The handshake between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga on Friday 9 March 2018 shocked and surprised their respective supporters. What has left many dumbfounded is the fact that the other major key political players of both Jubilee and National Super Alliance were not privy to this meeting of the two hitherto political nemeses. Is it the beginning of a true national reconciliation process?
The first rule in politics is that “there are neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies.” This political maxim was just proved beyond reasonable doubt when Kenya’s sworn political enemies Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga met on Friday 9 March 2018, and had a historical handshake that shocked and surprised their respective supporters. The media is awash with speculation as to what this surprise move could portend. What has left many dumbfounded is the fact that the other major key political players of both Jubilee and National Super Alliance (NASA) were not privy to this meeting of the two hitherto political nemeses.
The immediate context of this historical meeting between the two famous Kenya’s political dynasties (the Kenyattas and the Odingas) was the visit of US’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson , who arrived in Kenya on the evening of the historical day. Many are raising a question as to whether the visit of US’s Secretary of State had anything to do with the dramatic turn of events. Was the political handshake preceded by a call from Washington DC? Clearly the two events seem not to be mere coincidences. An African proverb states that “If a handshake goes beyond the elbow, it must be after something else.” It is crucial to ponder what this UhuRaila handshake is all about. Why all of a sudden should UhuRuto give way to UhuRaila? The political drama in Kenya’s politics has just begun, with some political observers writing an obituary of both NASA and Jubilee, as we have known them. With Kenyan politics, like anywhere else, never say never. Another crude lesson we have learnt about Kenyan politics is that the only thing we are certain about is uncertainty. Even as you peruse these pages, beware of hasty conclusions.
What do we know so far?
That President Uhuru Kenyatta and “President” Raila Odinga had a closed-door meeting in Harambee House (The president’s office) for over two hours is not in doubt. The exact details of what they discussed about are not known, except to themselves. That they came in the open and read a joint statement for the whole nation promising to bring to an end the political stalemate and promote peace and unity in the country is also not in doubt. That the famous statement was signed by both of them with “His Excellency” after their respective names, is also a fact.
Without going into the details of the historical statement, what inferences can be made? Was this handshake and meeting purely a public relations gimmick or is there something deeper than meets the eye? The fact that the other major political actors in both Jubilee (William Ruto) and NASA (Moses Wetang’ula, Kalonzo Musyoka and Musalia Mudavadi) were kept away, suggests that the two powerful men have most likely decided to bury the hatchet and put national interests above political bickering and personal ambitions.
This meeting comes after Raila had done the unthinkable and swore himself in as “a people’s president” at Uhuru Park, Nairobi. That Uhuru met him as equals in full view of the cameras and even allowed him to read out the joint statement means a lot. Raila has also all along been refusing to acknowledge Kenyatta as a legitimate president following the contested elections of 2017.
Whatever secret discussions the two erstwhile political enemies had, it is safe to infer that the political stalemate due to their respective hard-line positions was hurting the Kenyan economy and their own economic empires.
In the statement there is a revealing line that they do not want to go down in history as having brought Kenya to a failed state. Since both leaders are Christians and they know what the Lenten season demands (conversion and repentance), this coming together can also be seen as a bold political conversion. One can paraphrase the words of Jesus: “What does it benefit a man to win the whole world and loose his country?” Kenyatta himself in his off-the-cuff message said that “elections come and go, but the country remains.”
What the symbolic gesture of coming together of Uhuru and Odinga will concretely mean is yet to be known. There is mention of setting up some kind of organisational outfit that will bring about the desired national healing and unity, but also advise the duo on course of action. Who will constitute this arrangement and will it be a statutory instrument? Will it be some form of parallel governmental agency that will reflect the deep aspirations of the Kenyan people? Will Raila be given (or allocate himself) some fat political appointment? We can only wait and see after the list is drawn. The tone of the joint statement might suggest an inclusive team that might bring even some prominent religious leaders, civil servants, academics and civil society activists, who are known to be non-partisan.
Why Uhuru and Raila Met Alone?
The million-dollar question that is everyone’s mind is why the duo decided to meet alone on such a crucial matter? Again we can only rely on speculation. First, whatever they wanted to discuss and decide on was to be their prerogative without any undue influence from their respective political allies. They wanted to take full responsibility and own the process. Whether this mode of operation was dictated by some external pressure beyond Kenyan borders is any one’s guess. Whether a section of their respective supporters engineered this strategy, again is any one’s guess. There has been some speculation that Uhuru and Raila have been having clandestine meetings, so the 9 Friday 2018 meeting could be a culmination of many days of discussion and soul-searching.
