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Reflecting on the 9 March 2018 handshake between Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and leader Raila Odinga, the author wonders if that reconciliatory moment ushered in a new democratic dispensation in Kenya. 


As many analysts had rightly predicted, the much-talked about handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and the self-acclaimed People’s President Raila Odinga that took place on 9 March 2018, has refused to go away.  On the contrary, it has continued to colour the political narrative and imagination of Kenyan politics close to ten months after.  Both local and international observers of Kenyan politics have kept wondering what was it the “handshake”.  Recently, turns and twists have happened and pieces are beginning to fall into place, such that we can safely present some coherent political hermeneutics of the Uhuraila Handshake.  Political entrepreneurs both at home and abroad can start strategising if they want to remain relevant in Kenya’s unfolding new political dispensation. Is Kenya poised for a new democratic dispensation ushered in by the reconciliatory handshake?

Current earth-shaking developments and fall-outs 

The Uhuraila Handshake recently took a new dramatic twist when Raila was celebrating his birthday in the costal city of Mombasa.  It happened when President Uhuru Kenyatta was supposedly having his vacation in Mombasa. The two shakers and movers of Kenya’s politics were seen offering each other a birthday cake.  Joho the Governor of Mombasa, Nsoko, Najib Balala, among other political figures were present at the celebration.  This celebrative mood provided a great opportunity for President Uhuru to shower Raila with praises and call for national reconciliation while insisting that the national resources should be equitably shared by all regions of the country. This was in response to ethnic chauvinists from Central Kenya who have been accusing President Uhuru for not doing much for his “political base.”  This line of thinking, President Uhuru has rightly rubbished as dangerous and not in-keeping with his philosophy of the Bridge-Building Initiative.  To show his anger he has even used undiplomatic words such as “Washenzi”(Swahili for fools) to refer to those who are still playing an ethnic card.

But the most dramatic event of all is the fall-out by David Murethi, one prominent Jubilee (ruling party) politician who took initiative to stop Vice President William Ruto from his 2022 presidential bid. David Murethi has since resigned but his campaign to stop Ruto’s presidential bid has continued. Meanwhile, a good number of Central Jubilee politicians are breathing fire protesting what they consider as President Uhuru’s soft spot for Raila Odinga.  It is likely that more political fall-outs will happen as Kenya’s political temperatures continue to rise.

Two competing political narratives: Business as usual or a new democratic dispensation 

Those who watch Kenya’s politics keenly know a few rules of thumb or political dogmas. First, that Kenyans love politicking such that as soon elections are over, politicking begins all over again. Second, that political parties are creatures of convenience and political expedience—once elections are over, political parties crumble and new ones are formed just as new elections approach. This political phenomena is not found anywhere on the planet with such intensity and predictability.  Since 2002 no one easily recalls how many and what political parties have been formed in Kenya.  We have had Coalition for Reform and Democracy, Orange Democratic Movement, Safina, Party of National Unity, Jubilee, the National Super Alliance, and many more will come before 2019 ends.  What is constant are the politicians and not the political parties.

There is a section of Kenyans who are tired of the never-ending politicking that is ethnic based.  To decongest power from the centre, devolution was tried but it has not gone far enough to end corruption and politics of exclusion.  This is probably why President Uhuru Kenyatta and his new political ally Raila Odinga are now preaching the Gospel of Building Bridges and the reconciliatory handshake.  You are either with them or against them. Period.  Before the handshake the country was on the verge of collapsing and the economy was badly hurting.  This new thinking holds some promise for a new democratic dispensation in Kenya.  It stands for a new political thought of inclusive nation building and participation by all in the affairs of running the state.  President Uhuru and Raila Odinga know too well how politics of exclusion and marginalisation has engendered turbulent times for Kenya. They seem to be saying: “Enough is enough.”

