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Friday, May 23, 2008

Democracy, reforms can end fear of instability

By Raila Odinga
It is now three months since the National Accord and Reconciliation Agreement mediated by former United Nations Secretary-General Dr Kofi Annan was signed.

But Kenyans are still savoring and expressing their relief over the restoration of peace.

People tell me they feel a great sense of reassurance when they see President Kibaki and myself working together to build a new Kenya.

Never has the value of peace been so resonantly and keenly felt by a people who had enjoyed an essentially violence-free past until the results of the disputed election were announced.

Every one of us must do everything possible to ensure that this peace holds, and is made sustainable. The burden of that responsibility falls first and foremost on the Coalition Government and Members of Parliament.

We must work closely together to speedily address people’s most urgent and compelling concerns, and create the new laws and reforms that will entrench democracy, good governance, the rule of law and the enhancement of an ethical and equitable Public Service.

While we are rightly proud of having constructed Africa’s first ever Grand Coalition Government as a way to bring a halt to post-election violence and division, the fact remains that it is a novel experiment in which both coalition partners and Members of Parliament are trying to figure out how to do things the right way.

How to agree within the Coalition Government on the best way to resettle the displaced was the first major challenge.

Right now there is an intense and passionate debate about the large number of Kenyans being held merely for taking to the streets to demonstrate their fury over the disputed election results.

And within both main parties, backbenchers who enjoy the enshrined right of opposing government policy are struggling to find a way to exercise that right within the new arrangements.

But despite these and a number of other teething problems, it is clear that we must seize with gusto the opportunity that the Grand Coalition provides.

In doing so, we can finally achieve the reforms that Kenyans so overwhelmingly voted for in 2002 and last year.

As things stood in Parliament following the General Election, neither the Orange Democratic Movement nor the Party of National Unity alliance had the numbers to push through a new Constitution and all the other reforms on its own.

(Article Continues Below)

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Together, however, the two parties can entrench in the Constitution democracy and equity so that no Kenyan and no community feel marginalized.

And we must adopt policies, which will drive economic growth to the levels that are needed to effectively address the crises in land, impoverishment and joblessness.

I am committed to doing everything possible to make this Coalition Government succeed.

But I am not blind to the fact that success will only be possible if the bulk of our people perceive that the two sides are indeed genuinely sharing power, and that their most compelling concerns are being addressed.

So even as I stress that Government ministers must support policies that are agreed within the Cabinet, that in no way is meant to stifle debate on issues that are on people’s minds and on which policy has not yet been agreed.

Support for the Grand Coalition Government must not be based on blind faith or coercion.

That is why I have publicly called for the speedy resolution of issues surrounding post-election violence, as a means of ensuring that the restored peace we enjoy is not undermined by the pursuit of short-term measures.

At the same time, as Prime Minister I am in regular touch with President Kibaki and ministers to influence both policy and actions that I believe will heal wounds and promote reconciliation.

Some of these discussions must necessarily be conducted in private, but other issues can be handled publicly.

For example, I will be shortly visiting with the relevant ministers the vital Mau Forest, which is one of the nation’s water towers, to see for myself how an amicable settlement to the problems afflicting the communities there can be quickly arrived at.

Similarly, even as I have stated my concern about the impact the formation of a Grand Opposition in Parliament might have on our overall goals, I am committed to respecting the right of backbenchers to organize themselves in ways which will enable them to exercise their hallowed right to be the watchdogs of the people and oppose government policies they consider inimical.

As someone who has spent so many years in opposition fighting for people’s rights, no one should imagine that I would ever allow that fundamental democratic right to be abridged.

The writer is the Prime Minister of the Republic of Kenya


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