By Ahmednasir Abdullahi
What a gesture it was!
Out of the blue, and to the bewilderment of citizens, President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, on March 9, calmly announced that they had reached a political truce and shook hands. Of course, they were technically not at war! Neither, were the two leaders locked in a zero-sum legal dispute in any sense of the term. Indeed, they had not informed the country that there were ongoing negotiations between the two with a view to reaching a settlement. In fact, Raila has subsequently taken so much pride in the secrecy of the transaction!
The handshake, and what in truly entails, remains a mystery. What is certain it that it was more of a personal truce between the two leaders than anything else. It was certainly not a national settlement of a legal or political dispute. Although we don’t have the fine details of their talks, it is safe to state that Uhuru gave Raila a very good deal. Only President Uhuru and Raila in truth know what enticed Raila into the handshake. The benefit and gains he made remain a well-guarded secret. But it isn’t far removed from the realm of conjure or speculation to state – emphatically – that Raila must be very happy and satisfied with the events that preceded the handshake.
Without giving away any detail, the political leaders expressed confidence that their handshake marked a turning point, indeed a watershed moment in the political history of Kenya. Because Kenyans, or even many of their political leaders, where not privy to this handshake and the negotiations that led to it, they have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
And with that handshake, the political temperature in the country went down by many scalding degrees. Their political allies and respective tribesmen quickly read from the scripts of the two leaders and praised them for their exemplary leadership and foresight. Suddenly, the country felt that a long-running and costly civil war had come to an end.
But what does that handshake mean for the country, and for some of the leading political lights of the country? What were its terms? Does it have any basis in the law of the country or even at a political level? At the end of the day, what does it really occasion? What was the mandate of the two leaders, or was it so personal a deal between the two that they don’t have to be accountable to anyone?
Even though many of us are not privy to the details, a few informed guesses and assumptions can be made. First, the handshake was a personal settlement between the two leaders, whereby they agreed on a certain set of issues as two individuals. Second, this wasn’t a political settlement between the ruling party and the political opposition headed by Hon. Raila. The two leaders did not have the mandate of their respective political outfits to agree on any issues that divide them. Third, the settlement, from the perspective of Raila, was meant and tailored to bestow benefits on him as a person and at a very private level. In fact, that the deal between the President and Raila can be christened as a handshake only shows the personal flavour of the arrangement between the two.
The handshake was not between the president of Kenya and the leader of the opposition outfit, NASA. This was not a structured negotiation that was informed by position papers or policy negotiations. Further, it must be appreciated that the handshake was not a process that involved the participation of technocrats on both sides to thrash out disputes or contested matters, to reach a middle ground. This was not a process where experts in certain areas of law, governance and policies were involved and then a middle ground was reached. The handshake demonstrates, graphically but tragically, the personalised nature of Kenyan politics, and the overseer role tribalised power barons play in shaping the destiny of the country. That both Deputy President William Ruto and Raila’s three co-principals were totally in the dark shows the peculiar DNA of this political handshake.
The handshake gave both leaders what they wanted both in the short-term and the long term. For President Uhuru, he bought the silence, not the cooperation, of a politician whom he variously defeated in many political contests, but who has nonetheless remained a thorn in his flesh. Uhuru, by capturing the spiritual leader of the NASA political alliance, also achieved an important political victory, in that by catching the head of NASA, nothing useful of that political outfit is left. The death of NASA and its dismemberment remains one of the primary consequences of the handshake.
It must be appreciated that even though NASA isn’t a strong political ensemble in terms of its numbers in the parliament, Raila and his co-principals made it a useful force of disruption, agitation and instability. Being a representative of three large ethnic groups, Raila succeeded in making NASA a slow insurgency. This is what Uhuru killed through a simple handshake. But most importantly, Uhuru, in neutralising his main political opponent has bought peace at a cheap price and can now concentrate of building a rich legacy.
