Handshake jitters: Uhuru walks tightrope in bid to calm nervous ODM wary of betrayal

ODM leader Raila Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta.

On Wednesday evening, information began filtering through the cracks. President Uhuru Kenyatta was at the Nairobi residence of ODM leader Raila Odinga. Coming in the wake of open shows of discontent among ODM bigwigs on the status and fate of the Bridging Bridges Initiative (BBI), the canard got pundits wondering. What could be afoot?

ODM was feeling used and cheated. It seemed ready to bring down the BBI temple on everyone. In the interest of the BBI and other strategic interests in the Jubilee Party, there was need to appease the Orange party, at least for now. The President seemed to be on an appeasement mission.

That the political arena is troubled, with sundry suspicions and grave bad blood, is not in doubt. The space has been awash with unending tears and recriminations. Allegations of betrayal within various formations are in overflow. Almost everywhere, everyone feels cheated, used and dumped by one partner or the other. President Kenyatta is easily seen as the highest common factor in these dramas of betrayal through use and dumping.

Pundits have, accordingly, seen the Wednesday visit to Raila as an exercise in appeasement and damage control in a widening arena of mistrust. President Kenyatta, who seemed to have placed the days of shared power and political space behind him, suddenly finds himself walking the tight rope once again. He needs to pacify various mutually hostile political formations around him.

Three weeks ago, Siaya Senator and Senate Minority Leader James Orengo sounded the first warning. He cried foul at the BBI and Handshake agenda. Talking at a funeral in his home county, Orengo warned those he claimed were frustrating Raila’s march to State House that their schemes would not be taken lightly. Rarieda MP Amolo Otiende was more direct. “In the name of God, I swear, we can return this country where it was in January 2018,” he said.

The ODM touchiness is a factor of the arrival of the One Kenya Alliance and the high-powered optics around it. The alliance gives the impression that it enjoys the President’s patronage. Comprising Senator Gideon Moi of Kanu, ANC’s Musalia Mudavadi, Wiper’s Kalonzo Musyoka and Senator Moses Wetang’ula of Ford Kenya, the unofficial One Kenya pact has taken on Raila and ODM rather brashly. The leaders of ANC, Wiper and Ford Kenya have all but called Raila self-centered and untrustworthy. They cite a clause in the NASA agreement that should preclude Raila from the 2022 presidential race. But this is if the NASA accord still holds at election time. They see Raila as escaping from the pact so that he could run again, and this time against them.

Speaking to The Standard this week, Mudavadi wondered how many “last bullets” Odinga has. “When we stepped down for him in 2017 it was because he said it was his last chance, his last bullet. We supported him on the promissory note that he would not run again, regardless that we won or lost in 2017,” Mudavadi said.

Sharing of funds

Added to this is the fact that ODM has ruled out any possibility of sharing with the NASA partners any money due to ODM from the Political Parties Fund (PPF), in line with the coalition agreement and the Political Parties Act (2011), amended (2017). Articles 13(2)a and 13(2)b of the agreement mandate the member parties to develop a formula for sharing the PPF funds, even if only one party receives the funds. Beyond that, Principles 1(e)i and 1(e)ii on sharing of funds give the formula for distribution of funds under the existing scenario in NASA.

The agreement was officially lodged with the Registrar of Political Parties on April 17, 2017, with addendums on April 20 and April 27 of the same year. ODM has since, however, disowned the agreement. It has stated that there was no sharing formula. Letters to ODM from the partner parties to resolve the matter have been ignored, with the other parties showing little or no appetite for seeking redress. At the end of 2019, ODM had received a total of Sh224,511,532.34. If the agreement had been honoured, the internal distribution would have been ODM (Sh137m), Wiper (Sh39.3m), ANC (Sh27.4m), Ford-K (Sh24.4m) and Chama Cha Mashinani (Sh2.9m).

