NARC starts on a rough note
Barely one and a half months in office, the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government is grappling with unprecedented challenges. At the centre of concern is President Mwai Kibaki’s health, which has been deteriorating since last December when he was involved in a motor accident and later admitted to Nairobi hospital.
At the time, his personal physician Dr Dan Gikonyo told a press conference that the president had only fractured his right arm and sprained a right ankle. But the public became suspicious when the following day Kibaki had to board the plane flying him to London on a stretcher. He was to remain in hospital and returned to Kenya on December 14, 2002 on a wheelchair and wearing a neck brace. Dr Gikonyo again allayed public fears and said the president had suffered a hairline neck fracture that would soon heal.
The president was to remain wheelchair bound until January 20 when he was admitted again to the Nairobi Hospital with high blood pressure occasioned by a blood clot in his injured foot. He was a guest at the hospital for eight days and when he was discharged on January 28, he was back on his feet but with the help of an elbow crutch. He emerged from the ward smiling but only addressed the public very briefly.
Kibaki’s silence persisted, leading to speculation that he could be suffering from some undisclosed ailment. This prompted to twice conduct meet the people tours, in which he never spoke, giving rise to more speculations. In both the tours, he simply smiled and waved at curious crowds, who had lined the road to see him.
The president’s ill heath has led to cancellation of several functions, while in others he has been represented either by Vice President Kijana Wamalwa or Foreign Affairs minister Kalonzo Musyoka. A major function that had to be postponed is the state opening of parliament, which was scheduled for January 28 but postponed to February 18. According to the constitution, this is a function that cannot be delegated.
Besides the president, other members of his cabinet are also ailing, fuelling fears that the government may not live to expectations. When the president was admitted in London following the accident, his vice president was also admitted in the same hospital with a kidney ailment. And when Kibaki was admitted to Nairobi Hospital for the second time, Wamalwa was away in London seeking treatment for the same kidney problem.
Also indisposed since his appointment to the cabinet is Office of the President minister in charge of public service Geoffrey Parpai. However, tragedy befell the government on January 24 when Labour minister Ahmed Khalif died in a plane crash at the Western town of Busia. Four ministers, two assistant ministers and an MP were among those seriously injured as they returned from a victory party hosted by Home Affairs minister Moody Awori.
Hardly before the dust could settle on the Busia plane tragedy, another NAR C MP – Paul Kihara succumbed to illness at a South African hospital where he had been admitted with kidney problems, gout and an infection of the lungs. Kihara is one of the MPs who attended the swearing in ceremony in parliament on a wheel chair.
Illnesses aside, the party has been hit by internal wrangles which observers say are likely to tear it apart. Soon after Kibaki announced his cabinet last month, a group of 26 MPs from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) – one of the major parties that form NARC – cried foul, saying that the president had breached a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which required that cabinet posts be shared on a fifty-fifty basis between LDP and another major party – the National Alliance Party of Kenya (NAK).
While NARC – where Kibaki originally belonged - got 13 cabinet slots, LDP only got 9. More grumbles were to follow after the appointment of permanent secretaries early this month. There was more disenchantment as it became clear that the president had favoured members of his ethnic group in the appointments. In a country where tribal sentiments run high, Kibaki is likely to face a rebellion soon and this may spell doom for the nascent coalition.
Kanduyi MP Wafula wa Munyinyi was very blunt in his comments: The reading is very clear. "The Luhya and the Luo who gave Kibaki majority votes are being ignored. We have been used. Kibaki is rewarding members of his tribe and old friends. But the struggle continues".
The sentiments were similarly echoed by a group of MPs from Eastern province who warned that they would rebel against Kibaki if the appointments do not reflect a national character. Besides the simmering row within the party, equally disappointed are youthful voters who NARC had promised to appoint to suitable positions in the government. Alas! to them, Kibaki has opted to recycle old hands in the civil service including those who had retired.
Said Kathiani MP Kyalo Kaindi : "It is necessary that we all share political, economic and administrative power equitably. We are seeing old hands being recycled in top civil service appointments. Is there a shortage of professionals in this country?" he wondered aloud.
The wrangles within the party have been extended to the cabinet in what appears to be lack of collective responsibility. The ministers have openly differed in public over matters of national interest. When Transport and Communications minister John Michuki cancelled the licence of the air charter company whose plane was involved in the Busia crash, his Roads and Public works counterpart Raila Odinga opposed him, arguing that the decision was so harsh.
Early this month, when Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister Kiraitu Murungi declared that the mandate of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) had expired, Odinga – perhaps in his capacity as the chairman of the Parliamentary select Committee that set up the review body – argued that the Commission still had a mandate, as a new constitution had not been enacted.
The new government has also had to grapple with unprecedented labour crisis following what is now referred to as wild cat strikes. Health minister Charity Ngilu was the first one to face her baptism of fire when barely two days in office, the Ministry of Health staff went on strike. Although she managed to convince them to return to work, more strike were to follow when workers at the Export processing Zone (EPZ) factories downed their tools in quick succession, destroying property valued at millions of dollars.
The strikes have posed a major challenge to the government, which is now torn between championing the rights of workers and attracting foreign investors. With no solution in sight, the impasse is bound to impact negatively on an economy that is in dire need of resuscitation.
But it is insecurity that has posed a major threat to the nascent NARC government. Barely a week in office, members of the outlawed Mungiki sect raided the Rift valley town of Nakuru and killed 23 people. Whereas the government declared war on this eccentric outfit that caused mayhem even during the previous regime, its leaders insisted there would be no surrender and still continue killing innocent civilians.
That the Mungiki – an organized gang continues to operate even under the noses of security officers – has raised questions on the government’s ability to protect its citizens. With the recent revelation that the sect had secretly acquired sophisticated Land rovers in a deal with top military officials, Kenyans haven’t heard the last of Mungiki yet.
But Mungiki is not the only security threat. In a style reminiscent of the 1992 and 1997 politically instigated ethnic clashes, a group of armed raiders thought to be cattle rustlers descended on the Rift Valley town of Molo and killed one man, besides torching 30 houses and stealing livestock. With investigations revealing that members of the gang were linked to some civic leaders, it will be interesting to see how the government handles the situation in an area which has remained volatile since the 1992 ethnic clashes.
The government has also come face to face with student unrest in public universities, with students from Nairobi and Kenyatta universities engaging in an orgy of violence and looting. The students went on strike last month to demand registration of their unions, which were proscribed by the previous government. Also awaiting the government is a barrage of lawsuits by civilians who claim they were unlawfully detained by the KANU regime.
What is evident, however, is that the NARC government has began on a sour note and unless the president and his cabinet work extremely hard to restore public confidence, the official opposition KANU, though embroiled in wrangles, may seize the opportunity and launch its comeback.