President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition chief Raila Odinga at Harambee House on March 9, 2018.

| File | Nation Media Group

‘Handshake’ and its numerous messy political divorces

On the sunny afternoon of March 9, 2018, on the steps of Harambee House, an event that has drastically changed the political landscape of Kenya was about to unfold.

In an unprecedented move, the President and the “people’s president” – fierce political opponents in the 2017 General Election -- walked out of the door a few minutes after 1pm to face a nation seething with fury, with news of reconciliation.

Political truce

“In the life of any nation, a time comes when the people and their leaders must audit the progress made towards the attainment of the goals and prayers laid out at the founding of the nation,” Mr Raila Odinga said. 

“In our case, justice, unity, peace, liberty and prosperity for all … Such a time, has come for Kenya,” he said. 

And he shook hands with President Uhuru Kenyatta, which became famously referred to as the “Handshake”. With that came a political truce from the two biggest political parties. 

“Mgawanyiko ambao umekuwepo tangu uhuru mpaka wa leo, utakwisha hapa na sisi (the rift that has existed since independence now comes to an end with this act)” said Mr Odinga.

The foes-turned-friends promised to embark on a journey of “building bridges that will bind Kenya.”

“We have come to a common understanding. An understanding that this country Kenya is greater than any one individual,” said President Kenyatta.


“Elections come and go. But Kenya remains … our future cannot be dictated by the upcoming elections,” he continued. “Starting today, we will begin the process of bringing our nation together.”

A task force was formed -- the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI). 

The Handshake was meant to achieve peace, but coming in the backdrop of political unease, the development instead, seems to have stoked tension between the two divides. 

Neither Deputy President William Ruto -- the second-in-command in the Jubilee government -- nor co-principals in the opposition National Super Alliance (Nasa), a conglomeration of political parties, witnessed the political milestone.

With both the Jubilee administration and the Nasa brigade nowhere in the vicinity of Harambee House that day, the gesture was met with mixed reactions. 

National salvation

The Handshake has spawned conspiracy theories -- many believe that there was a secret pact between the two leaders whose contents are still unknown.

Hitherto, the opposition boycotted services and products from companies associated with people in, or close to, the regime. And following the mock swearing-in of the former Prime Minister, Mr Odinga, on January 31, 2018 at Uhuru Park, the country was headed in one direction -- that of political instability.

Mr Odinga’s adviser, Mr Salim Lone, via a Facebook post a few days after the Handshake, welcomed it, saying it was a “giant move” and that the opposition supremo, after the historic Handshake with the President, had lost a huge number of his followers.

By being party to the pact, Mr Lone wrote: "(Mr Odinga) knew he could lose a huge chunk of his impassioned base, which was convinced that only confronting this regime offered the prospect of national salvation.”

"How many politicians in the world would risk such a loss?" Mr Lone continued.

According to the adviser, Mr Odinga chose to put aside all personal ambition for the good of the country.

However, in Nasa, Mr Odinga’s co-principals -- Bungoma Senator Moses Wetang’ula of the Ford Kenya party, ANC Party leader Musalia Mudavadi and Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka -- were smelling betrayal. 

Six days after the Handshake, on March 15, 2018, Mr Wetang’ula became the first victim of the Handshake. A call to eject him as the Senate Minority Leader was tabled before a plenary.

A visibly angry Mr Wetang’ula remarked: “If you want a divorce, it will be noisy and messy and with casualties.”

He said he had just learnt of a “mischievous” plot hatched by a Nasa affiliate party to remove him from the senate leadership.

Since then, talk of political betrayal has been rife, especially from the former Nasa co-principals.

Whereas they are lamenting being double-crossed by the ODM party leader, political analyst Herman Manyora believes that the de-whipping of Mr Wetang’ula and the pushing of Mr Kalonzo and Mudavadi from the inner sanctums of power were necessary.

“When you look at the impact that these fellows are bringing to the national grid in terms of votes, they are in no position to ask for favours,” Mr Manyora told the Nation.

The senior lecturer termed the three cry-babies, who instead of playing radical politics and taking power from Mr Odinga, are still comfortable with asking the ODM party leader to hand the baton to one of them.

“What they forget is that, politics is about power, it is rarely given. You fight for power; they have to wrestle it from Raila. Do not ask him to leave politics, push him out!” Mr Manyora advised the three leaders. 

To date, the three cry foul. But Mr Odinga, taking their accusations with decorum, appearing unaffected by their jabs at him, has constantly appealed for patience from his base, saying the fruits of the Handshake are nigh. 

Soon after Mr Wetang’ula was pushed out of the senate leadership, the Jubilee party began a “house-cleansing” initiative to weed out opponents of the Handshake. This seemed like the fulfilment of a “prophecy” that one lawmaker once uttered in the Senate.

