A handshake outside Harambee House was all it took. Or so it seems. Last Friday, a long-awaited and widely hailed meeting between Kenya’s two presidents, Uhuru Kenyatta, President of the Republic of Kenya, and Raila Odinga, People’s President of the Republic of Kenya, held at the former’s office, has changed the country’s political dynamics and sparked off a new round of political realignments among the country’s notoriously fractious elite.
Kenyatta’s governing Jubilee Party acolytes have belatedly rediscovered the nationalist credentials of Odinga. And Odinga’s opposition National Super Alliance coalition is salivating at the prospect of making deals with an administration it had refused to recognise. A joint statement released by both men acknowledges Kenyatta as “President” (even though Odinga could not bring himself to say it at the press conference) and all are now brothers.
But has anything truly changed? Not really. The August election remains contested and the electoral system a shambles; the police are still a partisan, brutal, corrupt lot and justice for protesters maimed and killed by security forces still remains elusive; the state remains unequivocally colonial and its destructive and tribalised politics undiluted. A deal to make a deal between the two main protagonists was never going to magically fix any of this, but that has not stopped the merchants of “positivity” declaring the dawn of a new era.
Kenya has been here before. Pacts between political foes have for a long time substituted for real action to address the fundamental, underlying systemic issues that ail our polity and turn elections in to death duels. Despite the 1997 Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group talks, which led to the National Accord of 2008, and the 2016 discussions over the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, the credibility of our elections continues to be both disputed and a cauldron of violence and polarisation. In essence, such deals between politicians end up satisfying their short-term ambitions while the people’s issues remain unaddressed.
Nothing exemplifies this more than the fate of the Agenda Four of the 2008 Serena talks. The National Accord, also announced with a Harambee House handshake, had four key planks, which included ending the violence that followed the 2007 election and addressing the political crisis that sparked it. The immediate humanitarian problems it generated were also featured as was Agenda 4, which was meant to address the long-term systemic issues that led to it – the so-called “historical injustices”. Under this plank were issues such as constitutional reform, police reform, land reform, poverty, inequality, unemployment, national cohesion, accountability and impunity.
It will not be lost on most observers that the politicians were quick to address the bits of the Accord that most benefitted them – especially the political accommodations which generated new jobs and offices they could occupy. It is how Kenya ended up with the infamous “nusu-mkate” (half-loaf) coalition government and a Cabinet of 95 people.
On assuming office, their very first act was to set in motion what came to be known as the Maize Scandal, where a sharp decline in domestic food supplies, particularly in the country’s staple, became a pretext for a $20 million subsidy scheme that, as PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which audited it suggested, “was from the outset designed to fail and to provide a means for considerable financial exploitation at the expense of the state.” The scheme vastly enriched MPs, government officials and their relatives, and left a third of the population starving.
As for Agenda Four, apart from the enactment of a new Constitution - which while no mean fete also vastly increased the opportunities for “eating” for politicians – it was mostly buried. The report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission has died unlamented in Parliament; police reform has been reduced to a few welfare issues; land reform to issuing title deeds which have in reality functioned as a form of dispossession; and corruption, inequality and impunity still rule the land.
Many recommendations of the Independent Review Commission (better known as the Kriegler Commission), which were meant to lead to more credible elections, remain unimplemented and only a handful of people have ever been prosecuted for the violence that left more than 1,100 Kenyans dead.
A similar substitution of politicians’ problems for those of the people is today once more at play. The joint statement tellingly promises to roll out a programme to implement Kenyatta’s and Odinga’s “shared objectives.” Not those of Kenyans.
This is in keeping with the sorry history of Harambee House handshakes. So don’t believe the hype. Almost inevitably, the talks between Kenyatta and Odinga will be about solving their problems, not ours.
A version of this article was previously published in the Washington Post