Macharia Gaitho: For the nation's sake, stop haggling over Cabinet

THEY ARE NOT HAGGLING over who gets to run the Education, Agriculture or Health ministries. No, both the parties are more interested in dockets such as Finance and Internal Security.

So it is evident that it is not about service. It is all about money and power. Kenyans have been placed in anxiety once again because the political overlords cannot resolve a stalemate that is delaying the formation of the so-called grand coalition government.

Kenya was pulled back from the brink with the historic accord between President Kibaki and Mr Raila Odinga meant to settle the post-election crisis.

And things moved speedily after that when Parliament passed in record time the necessary legislation to pave the way for a unity government.

The impasse that has since come to the fore, essentially a disagreement over who gets what in the new arrangement, threatens to undo all that has been achieved so far and send Kenya back to anarchy.

It is time our leaders were reminded that the agreement was not merely about sharing power and wealth, but about rescuing Kenyans from ethnic conflagration and a place alongside Somalia on the premier league table of African failed states.

I would like to believe President Kibaki and Mr Odinga signed the agreement, not because chief mediator Kofi Annan held a gun to their heads or because the United States and the European powers exerted tremendous diplomatic pressure, but because both finally recognised that their subjects faced mortal danger if they remained obdurate.

Why then should they both become stubborn again over what should be a minor details after the broad principles have been agreed on?

Perhaps that is a reflection of the weakness of the accord. It was strong as a statement of principle but scanty on the details, presuming probably that both the parties signed it in good faith and would respect the spirit in which it was reached.

It assumed then that both the parties were gentlemen of honour, neglecting to take into account a little history of deceit, back-stabbing, dishonoured pacts, blackmail, warmongering and lust for power.

Maybe soon enough, common sense will prevail and we will have the unity government. There could be plenty of progress if President Kibaki relented and allowed ODM to have some of the powerful ministries it craves so that there can, indeed, be a balance in portfolio sharing as stipulated in the agreement.

Balance, it should be obvious to anybody, is not just about equal numbers in the unity Cabinet, but also in the weight and power of the ministries.

AN EQUAL STAKE IN THE PROPOSED Cabinet is really not too much for ODM to demand. My bet is that if they got that, they would promptly drop their demand for a lean Cabinet and happily take their places in the monster of a 44-strong team proposed by PNU.

The size of the Cabinet is not really the issue, though it has been adroitly seized on because of the hostility to such a bloated monstrosity.

I have argued on this column before against a bloated Cabinet.

Even the 34 proposed by ODM, compared to PNU’s 44, is still too big in my view. A maximum of 18 ministers should be able to perform just as well, and certainly be more manageable, than the kind of numbers both sides are talking about.

But then we must all at some point make compromises. I am willing to settle for a bloated Cabinet if that is what, alongside portfolio balance, will unlock the stalemate.

But then, since appointment to the Cabinet is about political reward and the massaging of egos, we should recognise that those so favoured possess no particular skills or expertise, and should not really be entrusted with any serious work.

We can let them enjoy the limousines and the retinue of flunkies at taxpayers’ expense, but reinforce the role of an apolitical public service as the real nerve centre of government operations.

That will also mean, of course, that ODM drops its demands for the right to appoint its own party cadre as permanent secretaries, provincial commissioners, judges, ambassadors, parastatal chief executives, military and police top brass, school principals and other public service jobs.

But that will also have to be preceded by an exercise in which the public service is cleaned of all existing officers who might have been appointed on political considerations instead of skills, training, experience and competence.

But even if everything worked out and the grand coalition government is formed, I still fear that it will not work as a government. The kind of mutual suspicion we are witnessing can easily be carried over into a new Cabinet.

What is supposed to be a united government could collapse into an arrangement where parties in the coalition are working at cross-purposes and actively undermining one another in the power-games.

As he serves out his last term, President Kibaki has the unique opportunity to rise above the fray for a stable and prosperous Kenya — he is not looking for votes, so he should not be beholden to any politicians or ethnic, regional or other interest groups.

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