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NAIROBI, 27 August (IRIN) - "The man couldn't have died at a better time!" The remark may sound callous but respected political scientist Mutahi Ngunyi is quick to add that the death of Kenya's Vice-President Michael Wamalwa occurred at an opportune time to bring "healing" to the wrangling in the ruling coalition in particular, and the Kenyan nation in general.
"Contrary to the view that the death would further scuttle the ruling coalition, it has in fact created space for realignment by the politicians," Ngunyi told IRIN on Tuesday.
In an interview on the repercussions of Wamalwa's death, Ngunyi said that if politicians of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) "played their cards right", the coalition would be "revived" by the end of 2003. "Just as Jesus Christ died for us, Wamalwa has died to heal NARC," he added.
COALITION "COULD TURN BACK FROM THE BRINK"
Wamalwa, 60, died on 23 August in a London hospital after two months of hospitalisation. News reports gave the cause of death as "acute pancretitis". He was said to have been hospitalised suffering from "various ailments". He was MP for Saboti constituency in western Kenya.
As the Kenyan flag flies at half mast for the two weeks of mourning that President Mwai Kibaki has announced, the country is planning a state funeral for Wamalwa, who has been described by the local media as a patriot.
The body arrived in the capital, Nairobi, early on Wednesday, and the burial is set for 6 September at his home in the western town of Kitale.
"The death is a real disaster for Kenya in the sense that Wamalwa was a balanced man who was not given to emotions," Imre Loeffler, a political commentator for 'The EastAfrican' weekly told IRIN.
But like Ngunyi, Loeffler believes that Wamalwa's death "could turn the coalition back from the brink".
"NARC's curve of deterioration went up as Wamalwa got sicker and sicker over the two months he was in hospital," he noted.
He warned that NARC's future could go either way. "Given that the president himself is not 100 percent healthy, and Wamalwa's moderating force is no more, I can say that NARC's future is not certain," Loeffler said.
NARC is a loose organisation comprising several political parties that came together in 2002 to field a single candidate against former president Daniel Moi during elections on 27 December 2002. President Mwai Kibaki assumed power in January when the coalition won the presidential poll with a huge majority.
Loeffler said a "power vacuum" in the country was most acute in February and March when both the president and Wamalwa were ill. Kibaki was hospitalised for two weeks in February.
"I simple cannot figure out whether our head of state is unwilling or unable to govern, his laid-back style is worrying," Loeffler said.
He added that the coalition's performance so far was "rather disappointing".
"Most Kenyan men are stuck in their puberty, and this applies to many politicians," he said, adding that Kenyan women in politics had overall displayed more maturity and intelligence in the way they conducted themselves.
IMPACT ON CONSTITUTIONAL REVIEW
In the wider political sphere, Ngunyi sees Wamalwa's death as having a huge impact on the direction of the constitutional review talks underway in Nairobi, but which have been suspended for two weeks in honour of the vice-president.
"His death reduces the pressure on Bomas II [as the talks are referred to]. In fact, the political pressure that characterised the talks has become a slow puncture with Wamalwa's death," he said. The talks are aimed at reviewing the country's constitution to make it more democratic.
Prior to the resumption of the constitutional talks, there had been a lot of publicity on the creation of the post of an executive prime minister - this was to have been the topic of discussion at Bomas of Kenya this week, had the talks proceeded. NARC politicians are divided on the creation of a post of prime minister with executive powers.
Ngunyi explained that Kenya's constitution, as it is, allows for the creation of a non-executive prime minister.
"It is possible for the president to kill two birds with one stone," Ngunyi said. "The first stone being the appointment of a new vice-president and the second stone being the appointment of a non-executive prime minister.
"And then this would ensure that Kibaki kills one bird - political pressure - with two stones," he added.
Given Kenya's highly ethnicised politics, Ngunyi said, Kibaki would stabilise NARC if he appointed a vice-president and non-executive prime minister at the same time.
"He should appoint the two from the Luo and the Luhyia communities, this way he neutralises the threat posed by certain NARC actors to team up with the opposition Kanu and Ford-People parties to destroy the coalition."
NARC took power from Kanu in 2002 because the Kikuyu (supporting Kibaki), the Luo (Odinga) and the Luhyia (Wamalwa) came together to form a formidable force against Kanu which, although it had countrywide grassroots support, could not march the numerical might of the three communities that made up the NARC core voters.
For Kibaki to maintain an ethnic balance within NARC, the vice president, and the prime minister if he decides to appoint one, must come from the Luo or the Luhyia to keep the coalition together. Raila Odinga of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) - one of NARC's major components - has shown signs of warming up to the opposition, although he has played down his meetings with opposition leaders. Observers note that if the LDP were to pull out of NARC, the coalition would crumble and fresh elections would have to be held.
Both Ngunyi and Loeffler were hesitant to speculate on who would take over from Wamalwa but they mentioned the names of key NARC politicians Raila Odinga (Minister for Roads and Public Works), Charity Ngilu (Health Minister), Mukhisa Kituyi (Minister for Trade Industry) and Musikari Kombo (Assistant Minister for Planning and National Development) and Moody Awori (Home Affairs Minister).
"If I were the president, I would be completely lost between Musikari Kombo and Mukhisa Kituyi for the post of vice president," Loeffler said. "Although if competence were a measure, I would definitely go for Raila."
BLOW TO FORD-KENYA PARTY
At a lower level, Wamalwa's death also deals a blow to the Ford-Kenya political party which he headed.
It remains to be seen who will take over as Ford-Kenya chairman, and what, if any, bargaining power the individual will have in the coalition to influence the appointment of the next vice president. Efforts to contact Ford-Kenya secretary general John Munyes failed as his office said he was out attending preparations for Wamalwa's burial.
Both Loeffler and Ngunyi were full of praise for Wamalwa as a man. "Although I will not say the man was one of the greatest leaders as most Kenyans are now exaggerating, I can say that he was one of the most agreeable politicians we have had. He was consistent, and simple. What I liked most about him was his lightness of spirit," Ngunyi said.
Kibaki is expected to name a vice-president after Wamalwa's burial.
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