A handshake that shook the whole country

President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga.

The March 9, 2018 handshake has shaped the Kenyan social and political landscape in unexpected ways. Two years down the line, the handshake has made nonsense of the notion of political opposition in the country. Opposition chiefs easily fall over one another in ingratiating efforts to attract the President’s eye. An invitation to State House is a cherished happening, as is a photo opportunity with the Head of State.  

Without a doubt, ODM leader Raila Odinga is, in the mind of most Kenyans, the emblematic representation of the opposition. Yet, thanks to the handshake that ended the animus between him and President Uhuru Kenyatta, he easily stands out as the foremost State apologist today.

Raila speaks on a wide range of issues, almost with the voice of a shareholder in a co-presidency with Uhuru. Last week, at the funeral service for former Kiambu politician Nginyo Kariuki, Raila delivered what he said were the president’s apologies.

Uhuru’s messenger

He told the Nginyo family, and the mourners, that the president could not attend the service on account of discussions on the dreaded coronavirus – elsewhere in State House. This was in spite of the Attorney General Paul Kihara being at hand with the president’s formal message. A few days earlier, Raila was quoted in the press as explaining why passengers were allowed to disembark a Chinese aircraft at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport despite fear, globally, of importation of the dreaded coronavirus from China.

Raila was reported to have said that the action the government had taken was in the best of the country’s interest. A livid Uhuru, however, took to task the concerned State officers over the same issue.

Raila’s exuberance about State matters is, however, a mark of how so much the landscape has changed. The opposition speaks for the government, while a section of the ruling party, Jubilee, has veritably become the opposition. This embittered lot assembles around Deputy President William Ruto. Going under the generic tag of Tangatanga, the sullen political lot wears the ambiance of ditched lovers, whose place has been taken over by the opposition ODM party. Two years into the handshake, they are not just a bitter lot; they are visibly angry. They move from pillar to post, broadcasting their anger at the turn of events in the country. Their foremost umbrage is with regard to what they consider to be treachery against Ruto by the president and his corner in Jubilee. 

It was always understood that Ruto would be Jubilee’s chosen successor to Uhuru in 2022. But that was in the old days, when Raila was the Jubilee duo’s common enemy.

As the handshake has steadily transformed into an embrace, things have only deteriorated between the president and his deputy. In effect, Kenya is today a witness to the strange phenomenon of the deputy president becoming the de facto leader of the opposition. 

The DP is increasingly restless and visibly nervy in his public pronouncements. Where he should ordinarily be a member of the elite governing class, he accuses “the system” of all manner of political sins against him. Some of the sins, in fact, border on the criminal.

This has been the case, for instance, when the DP has accused senior government officials of conspiring to physically eliminate him. When he makes such pronouncements, the loudest defence comes not from State operatives, but rather from the opposition ODM party. The times are truly curious.

If ODM speaks for the government, the opposition proper is dead, for all practical purposes. ODM itself sees nothing bad in government. It hears nothing bad and says nothing bad. Wiper Democratic Movement leader Kalonzo Musyoka long ago asked the president to make him one of his political factotums.

The call was rewarded with a posting of sorts, as Kenya’s special envoy to the South Sudanese peace initiative. It is not clear whether anything material has ever developed out of this posting. Kalonzo is, however, seen in some of his happiest moments when he is in the adjacency of the president. He proclaimed last year that with regard to the post-Uhuru presidency in 2022, where the president would be, he too would be there.

Faded leaders

Ford-Kenya’s Moses Wetang’ula fashions a faded image as a political party leader and an opposition chief. His last noteworthy assignment was in the declamatory remarks made in 2018, during the fallout between him and Raila. He proclaimed that their end would be noisy, messy and with consequences. But nothing much has happened since.

ANC leader Musalia Mudavadi is the on and off self-declared leader of the opposition, ever since Raila shifted to Uhuru corner. Mudavadi makes some useful comments on the economy and war on corruption. The remarks, however, are just that.

They are deficient of useful actionable direction. The ANC leader has also not been averse to cozying up with Uhuru whenever the opportunity presents itself. They have been captured walking hand in hand, and hugging cheerily, in public. Mudavadi remains Kenya’s sleeping political elephant. Such has been the handshake’s capacity to distort the opposition.

The Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) is the premier output of the handshake. Billed as the blueprint to a happy, thriving and united country, the BBI is Raila’s pet project, with Uhuru as the official sponsor. Raila is its grand-master at public rallies to popularise the initiative.

Conversely, Dr Ruto is its greatest critic. Where this handshake will end up is anybody’s guess.

One thing remains clear, though. BBI is turning out to be more divisive and more corrosive than the owners may have thought it was going to be. It remains something to be watched and managed carefully, lest it generates future conflict of the kind it was conceived to settle. 

For now, however, BBI has cooled down ethnic tension between what were perceived as Nasa communities on the one hand, and Jubilee communities on the other. But it has also given birth to a new conversation on competition between what some call dynasties and hustlers. Fronted by the DP, hustlers are supposed to be Kenyans of ordinary parentage.

They distinguish themselves from prominent political families that have each produced more than one eminent politician. The hustlers attempt to position political competition in the country in the class struggle context of “hustler nation versus dynasties.” Whether this can gain traction only time will tell. 

Meanwhile, the handshake has enjoyed some level of international acclaim. Last year Uhuru and Raila travelled to the US to talk about the handshake as a model other countries in conflict could emulate. This alone heaps pressure on the two leaders to ensure the initiative ends up on a fruitful note. But part of the fruit can already be felt.

Some in the opposition have been appointed to State positions – including in foreign missions, to represent the government of the day. The benefits of development are also reaching opposition zones with ease. This has been seen, for example, in bailouts in sugar, rice, milk, coffee and tea sectors. 

The war on graft, however, remains a grey area. There are those who say it has emboldened the war on graft. Others, however, think the war is selective and only targets those who are against the handshake and the BBI, while sanitising corrupt leaders who support the BBI.

Download the BBI Judgement by all seven Judges - Civil Appeal No. E291 of 2021