One year ago today — March 9 —, Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta surprised the world by reaching out to each other and burying their long-standing political hatchet.
At the footsteps of Harambee House, they shook hands as a show of their commitment to the truce they had just reached. Friends and foes were pleased and disappointed in almost equal measurer. Sceptics were sure this was a shock therapy to the deteriorating political happenings and was expected to be short-lived. The two principals were aware there were hordes of respective lieutenants who were not happy with the decision. They therefore decided to establish a bipartisan but cross sectional leadership to steer the vision. The team was aptly named the Building Bridges Initiative and is chaired by Garissa Senator Yusuf Haji and while the joint secretaries are Amb Martin Kimani and Paul Mwangi
In its ranks were religious leaders, ethnic community leaders and a mix of professionals. Care was taken to maintain the face of Kenya in its composition. This team was mandated to deliver the nine-point manifesto of the Handshake Project. However, three agenda of the blueprint stuck out like a sore thumb and appeared to be low hanging fruits for quick wins. These included healing the nation through calming ethnic tensions; reforming the electoral system to assure of electoral justice; and fighting corruption to ensure equitable development. Complaints of non-inclusivity notwithstanding, Raila eventually got appointed African Union High Representative for Infrastructure while Kalonzo Musyoka was promised a Special Envoy to South Sudan role, which is yet to happen.
The quest for electoral justice by the ODM brigade around Raila seems to have lost momentum. Instead, jostling for seats at the state table appear to be the motivation for cooperation. What has assumed the positive face of the handshake is the fight against corruption. On the other hand, national healing has suffered and acquired the negative face of the BBI. It did not help matters that the leadership of the BBI took too long to start work. They proffered a plethora of excuses, ranging from lack of facilitation to absence of statutory funding. They further said there was no sufficient goodwill from across the political divide.
Key figures in Raila and Uhuru camps were fingered for undermining the process. In the meantime, it was left to the two principals to cajole the initiative and explain to the public what it entailed. The Yusuf Haji-team disappeared and only resurfaced towards the last quarter of 2018.
A lot of ground needed to be covered yet the country was grappling with other matters that had become weightier. The public’s attention had shifted to the high profile arrests of graft suspects and the push for referendum, which had gained considerable momentum.
The referendum proponents presented the constitutional changes as the panacea for the recurrent political tensions every electoral cycle. While healing the nation was a key role of the BBI, hawkish political operatives were championing the push for referendum.
As the BBI team rolled out its first round of events, the quest for a referendum to review the governance system and structure of government was more or less a settled matter. So much so that even as memoranda were being presented to the BBI recommending the expansion of the Executive, it was a question of when not if the referendum would be held.
The cart had been put before the horse in old parlance. Was BBI doing the bidding of partisan politicians, or could they have hired the services of these virulent operatives to test waters?
As a consequence, the opponents of the BBI who had earlier shown some lukewarm willingness to support the process changed tact and retreated to their original positions. They renewed their resistance cast aspersions on its activities. The team leadership did little if nothing to interest the opponents, then coalescing around Deputy President William Ruto.
It, therefore, created an impression that communities in the Rift Valley mattered less in the BBI activities. These helped embolden the opponents and created a hostile environment for the BBI among the Kalenjin communities. The political leaders took advantage of this lapse to incite their communities against the programmes and at best became ambivalent. It was as if the BBI was a deliberate process to isolate the Kalenjin community from mainstream national leadership.
Coincidentally, the war on corruption was becoming more successful but appeared to net more culprits from the Kalenjin. Again and as expected, the Rift Valley leaders have sought to portray crackdown as ethnicised. It has created anger among the Kalenjin middle class and this is slowly turning into passion against the government. They view themselves as having established this government against all odds, but with a mission to succeed Uhuru. Their man in the succession plan was always Ruto.
Ever since the handshake and the launch of the BBI, Ruto’s fortunes have been on a declining scale. It is on this account that while Raila sought to help heal the country by closing ranks with Uhuru, he is dividing the country in the eyes of Ruto and allies.
Ruto’sallies have come to accept that Uhuru may not keep his side of the bargain as far as the 2022 election is concerned. The President is more concerned with his legacy and the unity of the nation than any agreements entered into previously.
His determination to slay the dragon of corruption appears unshaken but hurting. It is hurting individual empires built of sleaze. It crumbling political empires built on quick sand alliances. The BBI efforts to heal the nation will conversely create fissures of discontent and political tensions by pushing sections of critical political players to the periphery.
The BBI has not found its footing as anticipated as they celebrate the first anniversary and may be judged harshly if they inadvertently isolate some communities by dint of their actions.
Kanyadudi is a Political and Public Policy Analyst