The March 9, 2018, Handshake between ODM leader Raila Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta was surprising yet not shocking. Having sworn himself in as ‘the people’s president’ just slightly over a month earlier, a sudden handshake between the two rivals was least expected. It has since been Raila’s political lifeline.
The handshake was not shocking because both the ODM leader and the president had few viable options. They had driven the country through an explosive electoral cycle. The moment of rapture seemed at hand, anytime. The nation lived on a high voltage political live wire.
The declaration of the presidential election results in August, the nullification of the results, followed by a repeat poll that Raila and his National Super Alliance (NASA) colleagues boycotted, all spelt doom for Kenya.
Then came the announcement of a National Resistance Movement (NRM) and the January 30 Raila ‘oath of office’. Where was the country going?
The handshake was, accordingly, a goddess out of the machine (a deus ex machina), that resolved an otherwise intractable situation. It gave a new lifeline to a tense country, to Raila and to President Kenyatta. It has served this role quite well in the intervening time.
Put together with the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) that it gave birth to, the goodwill of the handshake will continue to be Raila’s political lifeline in 2020 and possibly beyond.
Sustained goodwill will meanwhile depend largely on whether the rest of the BBI process can enjoy wide acceptance across the political fraternity.
It will also significantly help Raila if in the process he routs his political competitors for great things in the country. In particular, his destiny in 2020 onwards is likely to be defined by how Deputy President William Ruto plays in the BBI arena.
It is an open secret that both the DP and Raila are walking towards the New Year with their sights firmly cast upon the 2022 presidential poll.
It is also true that each considers the other to be his main competitor for the highest office in the land. Everyone else, in their view, is either a spoiler who should be tamed and moved to the margins or, alternatively, won over to their camp.
All their energies and focus in the New Year will be engaged in a manner that amortises towards the final push in 2022.
They will be eyeing each other with the steadfast caution of seasoned political chessboard masters. The slightest slip-up could prove treacherous.
For Raila, the entry point is BBI and the handshake. The import of the handshake is the dilemma that confronted the country after his swearing-in.
In the wake of this happening, the country held its collective breath, wondering what next. Was Raila going to go into the trenches? Would he pick up arms and attempt to remove Uhuru and the Jubilee Government by force? Where was he going to set up his command base?
At the time, Raila was talking of a National Resistance Movement under the command of his on-and-off comrade-at-arms, the self-styled General Miguna Miguna.
Did Miguna command a real army? Where was it? When would it bounce into action? What would this mean for the country? Or would President Kenyatta arrest Raila and have him charged with committing high treason? Where would this leave a country whose fabric was thoroughly wounded by a hugely ethnic-charged presidential poll? Would Raila’s angry and frustrated supporters sit back and quietly watch their hero undergo incarceration? Was the country on the verge of an ethnic bloodbath?
The handshake saved the country from further consideration of these questions. This is the message that the handshake fraternity has been passing to the country in restrained idiom. The BBI was born out of the handshake as the ultimate escape route. It would seem, however, that the two principals did not quite know what they wanted to get out of it.
The lack of clarity reflects in the fact that the BBI process seems to be beginning afresh after the November 26 report. Even as they petitioned the country through much of 2019 to support the then anticipated BBI report, Raila and Uhuru would seem to have been groping in the dark, just like everyone else. And so the BBI is back on the drawing boards.
Raila has a significant portion of 2020 to spend preaching about the BBI, the expansion of the Executive and a referendum. His relevance in the year hinges very much on this.
In preaching the gospel of the BBI, Raila would also hope that it would attract rejection from his new-found nemesis, the deputy president. It has been said that the ODM leader is in his element when he is in the thick of a crisis. A charged crisis around the BBI is just what he needs in 2020. If the process becomes a lukewarm affair, it could take away some of his mojo. He must continue, therefore, to position phase two of the BBI in a fashion that generates heat, excitement and a bit of animus – especially against the DP.
