Shaking the handshake

The deal between Uhuru and Raila is about securing the legacy of two of Kenya’s biggest dynasties, everything else is background music


By Kibe Mungai

“There is no present or future – only the past happening over and over again – now” – Eugene O’Neill, A Moon for the Misbegotten

Even as pundits seek to unravel the nature and motive of the political deal between President Uhuru Kenyatta and NASA leader Raila Odinga which culminated in the famous handshake of March 9, 2018 on the steps of Harambee House, it is not easy to begrudge its utility without betraying some jaundice. A year after the handshake it may well be true that it has not added sufurias of ugali in Kenyan households but the peace and quiet that befell our contrary in the wake of the handshake is something to treasure if the Burundi and South Sudan political tragedies are indicators.

To my mind, the handshake was an act of political genius and, paradoxically, in the fullness of time, it will turn out to be simultaneously both a good and bad thing. Of course, it is a good thing when protagonists with deep rooted grievances bury the hatchet to seek a new beginning for themselves and their followers. Yet, for a country governed under a constitution borne out of a protracted political struggle, it is somehow a let-down that a handshake between two politicians carries more weight than the edicts of Kenya’s supreme law. At once, this reality indicates that Kenya is still a fragile state and that the country’s future still rests on the fancies, fortunes and decisions of a few men and women.

In reflecting on the reasons for these paradoxes, we must begin our inquiry with an acknowledgement that the Uhuru-Raila deal was Kenya’s second handshake, and constitutes a negation of the first handshake between Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, whose ethos have hitherto held sway in Kenya to date. Curiously, in these two handshakes, the Kenyatta and Odinga families feature prominently as victors, villains or victims and anything in between. In the first handshake between Jomo and Moi, Jaramogi Odinga was the clear victim, Moi was the victor and Jomo was the victor-cum-villain. In the second handshake, it may well turn-out that Raila will be the victor, William Ruto – the political prodigal son of Baba Moi – might be the recognisable victim and once again Uhuru may end up the victor-cum-villain like his father before him. Let me explain.

The first handshake and its legacy

After a fierce political struggle which included the Mau Mau War, Kenya attained independence in 1963 under the stewardship of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) which was mainly a coalition of the Luo and Kikuyu the most populous ethnic communities led by Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Odinga. A year later, when Kenya became a Republic, Kenyatta became the first president through a Constitutional amendment and he readily appointed Jaramogi his first Vice-President.  However, as a result of ideological differences and competing political ambitions between Jomo and Jaramogi, KANU became restive within a year of Jaramogi’s appointment; the situation was not made easier by the political ambitions of Tom Mboya and the dissolution of Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), which paved way for Daniel arap Moi’s entry into the Kenyatta’s cabinet in 1964.

Kenya is still a fragile state and that the country’s future still rests on the fancies, fortunes and decisions of a few men and women

In early 1966, Moi and his supporters ganged up with Kenyatta’s supporters led by Mboya at the Limuru Conference, which resulted in the humiliation of Odinga and his subsequent exit from KANU. In April, 1966 Odinga formed the Kenya Peoples Union (KPU) which was a loose coalition of radical KANU politicians like Jaramogi, Bildad Kaggia and Ochieng Oneko and trade union leaders.

Following constitutional amendments engineered by Mboya and Attorney General Charles Njonjo, the seats of MPs who had defected from KANU to KPU were declared vacant thereby forcing the Little General Election of 1966, in which KPU got only nine seats, all of them from Nyanza. For helping Kenyatta to defeat Odinga in KANU’s supremacy wars Moi was appointed vice president while Ronald Ngala, the former chairman of KADU, entered cabinet.

In my view, the series of events in which KADU dissolved itself, where Moi helped Kenyatta to push Odinga out of KANU culminating in his own appointment, constitutes the First Handshake, just that it was not celebrated as such.

