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Defining moment for Handshake brothers as Court of Appeal delivers verdict on Bill

By Brian Otieno | August 19th 2021

President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga at Harambee House, Nairobi. March 9, 2018. [Willis Awandu, Standard]

When they emerged on the porch of Harambee House on March 9, 2018, their faces betrayed little of the tense meeting they just had.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga’s meeting was necessitated by divisions between their respective camps in the wake of the disputed 2017 presidential elections.

They had scratched their heads over what they would talk about and when they did, endless sips of tea punctuated the initial awkwardness.

As they would later admit during the launch of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report in November 2019, they would have gladly skipped the 2018 meeting but circumstances surrounding the 2017 polls forced them into a corner.

Their story began years before the March 2018 Handshake. Uhuru and Raila had just emerged from a gruelling election that tested the extremity of their divisions.

After the nullified presidential election, the ODM leader boycotted the repeat poll, saying the electoral agency was compromised.

Gutted, Uhuru would blast Raila over his refusal to participate in the repeat election, accusing him of wasting Kenyans’ time and resources.

Such accusations dominated their rivalry and both were overly generous with expletives against each other on campaign podiums. Their supporters joined the political war, and the decision by the Supreme Court nullifying the election made things worse.

For Raila and his followers, the judgement confirmed rigging claims he had made against the president. For Uhuru, the six-judge Bench had subverted the will of the people.

ODM leader Raila Odinga. [Harun Wathari, Standard]

The ODM leader upped his opposition to the president, urging his supporters to boycott products of individuals sympathetic to Uhuru. That, and other tactics, including demonstrations, were aimed at making it impossible for Uhuru to govern.

Raila then declared himself the people’s president at a mock swearing-in ceremony. His relationship with Uhuru could not have been worse. There were even silent calls of cessation. Then came the Handshake that surprised the nation.

“For this country to come together, leaders must come together,” the president would announce after Raila had read their joint statement calling for an audit of gains made since independence.

“In the life of any nation, a time comes when people and its leaders must audit the progress made towards the attainment of the prayers and goals laid out at the founding of the nation,” read the joint statement.

The president promised a detailed statement later. That detailed statement started the BBI process, which could get a lease of life or gather more punctures tomorrow depending on the Court of Appeal judgement.

The two erstwhile rivals formed a 14-member BBI task force to seek views from Kenyans on how to solve the issues hampering unity. Seventeen months later, the task force concluded its work, making recommendations that spawned the push for constitutional amendments.

The Handshake was pegged on a nine-point agenda – ethnic antagonism and competition, lack of national ethos, exclusivity, devolution, divisive elections, safety and security, corruption, shared prosperity, responsibilities, and rights.

On the Handshake day, Uhuru and Raila referred to each other as brothers, a contrast to the names they had called each other weeks earlier.

President Uhuru Kenyatta. [PSCU, Standard]

Their immediate task was to peel back perceptions that each had fed their bases on the kind of person the other was. The Handshake worked like charm in Raila’s Nyanza backyard. In the eyes of the ODM leader’s supporters, Uhuru ceased being the villain.

The jury is still out there on the impact the Handshake has within Uhuru’s Mt Kenya turf, which remains significantly sympathetic to Deputy President William Ruto. And that has a lot to do with the truce between the president and ODM leader. While the handshake succeeded in bringing the two together, it drove a wedge between the president and his deputy.

Ruto opposed the truce, insisting Raila was out to wreck the Jubilee Party. The DP would increasingly find himself slighted as he slowly lost the president’s favour. Uhuru had promised to support his deputy’s presidential bid, but that would change over the years. In recent times, he has seemed to favour the thought of Raila as his successor.

But none of that is surprising, given Ruto’s defiance to his boss that has seen him dismiss the BBI. He has also accused the president of abandoning the Big 4 Agenda to “organise the opposition.”

Raila has been there to plug whatever gaps the DP has left in his gradual dissociation from his boss. From arch-rival, the ODM leader has become the president’s sidekick, chaperoning him in his various public appearances.

Their partnership has survived the waves of assault from Ruto and his brigade and doubts that the handshake had developed fault lines. Their brainchild – the Constitution of Kenya (Amendment) Bill, popularly known as the BBI Bill – looked like it was also destined for success.

Having passed in the county assemblies and the bicameral Parliament, the BBI Bill was almost guaranteed smooth sailing. That was until the High Court voided the Bill whose origin can be traced to the March 2018 Handshake.

Three years on, there is nothing tense about their engagements. And if they will need tea tomorrow, it will not be as an ice-breaker, but something they will use to calm their nerves as they await the Court of Appeal judgement.

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