'Handshake' a blessing and curse in our politics

President Uhuru Kenyatta greets Opposition leader Raila Odinga at Harambee House in Nairobi [File/Photos courtesy]

Not long ago, Safaricom had a crisis on its network that was triggered by congestion due to intensity of usage over a short period of time. It happened nearly on all Fridays. Everyone seemed to want to talk to someone. The then Chief Executive Officer Michael Joseph blamed it on the circus where Kenyans keep trying to get through the network even when there are challenges, worsening the situation. He termed it; “Kenya’s peculiar habit”.

Well, in hindsight, indeed we seem to have very peculiar habits that go beyond calls and ‘Please call me’ SMS’s. One of them is how we manage our politics, or is it how our politics manages us? Take the example of the famous handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

All of a sudden, the “political monster” whose protests at Uhuru-Ruto’s win and attempts to be sworn-in as the ‘People’s President’ is now a ‘selfless Kenyan hero’, a ‘nationalist’ and a ‘unifier’. In one YouTube video doing the rounds, Uasin Gishu Governor Jackson Mandago, says that having fought Raila so hard at the last elections, he would duck off were he to see Tinga walking towards him in the corridors of State House. He even remarks in jest that Raila now has a bedroom at State House.

The point is that the moment Uhuru courted Raila, his supporters immediately seemed to ‘forgive’ and ‘embrace’ him. A simple political signal shone a warm light across the political spectrum. But it came with three main complications.

Political enclave

The first is that it caught the Jubilee’s other ‘shareholder’ William Ruto, who is Uhuru’s deputy, flatfooted and ever since, the Rift Valley team and a slice of Central Kenya political enclave associated with Ruto, has become very suspicious of Uhuru. They see him as a man held by a spell, sort of bewitched. And that is why the ongoing graft war is seen in this quarter as targeting Ruto and his ‘people’.

So, in comes Raila and Uhuru loses a bit of Ruto as discerned from this week’s absence of the DP at the launch of Huduma Namba event in Kakamega. Of course, Ruto downplayed the issue, saying he was meeting the Cuban Vice President. But then, inside Jubilee, the absence was seen in a different light, especially given that it was a one-hour event that, with choppers at his disposal, Ruto could still have made it to Kakamega. Then his critics threw in the spanner; he is sulking because Uhuru assigned Raila and other opposition leaders similar roles, and because the national biometric listing is associated with the latest entrant to his own list of most hated; Interior CS Fred Matiang’i.

Impeachment motions

The second issue that we have to deal with in line with our “peculiar habits” is the fact that the “handshake” has brought peace and a predictability of our operating environment, at least for now. But in turn, apart from alienating Uhuru from his friends, for Raila it has whetted the appetite from his men and women for more, hence you are hearing calls for impeachment motions against the DP and demands that the cells be expanded for more graft suspects.

This has the effect of reinforcing perception within the Ruto quarters that this “handshake” thing is a designer poison someone procured to be served to them with their favourite glass of juice or tea.

Third, at the Cabinet level there is another problem; after the 2007 elections that came against the backdrop and intricacies of coalition (nusu mkate) government, there was perception that the Uhuru-Ruto cabinet was made of the same fibre. After all, the two had portfolio sharing and presented names for appointment. After 2013, there was a similar feeling deep in Jubilee that this was another round of sharing.

The problem with this is perception, reinforced by the understanding of the 2010 Constitution; that Uhuru and Ruto are co-rulers and are joined at the hip. None can do without the other, and none can humiliate the other without consequences.

That is why Ruto has ignored Uhuru’s call for an end to ‘2022 campaigns. This is made worse by the perception in high levels of government that Ruto has his line of top technocrats who feel they owe nothing to Uhuru.

Which stokes memories of the arguments preceding the 2013 election that in the Uhuru-Ruto mix, one was the oil, and the water. It just takes time for the lighter fluid to come on top but mixing them is recipe for Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

In short, the handshake cured some aspects of afflictions affecting Kenya but then the side-effects have led to other problems. That is the State of the Nation, it is another tale of our “peculiar habits”.

Mr Tanui is Deputy Editorial Director and Managing Editor, The Standard