In January 2017, then-Senate Deputy Minority Leader James Orengo, during debate on the Election Laws (Amendment) Act of 2016, said: “Sometimes revolutions eat their own children … governments eat their own people. This government is going to punish you more than they will punish me, I am telling you. In another one year, you’ll be crying in my office (for me) to come and represent you.”

The Siaya senator was warning leaders from the ruling party to be careful with the power they wield because the government they belonged to would one day turn against them. 

In the post-Handshake era, when the Jubilee government began purging opponents from leadership positions, the echoes of his statement could be heard.

The Jubilee party then, as now, was intact on paper, but in reality, there was Kieleweke and Tangatanga, the two factions for President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto respectively. 

Then the party purge began. 

Senate Speaker Ken Lusaka announced during proceedings on May 12, 2020, that Elgeyo Marakwet Senator Kipchumba Murkomen, the Senate Majority Leader and Nakuru Senator Susan Kihika, the Majority Chief Whip had been removed from their positions.

Their positions were filled by West Pokot Senator Samuel Poghisio for Senate Majority Leader and Murang’a Senator Irungu Kang’ata taking Ms Kihika’s position as the Majority Chief Whip. It was messy, and noisy.

On June 22, during a Jubilee Party Parliamentary Group meeting, the party resolved to kick out Mr Aden Duale (Garissa Town MP) as Majority Leader of the National Assembly. Mr Amos Kimunya (Kipipiri) took over as the new Majority Leader.

The Handshake has been touted as one that will unite Kenyans, but its critics, majorly DP Ruto’s allies, have rubbished the pact, saying it is about continuing political dynasties. They see the President’s betrayal of Dr Ruto and blame it on the Handshake. A claim that Prof Edward Kisiang’ani has dismissed, saying Dr Ruto, after seeing things unfolding after the Handshake, charted his own path.

“Ruto supporters are talking about betrayal, but DP Ruto is a sharp man, he knew he would be betrayed. That is why he is now not seeing eye-to-eye with President Uhuru, he is not available to be betrayed. He has frustrated the Kieleweke outfit, who thought they would kick him out by pressure, instead, he charted his own path, and no one can dare betray him,” he said.

The political analyst drew examples from the late George Saitoti and Mr Musalia Mudavadi, who suffered “succession betrayal” in the past. He was referring to how Prof Saitoti, being a loyal deputy of the late President Daniel Moi, had hoped that he would be chosen as his successor, only for Mr Moi to hand over the political baton to Mr Kenyatta.

“Remember Mudavadi in 2013 when he was hoping that Mt Kenya would hand him the presidency, only for Uhuru to come into the picture and he was called mademoni (demon). Dr Ruto has refused to be boxed in there and has gone to the people,” he said.

Thus, Mr Odinga now risks being betrayed too, a risk that the ODM party is very much aware of. The Orange party now claims that there are plans to kick out Mr Odinga from the BBI drive.

But the Odinga team has warned that anyone planning to prevent its leader from ‘benefiting” from the fruits of his toil will be in for a rude shock.

“There is a cabal in the deep state that is working to take over the BBI from Mr Odinga and are busy working on the succession of the presidency come 2022,” Siaya Senator James Orengo said at a funeral in Nyanza on Saturday.

The vocal senator even threatened to expose the people he said were working for their own selfish interests and attempting to take over the running of the BBI Secretariat.

Mr Otiende Amollo, the Rarieda MP, who was also at the event, said the party would not allow Mr Odinga’s victory to be “stolen” like it happened in 2007, 2013 and 2017.

“We have a formula that they have been using and his support this time will not be in vain,” he said.

This came less than a week to the Handshake’s third birthday.

Three weeks prior to this statement, Murang’a Senator Irungu Kang’ata was de-whipped as the Senate Majority Chief Whip. Jubilee Secretary-General Raphael Tuju has said Kiambu Senator Kimani Wamatangi will take his place.

Prof Kisiang’ani believes the move by Mr Kang’ata to jump ship is his best political move.

“Senator Kang’ata is intelligent, he knows he is being used to fight other people’s battles and will be dumped in the end. He wants to be in charge of his campaign in 2022. He cannot risk falling out of favour with Murang’a voters. Availability is the source of betrayals. Raila should be extra careful,” he said.

The third Handshake birthday gift that seems to have been handed to the President and Mr Odinga after county assemblies overwhelmingly voted for the BBI Bill, could turn into a nasty surprise should the people not vote as expected in the referendum, added Prof Kisiang’ani.

This, he said, is because the 2020 Constitution Amendment Bill has not come from wananchi like the 2010 Constitution, but rather, it is coming from the government and is being “forced” on the people.

“What happens when Raila disagrees with Uhuru like his father did with Mzee Jomo Kenyatta in 1966? This BBI talk is not about Kenya, it has been reduced to a contest between the Uhuru and Raila team against DP Ruto. It is not the people who asked for it, and thus, they may revolt and vote No,” said Prof Kisiang’ani.

