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How handshake has changed Kenya's political landscape

President Uhuru Kenyatta greets Opposition leader Raila Odinga of the National Super Alliance after addressing a news conference at Harambee House in Nairobi, March 9, 2018. /REUTERS
President Uhuru Kenyatta greets Opposition leader Raila Odinga of the National Super Alliance after addressing a news conference at Harambee House in Nairobi, March 9, 2018. /REUTERS

President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition leader Raila Odinga stunned the nation with their handshake on the footsteps of Harambee House exactly one year ago on March 9.

The country was being torn apart at its ethnic seams and was on the brink of collapse. Resentments were increasing among Kenyans in their neighbourhoods, creating a pervasive state of anxiety. The economy was faltering; investors were scared. What would happen next?

The cause was two disputed presidential elections, triggering the threat of more street protests, People’s Assemblies, Raila’s swearing-in as the People’s President and threats of secession. A revolution that would more than destabilise the Jubilee government.

Fast forward to today. The political landscape has totally changed (though the renewed Raila vs DP Ruto feud has exposed cracks). The

Jubilee vs Nasa ‘wars’ have subsided and there’s a reduction in ethnic suspicion, even a veneer of tolerance.Interviews by the Star with numerous leaders have revealed that handshake truce — and its pledge of cooperation for the good of Kenya — have stabilised the country and created an environment raising hopes for economic growth and political maturity.

Those interviewed cited the now remorseless fight against corruption — and the lords of graft — as one milestone that would not have been achieved without Raila (now the AU infrastructure envoy) and Uhuru working together. In his first term, when he faced reelection and needed votes, Uhuru had claimed he was powerless and had done all in his power to fight graft. He blamed law enforcement and the Judiciary.

Jubilee secretary general Raphael Tuju summed it up, saying, “Thanks to the handshake, shoes are not thrown at my mother anymore.”

By virtue of sharing a constituency (sic) with Raila, the CS without portfolio was always viewed by the ODM leader’s supporters as a traitor. He was a target of attacks.

But ethic and regional inclusion and a mature democracy are a long way off. It is hoped that the Building Bridges Initiative, a product of the handshake, will make recommendations to confirm national unity and reduce ethnic tension.

Some commentators say politicisation of the war on graft — DP Ruto’s allies say] it’s a plot to block his path to State House — is likely to cloud the unity gains.

The very real fear is that competing political camps may reemerge and stoke the tension experienced after the 2017 general election. It may be coming to pass. An example is the looming implosion of the Jubilee Party, the war of words pitting its leaders against each other.

At first, the party’s former vice chairman David Murathe, a close Uhuru ally, categorically told Deputy President Ruto that Central region will not support his bid to succeed Uhuru. Once he was considered a shoo-in. The DP’s allies generally blame his woes on Raila’s decision to work with Uhuru.

“I want to tell Raila we accepted the handshake but now we know what it meant. Uhuru should tell us what he is scheming with Raila. If he doesn’t want to go home in 2022, let him tell us,” Kapseret MP Oscar Sudi said on Sunday last week.

He alleged that Uhuru and Raila are scheming to lock out Ruto from the presidency. Raila has not announced his own plans.

The ‘plot’ is now driving a heated campaign, which Jubilee insiders argue will blur the objectives the party set out when more than 10 affiliates collapsed and merged to form Jubilee in September 2017.

On Citizen TV on March 6

Kipchumba Murkomen, once a staunch Uhuru campaigner, clashed with ODM’s John Mbadi and accused him of blindly defending the DCI on the Sh21 billion Arror and Kimwarer dam scandals. Gatundu South MP Moses Kuria would later tweet, “It is now clear that there is no longer a political party known as Jubilee…Respect Baba.” Before then, Nasa had all but broken apart after Raila swore himself in as the People’s President, scuttling opposition unity ahead of the 2017 election. Much as its leaders deny this, the affiliate parties — ODM, Wiper, ANC and Ford Kenya — have been pushing separate agendas lately. Nasa, however, still exists on paper. As more leaders heaped praise on the handshake unity pact, Ford Kenya’s Eseli Simiyu painted a different picture, saying that union has enhanced exclusivity and neutered the opposition.

He argued that the Uhuru-Raila pact only cooled the political temperatures, but “made leaders captives of the government of the day”.

Simiyu referred to the about-face and defence put up by minority leaders when contentious issues concerning the Uhuru administration are raised in the House.

Before the handshake pact, Parliament was characterised by fierce exchanges between members, at times nearly physical fights — but not today. This was evident when Jubilee and ODM leaders marshalled forces to pass the contentious Finance Act ( 2018 ) that introduced the eight per cent fuel levy.

“Without a functional opposition, with a kleptocratic government like Jubilee, we are in for trouble as seen in the dam scandal and others in the administration,” Simiyu said.

But ODM chairman Mbadi told the Star that the handshake is a belief, “not a government people are invited to join”. “People are treating the handshake like an institution, or a government. Once you see that the country is coming together, then you are in the handshake. There is no institution which people join,” he said. The Suba South lawmaker said the handshake has, most importantly, given President Kenyatta an opportunity to crack the whip on corruption.

“The renewed fight against corruption wouldn’t have been possible without the handshake. It has given the President confidence to fight corruption without looking over his shoulder,” Mbadi said.

He dismissed claims of exclusivity saying, “There is no feeling that the government belongs to us against them.” Makueni MP Daniel Maanzo said the precedent set by the handshake will help Kenya learn how to deal with post-poll disputes.

The Wiper chairman said the handshake can be strengthened by legislation, one being the amendment of the Constitution. The Building BBI is expected to make proposals on whether to amend the law through a referendum.“We must have a way of making sure that the pact is grounded in the law,” the lawmaker said.

The Women MP’s caucus, popularly known as Embrace,

expressed confidence the country is on the right path but warned that politicising the war on graft could erase gains. Through their spokesperson, Naomi Shaban (Taveta MP), the team said it supports the handshake as it has brought peace.

“It is regrettable some people want to revert the country to chaos. We enjoy peace. We want the economy to grow. We can’t be inciting people, raising political temperatures,” she said on Thursday.

Peter Kagwanja, CEO of the Africa Policy Institute (Kenya), in an opinion published in a daily in late 2018, said lasting unity still remains elusive.

“The road to 2019 carries the promise of more bridges and benefits for the country, but the politics of 2022 will remain a wild card,” Prof Kagwanja wrote.