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Q&A: Raila Odinga, former Prime Minister of Kenya

After his lecture “The Awakening African Lion” on development and change on the African continent, former Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga sat down with The Daily Princetonian to discuss current Kenyan politics, his experience as an African Union negotiator in the Ivory Coast’s 2010-11 conflict and the rise of terrorism and terrorist groups in Africa.

The Daily Princetonian: Political pluralism was established in Kenya as recently as 1991, and yet the presence of multiple political parties seems to make maintaining a stable state even more difficult. You, yourself have been a member of multiple parties. Has political pluralism helped or hurt your country?

Mr. Raila Odinga: I think the answer is that it helps, because a democratic space has been opened, and the people are freer than they were under a single party dictatorship. In other words, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association have all been enhanced by political pluralism. Granted, there are more political parties. But this is a nation of development, in a society which has been closed for far too long. But political parties eventually coalesce into groups. As you can see, the new face [of Kenya] is coalition building. Like the last election, there were three major coalitions: the CORD coalition, the Jubilee coalition and the Amani coalition. That is where you see the formation of strong political parties. In other words you end up with a dual system like you have here in this country of Republicans and Democrats and the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats in Germany, and so on and so forth. But this is something in my view that is already in the making.

DP: What about the ongoing changes in the structure of government, including the abolishment of the Prime Minister’s seat in 2013? Do these changes help or hurt Kenya?

RO: We went for a presidential system. This is an experiment and the jury is still out. We are used to a mixed system with [elements of a] Presidential and Parliamentary system. The President was a member of Parliament, and ministers were also members of Parliament. This new constitution has completely separated powers; members of Parliament are not ministers. Ministers are from outside. It is still frustrating. I think people would prefer more a mixed system rather than a presidential system; it is more accountable.

DP: You were appointed as an African Union representative to participate in conflict resolution in the Ivory Coast in 2010. What was your experience in acting as an international mediator trying to help a nation resolve its troubles?

RO: I think it was an exciting challenge. I had been through a similar situation back in Kenya and I thought our experience could be helpful to the Ivory Coast in solving their conflict. I went there with an open hand and negotiated with both sides very objectively, in an open manner. I think my going there, my involvement, somehow helped to create an international conscience to move decisively and end the bloodshed.

DP: Let’s turn, for a minute, to the international community and the role they play in conflict resolution, for example in South Sudan. What is your opinion on the role of the involvement of the United Nations in the international community and conflict resolution? Should it be left to the African Union?

RO: The U.N. needs to move usually earlier and faster with resources. The AU can have the will, but they don’t have the ability because they don’t have the resources to send a peacekeeping force to stay in a country for a sustained period of time. That’s why there is a need for the U.N. to lead and the AU to be complementary. They [the UN] must also time their interventions. They often come too late, like in the case of Rwanda. The Rwandan genocide must not be repeated.

DP: What challenges does the rise of terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram have for African governments? Do they distract or set back nations trying to build infrastructure and pursue economic development?

RO: Certainly yes. These terrorist groups impede development. They disturb national cohesion and create a lot of tension in a country. They disrupt the lives of people. They cause unnecessary suffering and pain to women, children and other people in society.

DP: How can African governments solve that problem? How can they combat the rise of terrorist groups?

RO: They must unite, and they must support each other because these terrorist groups cross borders. They are not confined to one particular country. And they are interlinked, some of them, with international terrorist organizations. They have become an international issue, no longer a national matter. My opinion would be that all the countries in the world need to work together to share information and share experiences because many complement each other. This is an international affair and transcends national boundaries.

Interview conducted, edited and condensed by Jacqueline Gufford.

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