gaping hole is the failure to address at all the unfulfilled parts of Kenya’s National Accord from the 2008 “peace deal” following the stolen 2007 election, especially the truncated and “shelved” Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission report.]

Kenya’s long awaited “Building Bridges Initiative” report published on-line

Following the post-election negotiations between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga during December 2017 – March 2018, culminating in the famous March 9, 2018 “handshake” between the two, Kenyans have witnessed a prolonged period of political stasis in which Kenyatta has run the Government as he sees fit without opposition and former Prime Minister Odinga and Deputy President Ruto and their factions have carried on their 2022 campaigns.

We now have a 150+ page published report from the Government of Kenya representing the work product of a dual team of insiders for the two “sides” (Raila/ODM and Uhuru) making various recommendations for political governance issues as are always “on the table” in “post-Colonial” Kenya.

Formally, this has been called the “Building Bridges Initiative” implemented by the “Building Bridges to Unity Advisory Taskforce” and has incorporated the usual process of donor supported public “input” sessions around the country to “popularize” the process, the teams of insiders and what they will agree on and eventually announce.

The adjustments proposed from the public comments and news so far appear to be relatively nondramatic and reflect what one would expect for an elite consensus process where the primary issue is the adjustment of interests among those at the table.

Here is the official website for the Building Bridges Initiative.

For background, here is my post from December 7, 2017, “Trump Administration’s top diplomat for Africa visits Nairobi, public statements adjusted to call for ‘national conversation’ as substitute for ‘national dialogue’“:

I was pleasantly surprised by the previous statements from the State Department both from Washington and in Nairobi, calling for “national dialogue” in the wake of Kenya’s fraught and objectionably violent environment in the wake of the boycotted October 26 presidential re-run.

In the latest release from Washington on December 4 the State Department said “the Acting Assistant Secretary will travel to Nairobi, Kenya from December 4-6, where he will meet with representatives of the Kenyan government, as well as with Kenyan civil society. The visit will encourage all sides in Kenya to participate in a national dialogue following the presidential election.” (emphasis added)

Today, however, following the talks, a new statement was issued–by the Ambassador–backing off from the language “national dialogue”. Instead, along with a call for Odinga drop a “people’s swearing in”, and a generic call for protesters to avoid violence and the Government’s security forces to avoid unnecessary killing and to investigate themselves on the outstanding accusations that they had been doing so, the State Department now recommends a “national conversation”.

Why is this different? Well, you would have to ask the Embassy or Main State Department and/or the White House why they changed the language, but “national dialogue” is a clear reference to the formal process resulting from the February 2008 settlement agreement between Kibaki and Raila leading to the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission Report (censored and held in abeyance by the Uhuruto Administration–an issue in the August election), the Kriegler Commission on the 2007 Election (leading to the buyout of the Kivuitu led ECK), the Waki Commission on the Post Election Violence (leading to the aborted ICC prosecutions) and constitutional reform process that led to the 2010 Referendum adopting the new Constitution which mandates the 2/3 gender rule (declined so far), diaspora voting (mostly declined so far), devolution (in process), and such. A “national conversation” is a nice notion and probably a good thing to do here in the United States as well as anywhere else culturally divisive politics.

See “Reformers vs. The Status Quo: Is it possible to have free and fair polls” by Eliud Kibii in The Elephant to put the current election disputes and contest in the complete post-Cold War context.

Update: Ambassador Godec’s tweet of Dec 11:

NASA’s decision yesterday is a positive step. We again call for a sustained, open, and transparent national conversation involving all Kenyans to build national unity and address long-standing issues.