Handshake not an end in itself, but a beginning

President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga during the famous handshake [File, Standard]

Unbeknown to some, the context to which our politics operate is defined in large measure by events that occurred far back in our history.

The present situation is the product of a series of events in our past. However, not all events in our history have equal significance at any given time. The significance of a certain period of history in current affairs raises its head when certain things occur.

The current rapprochement between the two scions of the leading political families in Kenya is of significance because it attempts to bridge a rift dating back to the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga-Jomo Kenyatta disagreements of the early post-independence years. What was initially a fall-out between allies quickly degenerated into tribal mistrust and hatred that has remained long after the two protagonists left the scene.

The ground-shaking disagreement has reverberated across time to infect our politics and social relations, and in the recent past, our business relations. The new dispensation ushered in by the Constitution of Kenya 2010 did not escape the toxicity generated by the Jaramogi-Jomo rift. Even the longest period of unprecedented growth in the history of Kenya dating 2002 to 2017 has not escaped the negativity surrounding the rift.

That Kenya boasts one of the largest economies in Africa and in the sub-region does not seem to immunise us from that negativity. The dynamism and diversity of our economy may have contributed towards buffering us from open strife, but the events of 2007 and the tensions at every election since point to serious weaknesses in the structure of our society.

It is definite that the cold war between the competing political coalitions, which are largely coalitions of tribe, threatens the very fabric of our nation. Recent calls for cessation and the boycott of certain brands and products in some regions highlight the gravity of the problem. It will not be lost on some that the political dispute literally rescued some mobile telephony companies from the dead. Such is the level of bitterness within us that foreign investors have suffered or triumphed from the fight between brothers. Sadly, some of us have died or suffered grave loss because of the dispute.

The public pledge by Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga to heal the rift and conduct politics in a way that does not harm our social relations or endanger peace is commendable.

It was not the outcome of a fancy national convention but rather, deep reflection by two protagonists upon realisation that they were leading the country to a cliff edge.


The mark of a strong leader is not in dancing to the tune of his base but in making the decisions necessary for the good of all, including his rivals. The rapprochement now christened ‘handshake’ is a turning point in the history of this nation. This is not necessarily because of what it heralds for us as a nation but just the mere fact that it calmed nerves, opening the way for constructive engagement.

For the politician, posturing is a necessary tool of trade. Incendiary rhetoric aimed at his base comes easily. However, the tone set by leading politicians quickly translates into indecision or worse among bureaucrats. The fight against corruption or environmental degradation has suffered as bureaucrats navigate the schism between the two political coalitions. Routine actions are regarded as pro-this or anti-this, robbing whole institutions of objectivity or legitimacy.

In Opposition-controlled counties, the national administration has been caught between the two giants, hampering its effectiveness in co-ordinating critical activities like public mobilisation. Rallying the public for national celebrations has become a tall order, with the attendant risk that the State is slowly losing legitimacy and acceptance in some parts.


The handshake quickly breathed life and sense into a faltering country, getting things up to speed in the fraction of the time it would take if formal discussions were to take place between the two coalitions. That way, the level of co-ordination between the county and national governments during the recent flooding went a notch higher as institutions addressed the emergency rather than the politics and name-calling characteristic of past incidents.

Even the temporary ban on charcoal burning would have run into headwinds despite the necessity to update the governance around the issue in light of climate change. Sadly, this name-calling did not subside even when under attack by international terrorists, allowing them to establish an argument to seduce our youths.

Without doubt, there are complex and protracted issues that require deep introspection to be addressed. However, we should seize the opportunity afforded by the handshake to attend to matters of national importance quickly. For one, the tone of engagements between the county governments and the National Treasury should quickly translate into a better working environment with attendant benefits in the functioning of devolution.

Likewise, we have an opportunity to galvanise the country around the 'Big Four' development agenda to transform the lives of our people rapidly. At the social level we should harness the possibilities offered to bring back mutual trust between communities.