Appearing before the cameras without their other colleagues was clearly a break from what we have been used to—Odinga and Kalonzo or Uhuru and Ruto, dancing on stage before cameras. This time around, it was not business as usual. The duo for sure may have consulted their respective close confidants, and the statement they read could have been drafted long before, but when they appeared, they portrayed a unified resolve to lead the Kenyan nation to the promised land of Canaan (to use Raila’s famous phrase). They appeared like the Biblical Moses and Aaron, announcing the covenant at Shechem. They were basically telling the nation in broad light: “Look, this is about the nation, it is not about us. We have set aside our egos and we want to move on as a nation. If you share this new vision of Kenya, join us.” They did this fully aware of the likely fall-out from their respective supporters who might cry “betrayal.”
The key allies of both Jubilee and NASA must be trying to make sense of the famous handshake that clearly went beyond the elbow. The message for them too is to put aside their personal ambitions and think of the country. What we should see next (doubt whether this will happen easily) is Kalonzo Musyoka with William Ruto also shaking hands and delivering a joint statement like their bosses have done. Then next should be a massive rally where both Jubilee and NASA supporters will extend a handshake and re-read the joint statement. This will truly lead to national healing and reconciliation.
What both sides of the political divide should avoid is trying to claim credit for what happened and revert to the politics of “you have joined us or you should join us.” Vice President William Ruto has made some statements to this effect: “We are waiting for the other NASA leaders to join the government.” What seems to be the case is that both Uhuru and Raila put aside the agendas of the respective parties and came together to chat a way forward out of the political quagmire Kenya is in. While some NASA hardliners are blaming Raila of bending to Uhuru, similarly some Jubilee hardliners are blaming Uhuru of bending to Raila. In fact those who know Raila’s politricks fear more for Jubilee—that he has a well-known strategy of entering a political formation and destroying it from within. Recall 1997 Moi’s era. No body doubts that both Jubilee and NASA were political formations born of political convenience, like all past coalitions such as the Coalition for Reform and Democracy. They come and once they have achieved their political ends, they fold. What remains constant are only the political actors and political interests.
These are all leaves; we want the roots and fruits
We are still in the honeymoon of the golden handshake of Raila and Uhuru, but we are waiting for the roots and fruits. More than the public statement that was aired, the two hours covered a whole range of issues. We wait to hear more. Could it be that Uhuru and Raila, have diplomatically and through some rare political engineering mechanism, dissolved their respective parties and formed a coalition for national cohesion without actually saying so, or is this even a “negotiated coup” (this would be quite a stretch) of sorts? Why on earth would two leaders convene such a strategic meeting without the participation of their respective party organs and chief strategists? There must have been something that the duo felt only they can accomplish without their respective handlers.
The roots and fruits of the famous handshake will only come in a matter of weeks or even months. The elephant in the room is the disputed elections. Will having another election be one of the fruits to expect? If so, when can the next elections be arranged in order to respect the constitutional framework? Too soon will not work and too late will also not work. The coffers are dry and so organising fresh elections within a short time is not prudent. What the handshake and secret meeting could really mean is some form of transitional arrangement whose details will unfold shortly. It might be some modified version of Nusu Mkate (half bread) but with much more robust mechanisms to ensure equal distribution of power that will calm the political tempers, where both sides win something and loose something in equal measure. The winner takes all has brought Kenya to the brink of disaster, so stay away from it.
Let us face it, Kenya is still held hostage by the two powerful dynasties—Kenyattas and Odingas. The political wind blows wherever the duo go. Only they can truly bring to an end the current stalemate. Only they can order that guns be silent. Only they can keep protesters off the streets. Some schools of thought claim that the respective followers have curved a niche for themselves, and that the principals are also hostage to their followers. This line of thought has some truth, but that is how far it can go. Believe me, if Odinga tells his massive followers to keep off the streets and drop branches and stones, they will instantly do that. And if Kenyatta orders his troops (both civilian and state) off the streets, they will oblige. So the political destiny of Kenya is not determined by stars, but by the two powerful men—Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta—and by extension their main power base—ethnicity. It is that simple and basic. The rest are stories, as they say. And if you want a more sophisticated theoretical and conceptual framework for understanding the Kenyan political impasse give a look at Mahmood Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Political leaders behave as though they were traditional African chiefs who wield unlimited power, and they treat their citizens as though they were subjects and not as citizens who enjoy political rights and obligations.