ODM’s recalcitrance has generated bad blood among the NASA parties, without any of them plucking up the courage to quit the coalition. To this, add hostile contestations in by-elections in Embakasi South, Kibra, Msambweni and Matungu, and the relationship between ODM and its three partners hit the nadir of their fortunes. The ODM leadership has, accordingly, been banking on working with President Kenyatta and the Kieleweke wing of Jubilee Party, both on the BBI and towards next year’s General Election. Raila’s elder brother and ODM member of the East African Legislative Assembly, Dr Oburu Oginga, has publicly stated, several times, that ODM is counting on this support in its search for greater things in the country. He calls it the support of the deep state.

The Orange party has, therefore, been visibly worried when the President and his senior civil servants have appeared to cozy up with people the party is feuding with. The Orange party has lately, therefore, appeared ready to upset the apple-cart bearing everything it has so far laboured on with President Kenyatta. Apart from hinting at taking the country back to civil disorder, there have been hints about quitting the BBI and the constitutional review process altogether.

Three ODM governors, Wycliffe Oparanya (Kakamega), Okoth Obado (Migori) and Sospeter Ojamong (Busia) have suggested that there was “no need to waste more money on the BBI and on a constitutional referendum, at a time when the country has more pressing needs.” They have cited the ongoing Covid-19 challenge. Earlier, MPs Junet Mohamed (National Assembly Minority Whip and Suna East MP) and John Mbadi (Leader of Minority and Gwassi MP) expressed unhappiness over what they called taking ODM for granted.

There has been a need to appease ODM in an environment where the parties have begun to openly float thoughts of the possibility of working with Deputy President William Ruto. President Kenyatta traded in the support he previously enjoyed from his deputy and from legislators who are known as Tangatanga MPs for ODM support, led by Raila. The March 9, 2018, 'handshake' was the harbinger of strained relations between the President and his deputy. Although the deputy president has been at pains to make public confessions of amity and trust between him and his boss, the secret went out long ago. While the DP was previously pilloried by minnows and diverse political caddies in the Kieleweke wing of the Jubilee Party, the President has lately been personally on the rampage, throwing brickbats at the DP that outgun his plaudits.

President Kenyatta has seemed to wallow in the comfort of the knowledge that he had consolidated political power around himself. Cowed Jubilee MPs and those from allied formations have been whipped at State House and in other closed-door forums. They have been left to toe the line as defined in State House. County Assemblies were a walkover, subsequent to the President’s February meeting with political leaders from the Mount Kenya region. Talk of a possible Ruto and Raila alliance has, however, rattled an otherwise buoyant President.

Robert Green's 8th law in his 48 Laws of Power states "Make other people come to you, use a bait if necessary.” He goes on to advise, “When you force the other person to act, you are in control. It is always better to make your opponent come to you, abandoning his own plans in the process. Lure him with fabulous genius–then attack. You hold the cards.” Who is luring whom in the bromance between President Kenyatta and the ODM leader?

Political trust

The trust quotient between the two leaders is hugely diminished, despite their public displays of bonhomie on Thursday. Both evince little scope for political trust, judging from how they have breached faith before. The invisible message in the political contracts that they have entered seems to state, “Trust me at your own risk and peril, it is my interests first, all the way.”

Raila has, accordingly, ditched his NASA allies. Previously, he turned back on the agreement he had with Kalonzo and Wetang’ula in the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD) of 2012/2013. According to the agreement, he was not going to run for president in 2017. He, however, worked his way around the agreement, while also managing to keep both Kalonzo and Wetang’ula in his camp for another round of support from them in 2017. What’s more, he looped in Mudavadi and ANC this second time round.

For his part, President Kenyatta threw overboard an agreement he had reached with Mudavadi in 2012, to the effect that Mudavadi would be the presidential flag bearer in a tripartite formation that also brought in Ruto. The ink had hardly dried on the paper when he disowned the accord. In a curiously intemperate mood, Uhuru blamed the agreement on “diabolical forces,” leaving Mudavadi significantly wounded politically. Indeed, Mudavadi must cautiously trust the president in any fresh avowals of support in the One Kenya Alliance. If he does not, he could be bitten again.

Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court drama of 2010-2015 bound the President with his deputy together with cords of steel. They successfully worked together to win the presidential poll three times in five years. Once he crossed the valley, however, the president would seem to have seen no more value in his deputy. He was a spent magazine. Accordingly, Uhuru not only went back on his public proclamations of future support to the DP, but he also emptied the DP’s office of all functions.