On the other hand, there are those who think “politics of Kenya should remain as has been and ever shall be, world without end Amen.”  This school of thought still thinks along ethnic lines and defines the state as an arena of ethnic contestation when people take turns to share the spoils or the cake.  This school of thought considers political corruption as a norm and the winner, regardless of who he or she wins, takes all.  

The two political standards are now competing for the political soul of Kenya.  It will be bloody and hopefully, something good will emerge.  Having decentralised power a bit through the Country system, there is now a feeling that the there is another barrier, namely too much power in the presidency. This is why there is a discussion going on about a referendum to create several subunits of power. Why not several Vice Presidents and a Prime Minister? It comes as no surprise that both President Uhuru and his new political ally Raila Odinga seem to support the idea of this new political engineering and the need for referendum.  On the other hand, the Vice President William Ruto is opposed to this move.  Draw your own conclusions.

What about 2022?

Whether we like it or not, 2022 is already shaping the day-to-day political discourse in Kenya. Any action by key politicians is interpreted from the perspective of 2022.  Both President Uhuru and Raila Odinga seem to be saying that urgent issues of development should take centre stage and wait a bit for 2022 politicking when the right time arrives.  The Ruto camp seem to be concerned about the current trend of things that seem to put Raila Odinga into the limelight as he is constantly being seen next to President Uhuru at major public events.  As the saying goes, “actions speak louder than words.”  

Is the handshake then connected to 2022? One has to have a special skill to interpret political symbolism to unravel what is in the handshake.  What do we know about the handshake so as to predict its implications for 2022? It has persisted.  It has attracted much attention even globally. It gets expressed in other ways such as sharing a cake, appearing on public events, and in having common vies about key national questions.  You do not need to be a political psychologist to be able to read the chemistry exuding from the body language between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga.  When you see their beaming faces during public rallies, you can only arrive at one conclusion: this is a political romance made in heaven.

Legacy politics: What and whose legacy?

A saying goes: “Politicians think of the next election, statesmen think of the next generation.”  What is going on in President Uhuru’s mind as all this drama is unfolding? First, is his legacy for Kenya.  The big four agenda is part of this. Anything that will derail this process is political anathema.  What is Vice President William Ruto thinking about? Clearly 2022 and his legacy thereafter. What is Raila Odinga thinking about? Clearly 2022 and his legacy thereafter.  Add these political equations together and you will know why between now and 2022 Kenya will have a type of politics we have not known before.

These conflicting and competing legacies and political agendas are hard to resolve. This is why they form a script for a very exciting political drama that will begin to unfold during the first quarter of 2019.  We can use a SWOT [strength, weaknesses, opportunities and threats] analysis to shed some light on this.  

Kenya has some strength to weather the political storm that might be brewing.  What are they? Kenya so far has a vibrant media both conventional and social.  Even though the quality of media outlets has declined a bit, generally they media is independent and offers objective and evidence-based analysis.  Kenya has a vibrant private and informal sector that enables citizens to go about their daily business without needlessly relying on the state for hand-outs.  The Kenyan citizenry is generally well-informed and confident about their political rights. Kenya has the strongest economy in the Eastern Africa region.

Weaknesses include too much politicking; ethnicised politics; weak political parties that keep on fragmenting; and dynastic politics.  Opportunities include: free and frank dialogue among all stakeholders; devolved system of governance; relatively strong civil society organisations; increasing critique of ethnic-based politics.  Some threats are: tendency to resort to violence in settling political scores; unresolved political grievances; endemic corruption in the public sector; insecurity caused by terrorist groups.

What Kenya needs is to address these weaknesses and threats while maximising the strengths and opportunities.  Whoever wishes to take over power in Kenya should ask a sincere question on whether he or she is ready to transcend the weaknesses and threats that the country faces. Might the Uhuraila Handshake be a small gesture to address some of the weaknesses and threats that the Kenyan polity is facing? Only time will tell.


* Doctor Odomaro Mubangizi teaches social and political philosophy at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa, where he is also Dean of Philosophy Department. He edits the Justice, Peace and Environment Bulletin.