Kenya President Steps Into Coalition Disputes

18 March 2009

President Mwai Kibaki this week made his most forceful public statement on the internal disuputes that continue to dog Kenya's coalition government. The president said that if ministers are unhappy with the government they can resign or risk being fired.

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki (File)
Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki (File)
Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, 77, has a reputation for staying above the fray of day-to-day politics. While ministers in his government have traded accusations of corruption or incompetence, President Kibaki has only occasionally addressed the public, generally limiting himself to lofty and general themes of national progress.

But on Tuesday, on a visit to western Kenya, President Kibaki issued a rare rebuke to members of the government. He threatened to fire cabinet ministers who were unhappy with the government, and criticized government ministers who stay silent through cabinet meetings and then complain about the government later at rallies.

President Kibaki's Party of National Unity shares power in the current government with the Orange Democratic Movement, or ODM, of Prime Minister Raila Odinga. The two sides reached the agreement a year ago, after a disputed presidential election set off a flurry of political and ethnic violence in the country.

Earlier this month, ODM leaders complained that the president's party was refusing to share power evenly, and asked for the agreement to be renegotiated. Shortly afterwards, the president held a press conference. But instead of addressing the ODM complaint, as many had expected, he issued a statement criticizing reports that he has a second wife.

That episode touched off criticism in Kenya's media that rather than staying above the fray, the president was neglecting the challenges facing the government.

His latest comments, as well as a speech last week criticizing the media for negative coverage of the government, suggest that President Kibaki has taken note.

Internal disputes, however, show little sign of easing. Many of the divisions are driven by corruption scandals, and they are not just between the two rival parties in the coalition, but between nominal political allies as well. This week Justice Minister Martha Karua criticized Attorney General Amos Wako for his failure to prosecute high-profile suspects in corruption cases. And divisions have opened between Agriculture Minister William Ruto, suspected of corruption in the distribution of grain assistance, and Prime Minister Odinga, an ally.

On Tuesday, U.S. ambassador Michael Ranneberger announced that the United States has banned a senior Kenyan official from traveling to the country for alleged involvement in corruption.

"We are continuing to monitor the situation in Kenya, including collecting information on acts of corruption engaged in by public officials," he said. "A number of cases are under review, and we will continue to apply our authority to suspend and deny visas as warranted."

The ambassador did not release the name of the official. But speculation in Kenya has focused on Ruto, as well as Energy Minister Kiraitu Murungi, who is suspected of involvement in an oil scandal and has been tied to previous graft cases.

Lawyer and political analyst Evans Mwaniki shares that view. He notes that Ruto has been suspected of delaying the distribution of grain delivered by the United States.

"A proper and substantive explanation has not been given," said Mwaniki. "The American government would have all the reason to ban him."

The ambassador, however, said the travel ban was not motivated by the recent grain scandal, but by multiple cases of corruption, as well as involvement in last year's post-election violence.

The United States issued similar travel bans for several Kenyan officials under President Kibaki's previous administration.