Harambee House Annex has become a ghost entity where nothing happens. Meanwhile, the President’s political hounds have unleashed themselves against the DP, with meritorious performance. Led by Jubilee national vice chairman David Murathe, they continue to maul him steadfastly, even if sometimes embarrassingly so. And now the President has seemed to want to sideline Raila, causing him to contemplate courting the deputy president, to Uhuru’s great dismay.

Not to be outdone, Raila has rattled Uhuru where he thought he was most comfortable. For, a firm alliance between those who feel betrayed could be catastrophic for the President. It would upset both the BBI vessel and whatever dreams the President has about August 2022 and beyond. It is behind this background that the Wednesday visit to Raila's Karen residence must be interpreted.

Equally significant are the Thursday “inspections of projects” by the two leaders. They engaged in day-long forays around Nairobi, some with the full benefit of live TV coverage. The body language, however,  spoke of two continents packaged with competing thoughts, playing for the cameras and the gallery. Each must know that they are both buying time. They will also each be wondering what the other person wants to do with time thus bought.

Also filtering through the cracks of officialdom is talk of the possibility of extending the life of the present Parliament and Government. The Covid-19 challenge has been cited as a factor, as has been the need to complete the BBI process. BBI is suffering a setback not just from apparent differences between the President’s men and those of the ODM leader in Parliament, but also from the Covid-19 challenge and from court petitions that seem calculated to derail and possibly kill the initiative. As both Raila and the President have persistently preached the  merits of the BBI, they need to hold together to push it to its logical conclusion. Yet Raila’s men have indicated that they are not averse to throwing the initiative overboard if their political interests are endangered.

The matter of extending the life of Parliament, say for about one year, could be a different ballgame, rife with its own challenges. It would have to take into account the public mood and whether it could tolerate the present regime beyond its expected calendar. Already, civil society voices have been heard cautioning about such possibility. There is also a lot of pain and suffering across the country, courtesy of the Covid-19 protocols and a generally ailing economy. In such situations, the public tends to blame the Government in power and wants to see it leave the stage.

Extending Parliament

For the dream of extended parliamentary lifetime to hold even in its remotest sense, Uhuru would need Raila and ODM as well as the One Kenya Alliance. Collectively, they would all need a pacific public, a matter that may be easier said than done. For the public increasingly looks like a powder keg that requires cautious management. What with mounting domestic frustration and violence, as well as boda boda groups that are becoming law unto themselves? They can break into a hospital, or police cells, get out their man, kill him and set him on fire. Such happenings speak to deeper-seated frustrations. Government must wake up to sound management of mounting public frustration. Extension of the life of Parliament could be just what the Kenyan powder keg is waiting for.

Separately, ODM has itself seemed to be on a slow puncture, with dwindled popularity in many former strongholds. Raila and ODM would certainly not mind the President holding their hand for the time being, as they gather moss, to try to strike again. And if they strike, every political object in their path will be legitimate, including any political plans that President Kenyatta might have for himself and his political formations. It is a game of political self-interest and betrayal that has been accepted as a legitimate tool.

While President Kenyatta watches Raila's back, regardless of what he intends to do with it (to protect or stab it), he will also have to reckon with the unofficial One Kenya Alliance. The alliance declared during the announcement of its position on the forthcoming by-election in Bonchari constituency that Jubilee (Kieleweke) was part of the One Kenya formation. The four parties in the alliance were, therefore, going to support the Kieleweke candidate, and would not field a candidate of its own.

President Kenyatta's meddling with Raila and ODM must leave the leaders of the One Kenya Alliance wondering just how far they could trust his political posturing, given his serial breach of political promissory notes. Howsoever things pan out, Uhuru’s postures leave him walking the tightrope, at a time when he should be calling the shots. The challenge is a factor of trying to be everything to everybody. Just when he seems to have it all sewn up, he returns to the drawing boards to rework the numbers, the political expediency behind his manoeuvres and how best to keep things together. His biggest nightmare, however, remains what would happen if the various parties that feel betrayed should gang up against him in Parliament.  

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