“The many MPs who are the biggest proponents of this BBI will be the first casualties. Sixty per cent of the MPs will most likely not come back to office in 2022, MCAs too,” he said.

By the end of February 2021, the BBI propositions had been greenlighted in at least 41 counties. By March 2, two more counties, Kilifi and Mandera joined them, to bring the total number of counties supporting the BBI to 43. Only three counties -- Baringo, Elgeyo Marakwet and Nandi have rejected the Bill. Uasin Gishu county is yet to vote on the Bill. This is an indication that the country is headed to a referendum at a date that the electoral commission will set, most likely before the end of June, as a referendum cannot be held one year before the General Election.

Mr Mark Bichachi, unlike Prof Kisiang’ani, believes the BBI Bill will sail through at the referendum. The massive approval by the MCAs, according to him, is enough evidence that the document has been widely accepted by the masses.

“The MCAs’ vote shows that the document is popular. Who among the elected leaders is on the ground more than MCAs? Critics saying the BBI is creating an empirical president are fakes. No dictatorship can give 35 per cent of national revenue to county governments,” he said.

With Bomet and Kericho counties, which were perceived to be DP Ruto’s strongholds, approving the BBI, Mr Bichachi said, there was no better evidence to show that the initiative was popular.

“What better gift would the creators of BBI have, than thoroughly demolishing Tangatanga? The Kalenjin did not even give DP Ruto 100 per cent of votes,” he added.

On betrayal, Mr Bichachi opined that Mr Odinga, knowing what lay ahead, had to cut ties with those who cannot bring to the table what he believes he deserves.

“Mudavadi, Kalonzo and Wetang’ula have no choice but to oppose Odinga to convince their own people that they are their own persons. They know they cannot beat him, but they want to create an impression that they are strong. They cannot have Mr Odinga’s fame. Whereas Mudavadi got a total of four hundred thousand votes in 2013, Mr Odinga garnered more votes from his backyard,” he said.

Aware that time is running out and they need to make political relevance, politicians who have fallen out of favour with President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga are strengthening their holds on the ground. 

This comes against the backdrop of an intra-party split – Jubilee Party politicians are far from united over President Kenyatta’s anti-corruption drive.

Intra-party split

In the Coast, which has always overwhelmingly voted for ODM, trouble is cooking, with Kilifi Governor Amason Kingi pushing for a coastal party. So bold was he that he raised this subject in the presence of Mr Odinga, during the former PM’s visit to the coast last week.

“You know the second-term governors’ time is coming to an end. They are seeking political relevance. They are not really opposing the Handshake or Mr Odinga, but knowing that they can only be invited to the future government through Mr Odinga, they are raising dust so that they can be considered. Mr Odinga now holds all trump cards,” Mr Bichachi explained.

The Deputy President, though appearing to be the leader against the BBI, has chosen to remain quiet on whether or not he will lead the “No” campaign against the Bill. His hesitancy in deciding his next step is already creating unrest among his lieutenants who are not sure where they stand.

“Their (Tangatanga) era of error is coming to an end. The DP does not want to admit he is on the “No” team. If your leader is not on the “No” team, then what are you doing (opposing the Bill)? The struggle that Ruto’s UDA is having in the by-elections is just for seeking relevance. Ruto does not want to go to the next elections alone,” he concluded.

Though the Nasa co-principals are chest-thumping, attempting to dislodge Mr Odinga from his vantage point as the beneficiary of BBI’s success, Mr Manyora believes that none of them can go up against Ruto.

“DP Ruto is not a joke. Should either Wetang’ula, Mudavadi or Kalonzo vie against the DP in 2022, he will have them for breakfast. Only Raila can contest with Ruto. The others will give Ruto a well-deserved holiday and he will just be back for the inauguration; he will not even be around for the elections,” he said.

The senior lecturer added that only a “serious candidate” from Mt Kenya, with the support of Raila and Uhuru, can contest against Dr Ruto.

Mt Kenya spokesman

Last Sunday, National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi, at the shrines of Njuri Ncheke in Tigania, Meru County, was installed as the Mt Kenya spokesman.

This act, said Prof Kisiang’ani, was typical Mt Kenya politics. “You remember Kirinyaga Governor Ann Waiguru, in one of her press briefings, said ‘we as Mt Kenya, want to first pass the BBI, once done, we will start the politics’. This, meant, after the BBI passes, Mt Kenya will decide who is supposed to vie for the top seat.”

But then, photos have been doing the rounds showing Mr Odinga in talks with Dr Ruto. Whatever they discussed, just like the details of the meeting preceding the Handshake, is not known.

The Handshake, like it did three years ago, is still shrouded in mystery, but beneath the gaze of its creators, it is the elixir of the country’s illnesses.

Despite all the tensions it has created, one thing remains clear, and all political analysts agree: The Handshake has changed Kenya’s political landscape in a big way.


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