Kenya urgently needs an organized, effective political opposition


A lot has been written and discussed about the Jubilee government’s first year in power. Most commentaries are on their spectacular failures, so I would like to write on one spectacular success they have had; reducing organised political opposition.

It started immediately after the elections, when Jubilee quickly reached out to most of the political parties that were not part of the CORD Coalition, and entered into some vague arrangements where these parties became part of the Jubilee Alliance. This immediately meant that major parties like KANU, and organized structures like UDF, which had the leadership capacity to hold the Jubilee government to account, were immediately and quickly taken out of the equation as opposition.

The next effort was against the civil society, a key sector of Kenyan society that has historically challenged the government of the day. Legislation was quickly introduced to manage foreign funds, a key and traditional source of resource for Kenya’s civil society. The legislation did not succeed, but the civil society got the message.

The younger ‘hot-blood’ civil society activists with ideas of how to use the new constitution’s rights for public demonstration to agitate against government, have also been frustrated into ‘retirement’, while the older more established activists have either been hounded through personal attacks of how they are foreign agents, or engaged through court cases, to the extent some are being declared ‘subversives’. Of course pretensions by key sections of the civil society to ‘not accept’ Jubilee’s win, have not helped their credibility. All in all, this other traditional ‘opposition’ zone has been adequately contained.

Next was the Kenyan media, which has in recent years gradually become an even more formidable political opposition than organized political formations. This was also dealt with through legislation, which was quickly introduced to redefine how the industry operates, and especially, introduce hefty and punitive costs for any that uses their public platforms to present information that could be dangerous to key interests. The media has fought back gallantly, but they were certainly weakened. Social media activists and bloggers have also not been left out, with key individuals being taken to court on several occasions. Again, though the cases have not made much progress, the message has been received, and I doubt we will be having a ‘social media revolution’ soon.

The ‘West’ (European and American international community) has over the years traditionally acted as another quiet but active ‘opposition-of-sorts’ to various Kenyan governments. Unfortunately key sectors of this group set themselves up before the elections when they took political positions on the ICC cases that were perceived as being against the Jubilee leadership. The Jubilee government leverages this history quite effectively to contain any issues they raise, and has then completely out-manoeuvred them on the cases. Now they face the challenge of either publicly apologizing for their overzealous (and in some cases, misguided) support of the cases against the Jubilee leadership, or shutting up and quietly working with the government, or Kenya will ‘face East’. Most have opted to shut-up.

Finally the ‘official’ political opposition; which ironically has been the easiest for Jubilee to manage. Moses Wetangula, the only CORD principal in public office, has literally been kept ‘busy’ through some court process or other, since elections. Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka, the other CORD principals, are yet to get their terminal dues despite the fact that it is undisputed that they served Kenya as Prime Minister and Vice President in the last government. (Sections of Jubilee insist that this will only happen after the two publicly announce their retirement from active politics). Attempts also continue to be made to ‘poach’ leaders from CORD affiliates, into Jubilee. However I must admit that Jubilee has only taken advantage of opportunities CORD provided, and most of CORD’s inability to be an effective opposition, has been its own doing.

But is Jubilee better off without an organized political opposition? Walter Lippmann, an American political commentator and Pulitzer-Prize winning writer said, ‘The opposition is indispensable. A good statesman, like any other sensible human being, always learns more from his opponents than from his fervent supporters. For his supporters will push him to disaster unless his opponents show him where the dangers are. So if he is wise he will often pray to be delivered from his friends, because they will ruin him. But though it hurts, he ought also to pray never to be left without opponents; for they keep him on the path of reason and good sense’.

British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1874-1880) said “No government can be long secure without a formidable opposition.”

The lack of an organized opposition has made the Jubilee government sloppy, unprofessional and dictatorial. This needs to be challenged if Kenya is to move forward. Our history also shows that progress has always come more from areas where the opposition has challenged government to act, than from a government’s own initiative. Kenyan therefore urgently needs an effective and well organized political opposition.

(Wambugu is the Executive Director – Change Associates Trust)

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