Raila, in his long and illustrious political life, has cut many deals and broken many promises. He is the consummate dealmaker of Kenyan politics. He had negotiated such deals with both former presidents Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki. But he had never faced a political foe or entered into political negotiations with so few cards and narrow options. Raila entered into this handshake deal at his lowest and weakest point in his political life. It will be a historic fallacy to state that he negotiated a political deal. The truth of the matter is that he negotiated his surrender. The points of focus between Uhuru and Raila must simply have been on the retirement terms of the package that were on offer, and not on the present and future political roles of Raila. Both men were only too well aware of this.
From a political perspective, Raila by shaking hands with Uhuru, signalled that he will never participate in a presidential contest again. Raila has – for good – retired from frontline politics of Kenya. He must have realised a number of important factors are working against him before he reached this conclusion. First, Raila now knows that he can’t win the presidency ever again. He tried his best severally and came short every time. Second, the tribal coalitions he clobbered together are tired of his near misses and no one will give him another chance. Further, Raila has run out of the tribal coalitions he can clobber together! The agreements he has variously signed promising that he will try his luck “just one final time” are too many and are littered all over the political scene.
Third, Raila knows just how expensive financing a presidential contest is. They were times when financial heavyweights, locally and internationally, were ready to pour money in his coffers, especially when he stood a realistic chance. Now all serious donors – one of the main reasons he boycotted the rerun in October 2017 was because his finances were in the red – have given up on him! Lastly, Raila wants to take his Luo community back to the next government as a junior partner. He has realised that the community has wasted a lot of political capital in trying to win an elusive seat. Adopting pragmatic and realistic politics, Raila has come to the (right) conclusion that the Luo need to be in government. The politics of exclusion has run its course.
The handshake has far reaching political consequences for a number of players. Before the handshake, Deputy President William Ruto was a president in waiting. The Jubilee government has a well-oiled political machine and its opponent in NASA was a known proposition. By taking Raila out of the equation, the dynamics of 2022 has greatly changed. All things being equal, Ruto is the front-runner. But, as all those in his corner will tell you, that singular handshake has the potential to shake the country.
If Raila doesn’t run in 2022, Ruto will lose his bogeyman. Raila has always provided the scariest narrative to his opponents to feed their voters – where certain communities are made to believe that with his name on the ballot paper that he represents “mortal danger” to them, and they need galvanise and ensure a high voter turnout.
If Raila wants his community to be a junior partner in the next government – where a Luo becomes deputy president – he must align the community with a coalition that can win the presidency. Even in this regard, he has very limited options. Nobody will trust him in the NASA coalition. In fact, he has only one option left, which is to endorse a candidate from Central Kenya for president! But, he cannot hope breakup the tribal coalition of Kikuyu and Kalenjin which form the bedrock of the jubilee party. To wreck the ruling party and give Ruto and Uhuru sleepless nights, Raila can endorse and say “tosha” to a credible candidate from Central Kenya. This would throw a cat amongst the pigeons. Even against the joint opposition of Uhuru and Ruto, Raila can cleverly sell Kikuyu-Luo candidates for president and deputy president. This would make Ruto a very anxious man – many observers agree that a Raila endorsement of Kikuyu-Luo candidates for president and deputy president stand an extremely good chance of beating a Kalenjin-Kikuyu candidature.
What is left of NASA?
With the handshake and de facto defection of Raila from NASA, the alliance is dead. A date for burial must be the next item on the agenda. The three remaining principals of Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetangula lack the gravitas to provide viable competition in 2022, either on their own or as a coalition. The early they marry themselves to a suitable political suitor the better. Raila has, all along, carried them on his shoulders, and by walking out on them without the courtesy of even informing that he is dumping them shows the deep contempt he has of their political relevance.
How about the rest of the country?
Does it really matter? This is a country whose destiny is determined by five big tribes, and the other thirty-eight tribes pick their choice of who between two political factions provides the best tribal deal for them. That is our Kenya!
By refusing to share the terms of the handshake, Both Uhuru and Raila have given themselves a space to wiggle out of the same. They can both laugh it off and dismiss it as a mere handshake. They can always walk back and accuse one another of breaching certain terms of the handshake that they only know themselves.
Uhuru will walk out of the handshake to retirement, and Raila has no option but to follow suit. Raila has most to lose in the handshake, which is why the personal bestowment on him by Uhuru must have factored in that risk and ‘reimbursed’ his retreat from active politics. ^