In ‘Ethnicity & Democracy in Africa’ a book edited by Bruce Berman et al, in a paper titled ‘Jomo Kenyatta & the Rise of the Ethno-Nationalist State of Kenya’ Prof Githu Muigai explains the material basis of this first handshake as follows:

In the Rift Valley, Kenyatta had identified Daniel Moi as an ally even before the demise of KADU in 1964. Moi was instrumental in containing Kalenjin objections to the resettlement of the Kikuyu in the Rift Valley, a key plan in Kenyatta’s redesign of the state. As a quid pro quo, Kenyatta threw his weight behind the Kalenjin in their acquisition of land in Trans Nzoia and Uasin Gishu, in opposition to the Luhya. This helped Moi to eclipse Towett and Seroney as the one politician who could claim true leadership of the Kalenjin (Throup, 1987:46). When Moi was finally appointed vice-president in January 1967, after Odinga had been jettisoned from KANU, he brought with him Kalenjin support for the ruling coalition. The Kalenjin had replaced the Luo in the shifting coalitions that made the Kenyatta state, the stability and legitimacy of which depended on the existence of these coalitions. Consequently, the state was a continuously shifting series of coalitions both within and outside Kikuyuland. Several factions nonetheless existed within these coalitions. To maintain this dominance of the state, Kenyatta had therefore to play certain Kikuyu factions off against each other and to incorporate non-Kikuyus into his coalition (Throup, 1986).

For better or for worse, the First Handshake, consummated in 1967, would help to stabilize politics for next four decades, retain aspects of democracy and sustain economic progress despite the evils and challenges the country faced along the way.  Thanks to this handshake, Kenya survived the shockwaves caused by the assassinations of Pio Gama Pinto, Tom Mboya, Ronald Ngala and J. M. Kariuki in quick succession.  Despite the same efforts to block his ascendency to power in 1978, Moi overcame the odds to become Kenya’s second president with the considerable help of Charles Njonjo and Mwai Kibaki, who would later become Kenya’s third president.

First forward to July 2002, a few months before Moi’s final term in office expired. In a rather intriguing political scheme, Moi assembled Raila Odinga, Musalia Mudavadi, Kalonzo Musyoka, Uhuru Kenyatta, William Ruto and Gideon Moi into a formidable succession plan that would sooner than later crumble under the weight of conflicting ambitions that ended up destroying KANU and paving way for Kibaki’s presidency. 

In many ways, however, the Kibaki presidency was an affirmation rather than a negation of the First Handshake. If proof was needed for this assertion we have it in the 2013 political victory of “the dynamic duo” (Kibaki’s phrase) of Uhuru and Ruto against the greatest of odds. It bears mentioning that in the grand scheme of history, the Kibaki presidency seems to be just an interlude before the return of the team Moi had assembled in 2002 to political centre-stage.

Looking back, it is true that in as much as Moi leveraged his alliance with the Kikuyu to get into power, he would sustain his prolonged stay in power by promoting raw and latent anti-kikuyuism as the glue of the loose coalition of the communities that supported KADU in the 1960s. It is this anti-kikuyuism that would explode in the 2007-08 Post Election Violence (PEV) to protest against Kibaki’s presidential victory.  Given that Raila’s ODM was the major protagonists in PEV and the subsequent alliance of convenience between Uhuru and Ruto, it would be safe to conclude that politically Kenya is yet to shake-off the legacy of the first handshake, despite the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution. Again we must remember that throughout the reign of the First Handshake, the loveless political alliance of the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin has been the bedrock of Kenyan politics. The question is whether the second handshake will succeed in uprooting this base of Kenya’s political stability, and at what cost.

The second handshake as a historical necessity

The Constitution of Kenya 2010 provides for a presidential system of government in which the winning candidate must garner 50 percent plus 1 of the validly votes cast, and 25 per cent of valid votes cast in at least 24 out of Kenya’s 47 Counties. This system was adopted thanks to Raila Odinga’s support during the constitutional review talks but so far he has been its main political casualty. Since politics is a game of numbers, when Uhuru and Ruto formed the URP and TNA coalition, Raila’s presidential goose was cooked so long as the dynamic duo could be assured of at least 90 per cent of votes from the Kalenjin and GEMA communities.

The 2013 and 2017 general election results showed how formidable the Kikuyu-Kalenjin political alliance can be and what it portended for the country’s future and political ambitions of NASA’s presidential wannabes in Jubilee’s Kumi-Kumi pact between Uhuru and Ruto. Specifically, Jubilees Party’s massive victory in all the five elections for the President, National Assembly, Senate, Gubernatorial and County Assemblies spelt permanent doom for its competitors and, for all intents and purposes, the 2022 general election was bound to be another Raila humiliation and Ruto coronation as president so long as his alliance with Uhuru held.

