Like President Trump, Kenya’s opposition leader, Raila Odinga, has a nuclear button, one that he now says he is not afraid to use. He has refused to recognize President Uhuru Kenyatta’s controversial reelection and has vowed to have himself sworn in as president by the end of the month. This has drawn a predictably alarmed reaction from within the government with Attorney General Githu Muigai having warned Odinga that he risks being put to death for treason if he goes ahead.
The standoff over the presidency — now into its sixth month — has witnessed the first annulment of a presidential election in the continent’s history and has taken a terrible toll. More than 60 people have died, according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, mostly protesters killed by police and government-allied militia. The country’s economy has also taken a beating, with the World Bank having to cut its 2017 growth estimate for Kenya’s economy to 4.9 percent, which would indicate the slowest annual expansion in five years.
The prospect of Odinga taking the oath would undoubtedly raise the stakes even higher. His boycott of the October repeat election severely dented Kenyatta’s legitimacy, both locally and internationally, which led to humiliating reports of Kenyan diplomats having to solicit congratulatory messages from Western countries. The government’s international standing has recovered somewhat, especially after the Trump administration‘s endorsement, but many fear that its continuing weakness at home could spur more bloodletting in reaction to an Odinga inauguration — or even see the country begin to unravel.
However, the thing about nuclear buttons is that while they make impressive sabers to rattle, they are not meant to be pushed. Similarly, Odinga would much rather not have his bluff called.
First, his trump card might turn out to be a dud if, as some have suggested, the government were to simply ignore him. Would he try to move into the state house or attempt to evict Kenyatta? That would be highly unlikely. Also, he would still have no control over security forces and government agencies, none of which have shown any indication of siding with him. Odinga himself has stressed the importance of having “a plan after the Bible,” and though he now claims to have one, it is unclear what exactly it is.
On the other hand, there is a real risk of retaliation from a government that has shown no aversion to killing scores of its own citizens to preserve Kenyatta’s hold on power. While it is unlikely that the government would risk the backlash that arresting and trying Odinga for treason — as happened to his Ugandan counterpart, Kizza Besigye — would undoubtedly invite, there could still be consequences for him personally. His father, Kenya’s first vice-president, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, was twice held under house arrest by the repressive regimes of Uhuru Kenyatta’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, and his successor, Daniel arap Moi. This, indeed, is what ruling party MPs have been threatening.
Perhaps in recognition of the risks, he has twice put off the swearing-in, initially refusing a proposed parallel ceremony on the day Kenyatta was inaugurated in November, then changing his mind and announcing he would do it in December, before postponing it once again when the day arrived. He said he was holding out for talks with Kenyatta on “electoral justice” but not for a power sharing arrangement, though he has also called for a six-month “interim arrangement of governance involving representatives of both parties” as negotiations on resolving the impasse proceed.
The United States has been leading efforts to dissuade Odinga from taking the oath, at one point reportedly promising to deliver the government side to the negotiating table. However, there has so far been little serious indication that the Kenyatta’s administration is interested in talks about its legitimacy, and its intransigence may be what forces Odinga’s hand.
All this fits into a pattern of resolving disputes that Kenyan politicians learnt from the British colonial administration and have perfected during more than half a century of independence. This involves protests, violent repression and eventual compromise. It is a game of brinksmanship in which both sides of the dispute push the country to the edge of anarchy (and sometimes a little over as happened a decade ago) before pulling back and negotiating an agreement.
Regardless of whether Odinga goes ahead with the swearing-in, Kenya seems destined for an extended period of political and economic unrest and uncertainty. It is the country’s very own Art of the Deal.