The potent of this positioning, however, must be contributed to in part by the deputy president and his team. The DP’s team has for much of the ending year cried wolf. Led by politicians such as Senate Majority Leader Kipchumba Murkomen, Nandi Senator Samson Charargei, Kapseret MP Oscar Sudi, Kikuyu MP Kimani Ichung’wa and his Bahati counterpart, Kimani Ngunjiri, the DP’s team – christened Tanga Tanga – believes that BBI was conceived to destroy their captain’s political career.
In particular, they see it as the instrument to block his path to the ultimate seat of power in the country.
Their foremost bone of contention has been the proposal to expand the Executive through the creation of the office of the prime minister and other allied offices. While it has remained obscure how this would derail DP Ruto’s ambitions for greater things, the cat now seems to be out of the bag.
With it is a greater challenge to the management of the BBI and the ultimate proposals – hopefully later in 2020. Former Gatanga MP David Murathe came out boldly at the weekend to state that President Kenyatta “is going nowhere after 2022”.
Murathe went further to categorically state on camera that the president was eyeing the position of prime minister, when the BBI process eventually matures in a much-touted referendum on the Constitution.
Whether it is a balloon he has floated on his own initiative, or whether he is the official sounding board, Murathe has opened a can of worms for Raila and Uhuru to manage in 2020. Cotu Secretary General Francis Atwoli goes to town every so often with the ‘Uhuru Beyond 2022 Agenda’.
It is an agenda that Raila and Uhuru must midwife deftly, for it could backfire. When in 1991 Kenyans limited the presidential tenure to two five-year terms through a constitutional amendment, it was not the title of president that bothered them. The concern was rather that nobody should be the country’s CEO for more than 10 years.
To attempt to reinvent and repackage Uhuru as the national CEO in a new guise could walk the BBI into a political – and even ethnic – minefield. As the foremost spokesperson for the initiative, Raila has his assignment cut out.
He might have to spend much of 2020 trying to persuade Kenyans on why they must travel with Uhuru as the captain of the ship of state beyond 2022. But he has to do more than that.
Raila will have to show Kenyans what is in the BBI for them. Already, there have been loud multilateral misgivings about the possibility that the BBI could end up as a Trojan horse that should keep the Odinga and Kenyatta families at the centre and apex of state power. A hugely hungry country in the grip of a limping national economy will clutch at any straw that comes its way.
The BBI has often come close to a straw that Kenyans could clutch on to. It could, however, run into headwinds if they should be persuaded that it is indeed laced with dynastic conspiracy.
Meanwhile Raila must gather adequate troops to fight with him in the New Year and beyond. He begins with a two-pronged dilemma in this regard.
The first is that of his image as a serial deal breaker. His history is fraught with numerous broken alliances. They range from his fallout with Kijana Wamalwa in Ford Kenya after the passing on of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga in 1994, to the merger of his NDP with President Moi’s Kanu in March 2002 and the bitter fallout later in the year. From there it moves on to his amity with President Mwai Kibaki in 2002 and their fallout beginning in 2003, to culminate in the post-election violence of 2007-08.
Beyond that, there was the original juggernaut that was ODM in 2005-08 and the subsequent bitter fallouts. In more recent times, there is the dilemma of an ailing NASA, which none of the partners wants to pull out of, despite public knowledge that it has atrophied. The narratives that occasionally slip out on the drivers of the disquiet in NASA call for proper image management.
While he is reputed to be a mercurial political operative, he will need to give confidence to those who would form alliances with him in BBI and beyond that he can be trusted to be a long-distance political friend.
The other side of the coin is also true. His present alliance with President Kenyatta is at best shaky. He is dealing with a fraternity that is just as mercurial as he is. This is the fraternity that appears to have dumped the deputy president after he helped to deliver the presidency for two consecutive terms. It is also the same fraternity that is reputed to have thrown away an MOU on the formation of government with President Kibaki in 2003.
It is difficult to tell what next will be thrown overboard. Raila must get into 2020 with this consciousness. He probably knows this, hence his sustained reluctant sojourn in NASA.
The NASA team could still find itself needing to walk together, despite the present frostiness in the camp. Whatever the case, Raila Odinga will continue to be one big political player to watch in 2020.
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