Handshakes, hugs mask what we need to get country moving

President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga share friendly moment at the Kisumu International Airport. [Collins Oduor/Standard]
Moments after Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory was declared at the Bomas of Kenya following the second presidential elections on October 26, last year, parts of the country – especially NASA dominated zones- erupted in protests.

There was real risk that the country could descend into chaos and anarchy, outright violence or disintegrate.

At the time, this newspaper warned that had proved that on their own, elections were not the panacea to the myriad problems the country faced.

That nearly half of those who voted in August willfully stayed away on October 26 amplified that problem.

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Fast forward to December 2018: Seeing President Kenyatta, his deputy William Ruto hug and laugh and even share kind words with their erstwhile bitter rivals Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka marked a new beginning for the country.

At Kenya’s lowest moments that included a mock swearing-in of Mr Odinga as the people’s president, history beckoned Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga to do the right thing and get the country moving.

They did that on March 9 on the Harambee House steps with the Building Bridges Initiative famously referred as the 'handshake'.

Before that, we exhorted Mr Kenyatta to use his hard-fought win prudently, unlike what he did after 2013 where either by default or design, he seemingly didn’t appreciate that half of the country had voted against him. And so instead of building alliances, he went about in a business-as-usual manner packing the top echelons of his government with people from two ethnic communities.

Though he must rue the missed opportunity, with the passage of time, we have seen the emergence of a different man.

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His rapprochement with Mr Odinga marked a new beginning for the country and perhaps for him too. He has reinvigorated the war on corruption and wastage in government departments.

But besides the sunny smiles and the hearty handshakes, the leaders must confront the cynicism borne out of years of toxic politics. At the centre of the never ending political disputes is the winner-takes-it-all form of politics that promotes exclusivity. If not taken forward with far reaching reforms, the handshake will just be another false beginning; a Band-Aid solution which will not achieve much beyond sharing the spoils of an electoral contest.

Unless reforms in the politics and political parties are carried out; unless the economy is opened up to take in more Kenyans existing on the fringes; unless corruption is fought tooth and nail; we should be prepared for another bout of electoral induced economic lull, tribal tension and skirmishes four years down the road. But why should we let that happen again? A cure must be found sooner rather than later.

Indeed, why should Kenyans pay a high price for democracy? Kenya’s terrible predicament is captured by Paul Collier, a professor of economics and public policy at Oxford University.

Collier warns that “on their own, unless they are held in the context of a functioning democracy, elections can retard rather than advance a country’s progress.” Whichever way one looks at it, we will be back here again sometime soon unless we fix the cause of the problem.

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Surely, they have to find a way to drain the hatred, the partisanship, the anger and deep-seated tribalism out of our politics. For all their shortcomings- including being beholden to tribal kingpins- Kenyans deserve better from those who lead them. And what a fitting place for the reunion than the launch of the Universal Health Care- one of the Big 4 agenda.

The reality that accosts many Kenyans each day as they struggle to get by in life is encapsulated in seeking medical attention. For those unlucky to have a sick one in their midst, the cost of medication strips them bare of all resources leaving them with nothing.

Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga have laid the foundation for a new Kenya that offers hope for all.

But ultimately, the buck stops with Mr Kenyatta. He needs to take charge. By coming up with and supporting pro-growth policies, he will have killed two birds with one stone: he will be putting money in people’s pockets; and mitigating the threat posed by the pervasive feeling of exclusion and having to woo his opponents with a handshake.

His efforts to make government an enabler of growth and progress by dismantling the networks that prop up the corruption cartels and by disrupting the business-as-usual attitude in the Civil Service is welcome. He can still do more with the time left in his term.

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A former Finance Minister, Mr Kenyatta must surely know the perils of unsustainable public debt and wage bill. It is not prudent that recurrent expenditure gobbles up two-thirds of the government budget. A debt to GDP ratio of 51 per cent is approaching red zone that will squeeze life out of the economy.

Lastly but not least, if nothing, he ought to fix the dysfunctional IEBC that the Supreme Court found culpable while annulling his win in the August 8, 2017 election to avoid another stalemate in the next electoral cycle.

president uhuru kenyattaraila odingauhuru nyanza touruhuru raila handshake