The 'handshake' and its (mis)interpretations

President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga during the March 9, 2018 Handshake in Nairobi. [File, Standard]
The ‘handshake’ between President Uhuru Kenyatta and National Super Alliance (NASA) leader Raila Odinga has been subjected to a number of interpretations, some of them insidious . On the one hand, we have the official version - which is based on what the two leaders told the Press immediately after their handshake on March 9, 2018. On the other, we have unofficial interpretations of the handshake by the Media, politicians and academicians.

The official version of the handshake is found in the joint statement by the two leaders in which they argued: “Over the last 55 years since independence, the people, and their leaders have sometimes taken sharply differing positions regarding the best road to travel towards this commonly agreed destination. This has led to the lack of a collective approach in the management of public affairs and has fostered feelings of exclusion and ultimately, animosity”.

The handshake was, therefore, supposed to start the process of addressing some of the evils, which have made Kenya miss her development target over the years. However, the peculiar utterances by the key players in the handshake have made it much easy for other commentators to espouse what can be referred to as the unofficial versions of the handshake.

The first unofficial version of the handshake comes from the team of politicians and technocrats who support of Deputy President William Ruto. This team is highly convinced the handshake was nothing but a scheme by influential families to scuttle Ruto’s dream to become President in 2022 on the understanding that he is either the son of a peasant or unwelcomed outsider with the potential to rattle established 'dynasties'. To them, the handshake was to provide the necessary fodder for politically muddying up the Deputy President in the eyes of the electorate and make him personally responsible for all the evils facing the country, by among others depicting him as the 'high priest of corruption'.

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The second unofficial version of the handshake comes from President Kenyatta’s camp – particularly his friends and associates. While some of his associates agree on the need to stop Ruto’s presidency, their silence on what will happen after the Uhuru presidency has left commentators wondering about their true intentions. Cotu Secretary General Francis Atwoli's appear to have given commentators a glimpse of what the President's associates may have up their sleeves.  Mr Atwoli was once captured arguing that Uhuru is “too young to go into retirement.” This assertion could be construed to mean the handshake was all about politics of accommodating Uhuru after retirement or, simply put, a tactful way of extending his presidency beyond the two-term limit. Constitutional experts argue that nothing can stop Uhuru from holding another executive position in government as long as the Constitution is amended.

The third unofficial version of the handshake emanates from Raila’s camp, particularly his ODM luminaries. While Raila has denied any relationship between the handshake and the 2022 presidential election, his luminaries have been sending different signals when asked about the handshake and the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI). They seem to agree with Uhuru’s associates on their clarion call for a referendum to change the Constitution to usher in a parliamentary system.

The extent to which they will be beneficiaries of this system of government is not clear. However, they seem to be very certain that BBI will offer them another avenue to cross River Jordan and take their supporters to Canaan. It is important to observe that since the handshake, Raila is often referred to as His Excellency even by senior government officers. He is also regularly visited by senior government officers and diplomats in his private office, besides being accorded official protocol in the country and even by Kenyan diplomats abroad. What remains to be seen is how he will leverage this to make a serious political stab at the presidency either under the current constitution or the amended one.

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But what if there will be no constitutional referendum? Then it seems to me the handshake will be just like any other political commitments which have been shredded by the Kenyan history of betrayal. Who is likely to benefit from a betrayal? And in the context of such betrayal, what would be the role of the handshake and BBI? Let me attempt to answer the last question. This brings me to the final version of the handshake.

This version posits that the handshake was all about bringing in relative peace necessary to spur economic development, particularly after protracted presidential elections. The handshake and the BBI seem to have been the product of consultancy work the former Prime Minister Tony Blair did in many African countries, including Rwanda and South Africa. These perspectives and/or versions of the handshake need to be acknowledged in the unending political posturing in Kenya.

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Dr Okuro is a lecturer at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology

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