Last week’s prayer breakfast provided opportunity for Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga to renew their commitment to the handshake and provided much-needed respite in the country’s politics, by bringing together Raila and Deputy President William Ruto, who lately have been sniping at each other.
In a demonstration of how tricky it has become to remain true to the handshake, the prayer breakfast coincided with an angry demonstration in the city, by a group of civil society activists incensed by recent revelations about corruption in the government.
The activists who came out last week would be part of Raila’s traditional constituency, and in different circumstances, Raila might have joined them in their demonstration. However, by getting into a relationship with Kenyatta, Raila has yoked himself to Jubilee, the object of the angry demonstrations, and is viewed as having withdrawn his support for a constituency he has led for so long.
Further, dining with Kenyatta and Ruto as a demonstration was underway in another part of the city, conjured images of what happened last year, when Raila would lead his followers in parallel activities in another part of the city, in competition with Jubilee’s meetings.
The corruption scandal represents a new challenge to the credibility of the handshake. Kenyatta and Raila came together, making promises that they would promote national reconciliation and accountability. The corruption scandal is a foremost accountability issue.
If Jubilee cannot address the scandal credibly, questions will remain as to whether the handshake is capable of achieving the accountability that it promised. The corruption scandal is evidence that so long as the details of the handshake remain unsettled, the vicissitudes of time are capable of frustrating whatever intentions Kenyatta and Raila may have had in mind.
There has been little public information about the processes relating to the handshake. Whereas there was expectation that some kind of public engagement would unfold after the establishment of the Building Bridges Advisory Committee, this has not materialised. Further, the burden of articulating the handshake does not seem to be borne equally by the relevant political leaders. Raila alone has been speaking about the handshake, with Kenyatta remaining relatively non-committal, while Ruto, who is supposed to be working with Kenyatta, has been involved in a denigration contest with Raila.
The handshake transformed the country’s political situation, removing inherent tension and uncertainty with which Kenya emerged from the last elections. So long as there was tension, the need to negotiate remained strong. By appearing to normalise the situation, the handshake has removed the pressure to negotiate.
A further problem arises from the position Raila has taken in relation to the last elections.
Having initially withheld his recognition of Kenyatta as president, Raila finally recognised Kenyatta as president, as part of the handshake arrangement. This recognition has had the effect of giving Kenyatta the legitimacy he craved, thus also removing the pressure to negotiate.
In 2008, Raila similarly withheld his recognition of Mwai Kibaki as having been re-elected as president, a tactic that compelled Kibaki to negotiate.
There are other complications to the possibility of negotiations around the handshake. Having surrendered any claim to the presidency, Raila has no identifiable claim that would be the subject of a negotiation with Kenyatta. What would Kenyatta and Raila meet to talk about when Raila has no claim regarding Kenyatta’s win?
In 2008, a significant part of the mediation was occupied by the need to understand and process responses to the violence that had accompanied the election. The fact of violence was not disputed.
The only dispute was the extent of the violence and the persons responsible for it. By contrast, there is no agreement about the violence that occurred after the elections last year.
NASA claims there was post-election violence in parts of Nyanza, a claim corroborated by a number of independent human rights organisations. However, Jubilee disputes that there was violence and Kenyatta and has commended the security forces for their role in the elections, in a manner understood to be a response to the claim about violence.
Without an agreed position about the violence of the last elections, it would be difficult to develop a shared approach through the handshake.
All appearances are that the handshake represents a bad deal for Raila, who, by agreeing to an unconditional normalisation of relations with Kenyatta, has allowed the crisis from the last elections to go to waste. Without a crisis, Raila has lost the leverage to make demands. Also, without Raila, Jubilee would have been beleaguered by its own corruption scandals. By joining Kenyatta at a time when he is beset with corruption scandals, Raila is lending support for addressing scandals he was not involved in. With nothing to give him in return for the support that Raila gives to Jubilee, symbols that are supposed to communicate that he now belongs to government will become ever more important, hence the public hugs and apologies.