Handshake: Another case of new beginning and another false dawn?

President Uhuru Kenyatta and African Union Envoy Raila Odinga at the burial of former chairman of Youth Enterprise Bruce Odhiambo at Koru in Kisumu county on January 19th 2019. (Collins Oduor, Standard)

A year ago tomorrow, President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga surprised foe and friend when they walked down the steps of Harambee House and stretched out their hands for the now famous handshake.

For more than five years, the two were sworn political enemies. First, Mr Odinga believed that President Kenyatta’s election in 2013 was undeserved. He had then petitioned the Supreme Court. That win was upheld under controversial circumstances- Mr Odinga’s evidence was disallowed, declared time-barred.Then came the August 2017 election and President Kenyatta again trounced Mr Odinga. But this time, the Supreme Court upheld Mr Odinga’s petition.

The annulment plunged the country into unchartered territory. President Kenyatta and his supporters protested angrily. Mr Odinga stayed out of the repeat election that followed soon thereafter. From that moment, it was not lost on many that even if he won, President Kenyatta’s would be a flawed mandate. Nearly half the country stayed away from the repeat presidential election heeding Mr Odinga’s calls for a boycott.

Mr Odinga then made plans for a mock swearing-in of himself as President. Against the advice and persuasion of many, Mr Odinga took the oath in January. Though it was not clear what such a move would achieve, it was obvious that the country had been left worse off.Something needed to be done quickly because we risked losing the country to chaos and anarchy. There were even threats of secession.

We exhorted particularly President Kenyatta to exercise Peter Hennessy’s “emotional geography of power” which all leaders ought to adapt. Hennessy, a professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary University of London argues that a leader should not just be decisive but also ready to bend backwards to cut a deal if it is for the common good. That a leader must be willing to take risks by seeking alternative opinion and accepting dissent while persuading and co-opting an opponent to one’s side. By reaching out to Mr Odinga, President Kenyatta showed that he could trust his gut. Together they formed the Building Bridges Initiative which has been collecting views from the public on what needs to be fixed to avoid the chaos of the past.

One year later, the handshake offers vital lessons:That leaders can rise above narrow party politics; that at times, we lose to gain; that Kenya is bigger than all of us and; that the ties that bind us are far much stronger than it is made to look; that we shouldn’t take seriously the exaggerated differences between politicians; that the interests of the politicians are not necessarily interest of the public; that peace and tranquility is an irreducible minimum.

Most importantly; that Kenya is better with all of us pulling together and that there is enough space for all of us to thrive.Looking back one year later, we feel that so much could have been done better. Many will be excused for imagining that the handshake was merely hyped hope and nothing much. And that it could yet prove to be another false dawn for the country. One of the pitfalls that the architects of the handshake overlooked was that for the objectives of the Building Bridges Initiative to be achieved, it ought to be grounded in law. It has been characterized by a series of fits and starts at times running out of money to fund its operations giving fodder to critics of the handshake who have dismissed as another charade.

Moreover, many Kenyans had hoped that the handshake would seek to cure the challenges that both Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga’s supporters wrestle with every day. Alas, that hasn’t happened.The economy is faring badly with soaring unemployment and poverty levels. Public finance is still a mess with debt repayment gobbling more than three-quarters of tax revenue according to the Controller of Budget. Then the politics are thoroughly rotten.

It was hoped that President Kenyatta would use the lull to push through his development agenda and carry out much-needed reforms. Most importantly, push for his legacy project the Big 4 agenda. Alas, he seems increasingly frustrated. The Big 4 agenda is all but in paper. Other than the Universal Health Care programme, all the others (food security, affordable housing and manufacturing) are held back by legal and regulatory hiccups. A lot of them lack the critical buy-in which is necessary to keep them running even beyond 2022 when President Kenyatta retires at the end of his second term.

At the centre of that dispute pitying Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga was the conduct of the elections. NASA believed it was a stitch up. Mr Odinga even branded President Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto vifaranga vya computer. Yet it is disappointing that none of them, least of all Mr Odinga who claims to have been cheated out of three elections before, is at the forefront to fix the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. Instead, they have left it to Parliament to grapple with the matter.

Second, we had hoped that this would include reforms that would shake up the economy and evenly spread the prosperity pie by making rising in the social classes easier and guaranteed with effort. Commendably, there seems to be a unity of sorts in the war on corruption- the singular threat to our country’s security and existence.

Corruption affects all the facets of our lives. Corruption corrodes the democratic process by tilting the scales in favour of the moneyed. Where corruption is prevalent, the moneyed can buy parties, the voters, business community and even the media or simply gerrymander constituency boundaries.

Yet though we know that free elections are a necessary ingredient for change because it offers the voter the chance – every five years- to sling out the ne’er-do-wells, increasingly, elections are proving insufficient. What is needed are strong institutions: we need independent and speedy courts and an active civil society that won’t be cowed. Throw in a media that barks and bites really hard and we are home and dry.

It is understandable that many view the Building Bridges Initiative with a jaundiced eye. In truth, the problems afflicting Kenya doesn’t require reinventing the wheel. As Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga showed in March last year, all that is needed is the will.