Mamdani then astutely concludes that the African state is bifurcated—has a semblance of a modern state with all trappings of bureaucracy, norms and constitution, but in reality it behaves like a chieftaincy. So most post-colonial African leaders tell the subjects to jump, and the subjects only ask “How high?” Kenyatta and Odinga have asked Kenyans to jump, so it is only a question of how high. If anyone from Jubilee or NASA asks why they should jump, their political fate is sealed. May be this is something we should explore and make use of the highly ethnicised African politics—use ethnicity for democratic purposes and for national cohesion.
Now you can eat your reserved ugali: Good things ahead
Leading up to the 2017 elections, we advised that it was prudent to keep some ugali due to the unpredictable political season ahead. With the UhuRaila handshake, it is time to feast on the reserved ugali and celebrate the impending new dispensation in Kenya. But this feasting should be done with some circumspection and soul-searching. Ask: “How did Kenya end up this way?” The business world is eager to bring goodies to Kenya as soon as the handshake is translated into concrete programmes of national healing and reconciliation. The usual suspects like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank are willing and ready as of yesterday to extend credit to Kenya as soon as investor confidence is restored. The handshake is leading to the right direction.
Kenya’s tourism industry will reap enormous benefits as soon as the handshake goes international. By October this year, Kenya Airways, Pride of Africa will be making direct flights from Nairobi to New York, the city that never sleeps. Those who like ugali in New York can have it fresh directly from Nairobi. And with air travel promised to be much cheaper given the recently signed protocol to liberalise African air space, Kenya Airways will be among the beneficiaries. And Kenya can spread its innovation and democratic ideals to the rest of Africa. The handshake, which is an essential element of Ubuntu philosophy, will trend across Africa, and who knows, other African countries may follow suit. In mind I have President Yoweri Museveni and Kizza Besigye. The handshake is indeed a good omen for Africa.
Conclusion: What should we expect in the days ahead?
For a fact, a lot will happen in the days ahead. The media will continue to engage in futile speculation and scenario setting. We might be back to the political philosophy of Nusu Mkate with some modifications, both structurally and in terms of implementation. Free, fair and credible elections are non-negotiable if lasting peace and unity are to prevail. How these will be organised and when, is left to the nation to decide through some agreeable arrangements that Odinga and Kenyatta will propose in consultation with all stakeholders. While it is true that the duo wield enormous political power base from their respective communities, the country is larger than them. There is a general feeling that the two dynasties have held Kenyan politics at ransom for long. It is high time political dynastic paradigm gave way to something more appropriate for digital and post-modern Kenya.
It is also important not to entrust the entire destiny of Kenya to only two heavyweights. Some broad national consensus is urgently needed to bring all actors on board. Civil society organisations, religious leaders (who have been rather muted), academics and the international community, should all give some serious thoughts on the current development and organise fora and generate fresh insights on the way forward.
The regional leaders who also have a stake in Kenya’s political and economic fortunes should also show some leadership and not just be bystanders. When your neighbour’s house catches fire, you help him to put it off. Particularly the Northern Corridor outfit neighbours (Uganda, Rwanda) should play a more proactive role, and not be seen as benefiting from the political misfortunes of their big brother Kenya. The political philosophy of Binkwatire kyi, (roughly translated as this is none of my business or this does not concern me) is not helpful at this time.
The various political parties, especially the main ones like Jubilee and NASA, through their respective legislators, should start some hard-nosed thinking and think of legislative frameworks and policy imperatives that will help concretely implement what their respective leaders expressed in the joint statement. The tone of the joint statement is clearly reconciliatory and it should be embraced as such.
Kenyan politics has a reputation of being unpredictable. We are just beginning to see this unpredictability being taken to higher notch. Stay tuned more turns and twists in the days ahead.
Note: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was removed from office on 13 March 2018
* Doctor Odomaro Mubangizi teaches social and political philosophy at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where he is Dean of the Department of Philosophy. He is also Editor of the Justice, Peace and Environment Bulletin.