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January 17, 2019

G-Spot: The curious thread linking “political handshakes” from the 1980s to date

Handshake history
Handshake history

All the talk of political handshakes — since the one earlier in the year between President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga — got me thinking of other political handshakes through the years in Kenya.

Curiously, the ones I recall all involved a member of the Odinga family and an erstwhile establishment foe. Perhaps the Odingas are fated to be Kenya’s political peacemakers.

Of course there was the rapprochement between former Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and then President Daniel arap Moi, referred to by my old colleague from the Kenya Times, Kamau Ngotho, in last week’s Sunday Nation.

In one of those twists of Kenyan political fate a few short years later, in 1984, Charles Njonjo had also fallen out with Moi. Njonjo was a once implacable political enemy of Jaramogi’s and, according to Ngotho’s piece last week, the moving spirit behind Jaramogi’s “Kenyatta was a land grabber” stumble.

He was being put through the wringer of a humiliating Commission of Inquiry by his erstwhile friend Moi. As much of his dirty laundry as Moi could find without incriminating himself was being displayed in public. One of the accusations against Njonjo, which he denied in a July 2006 interview with me, was that he had plotted to overthrow Moi’s government, of which he had been a member.

At the time this accusation was being examined at the inquiry, Jaramogi’s firebrand son Raila was in detention without trial, having been arrested and charged with treason after the August 1982 coup attempt against Moi. Raila reportedly cut a deal with the state to be a witness at the inquiry, and his father used the opportunity to come and see his son in the flesh. Detained people were generally not allowed family visits.

During a break in commission proceedings, a news photographer captured amazing photographs of Njonjo and Jaramogi, one-time enemies, chatting like old friends, practically in an embrace. That handshake didn’t go down well in the Moi camp. Three witnesses later, the commission wrapped up its inquiries and eventually Njonjo was let off with little more than a slap on the wrist. In another plot twist, many years later, Njonjo would form a great friendship with Raila.

Meanwhile, Moi and Jaramogi would remain on opposite sides of the political divide until May 1993, when after the acrimony of the December 1992 election had fizzled out, Moi invited Jaramogi, then leader of the opposition Ford-Kenya Party, to the Madaraka Day Garden Party at State House, Nairobi.

Moi had been on a charm offensive with the opposition, luring defectors from the fledgling opposition back to Kanu. While the other opposition chief, Kenneth Matiba had rejected Moi’s invitation to State House, Jaramogi attended and was photographed shaking hands with a broadly smiling Moi.

That handshake led to a short-lived cooperation between Moi’s Kanu and Jaramogi, which ended with the old man’s death in January 1994, but which would be picked up by Raila and Moi after the 1997 elections.

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