Knowing all this, the controversial annulment of Uhuru’s victory in August, 2017 by the Supreme Court and the civil strife in the wake of his victory in the subsequent repeat elections culminating in the mock-swearing of Raila in January 2018 are understandable. This is because, for all practical purposes, by 2017, law and politics had conspired to produce a reality in which half (almost) of the country that supported Raila could only contest the general election with virtual certainty of losing. This realisation generated the kind of palpable resentment, anger and hostility responsible for civil strife and economic turmoil across Africa. To his credit, Uhuru seems to have understood this and at least in order to get the peace and quiet to secure his legacy, reached out to his old nemesis Raila out of necessity in at least two respects.

Political necessity

There was unmistakeable arrogance by Uhuru and Raila during the ceremonious shaking of hands in March, 2018. Perhaps a president whose father was also a president should not be begrudged some arrogance and the same applies to some degree to the son of a former vice president, former prime minister and people’s president. And so in the joint statement issued on March 9, 2018 to announce the formation of the Building Bridges Initiative to a new Kenyan nation, the two scions of Kenya’s foremost royal families placed themselves at the centre of Kenya’s past, present and future by declaring, inter-alia, that:

H. E. President Uhuru Kenyatta and H.E. Raila Odinga are the two leaders who symbolise the many ways in which the country has gone full circle in its divisions. They were witness to the unity and hope that was followed by discord and division. Intent on not witnessing the country suffer similar future  cycles  of  the same tribulations it has since 1963, they are determined to offer the leadership that prevents future generations inheriting dangerous division and offers them a path to a bright future for  all.  Both H. E.  President Uhuru Kenyatta and H. E. Raila Odinga have agreed to launch this initiative that aims to create a united nation for all Kenyans living today, and all future generations.

No doubt if the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) works as intended, Kenya stands to reap some lasting benefits but it would be naive to assume that Raila and Uhuru are solely motivated by patriotism pure and simple. The thing here is that soon after he was sworn-in to serve his second term as president, Uhuru began his inevitable descent from the pinnacle of power that would simultaneously mark Ruto’s ascendency to the same position. Moreover under Jubilee’s Kumi pact, this meant that whereas Uhuru has had to endure a shared presidency with Ruto since 2013, this deal offered him nothing at the end of his ten years’ tenure.

The scenario was even worse for Raila. Presidential elections in Africa are expensive affairs and this is even worse under CoK 2010 which consigns the losing candidates to political obscurity. Losing two successive presidential elections must have broken Raila financially and a prolonged stay out of Kenya’s political industry would render him a presidential non-starter by 2022. In short, after losing the 2017 contest, Raila had to make a political deal with Uhuru to avoid sinking into irreversible political Siberia.

Put differently from a political standpoint, the BBI is as much about securing Kenya’s future stability as it is about maintaining the grip of the Kenyatta and Raila families on Kenyan politics.

Economic necessity

Across the world, government is almost invariably the largest consumer of goods and services in any economy. In established market democracies, political office makes a politician a public trustee in the allocation of public benefits. But in Kenyan type of market democracies, political office is an opportunity for privatisation of public wealth. In fact, in most of the emerging market democracies the questions keep popping about whether holding public office is incompatible with ambition to owning the country itself.

Since 1992 when Youth for KANU 1992 (YK92) created several young millionaires whilst helping Moi to retain power, I have wondered whether a young person seeking to accumulate great wealth is smarter seeking public office than trying his/her hand in business. It is not easy in Kenya to come across a rich African whose wealth was not made whilst serving in public office or through connection and access to public resources.

In fact the list of Kenya’s leading political families is virtually synonymous with the list of richest African families. In other words, within our shores, political and economic estates vest in the same hands. This scenario is a recipe for tragedy because politically created wealth can be easily destroyed through political means. In short after the state has helped you to accumulate so much wealth, it is unthinkable to contemplate losing control of the state. And so political alliances to take or retain control of the state are informed as much by political as economic necessity. The BBI, in my mind, was ultimately borne by economic necessity facing the Kenyatta and Odinga families in the wake of the last election and, more, after 2022 and beyond.

Part 2 of this article will be published in the next issue of this magazine.

— *Mungai is a constitutional lawyer (



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