Why analysts are urging caution on Uhuru-Raila deal

President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) and Nasa leader Raila Odinga conclude a joint press conference about the country's growth, at Harambee House in Nairobi on March 9, 2018. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga have agreed to rollout a programme that would implement their shared objectives.
  • Warring politicians need joint sessions with mental health experts if any meaningful healing is to start.

The handshake was too stiff and formal.

It was not the hearty African handshake between comrades.

There was no twisting of the grip around each other’s thumb that culminates in a high-five in an authentic and spontaneous Kenyan handshake.

Their smiles were plastic, choreographed for the cameras.

If one of them looked like a president, the other could have been mistaken for his aide de camp.

Their shirts needed a deeper dialogue with the iron-box and a little bit more care when tucked in.

Wearing slightly crumpled suits that day, the sharp-dressers struck the poses of two gladiators shaking hands at each other’s funeral. 

But the nation cheered all the same. And there was some good reason for that.

Never has a handshake dominated the Kenyan news cycle more than that between opposition leader Raila Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta on Friday, March 9.

“The handshake will positively affect our economy because it will return investors, tourist and donor confidence,” Mr David ole Sankok says.

A diehard Kenyatta supporter, the nominated MP has previously said unsavoury things about Mr Odinga, including calling the former Prime Minister an “uncouth villager”.

Mr Odinga and Mr Kenyatta embody the deep rifts in Kenyan politics, and their peace pact was received with a sigh of relief.

But experts are urging caution, citing the history of betrayal among Kenyan politicians and the shared cynicism of the ruling elites towards the citizenry.

When Mr Kenyatta won the October 26 repeat election, which Mr Odinga boycotted, the frosty relationship between the two went from bad to worse.

The tribal divisions that Mr Kenyatta (a Kikuyu) and Mr Odinga (a Luo) represent have festered since the 1960s and are now so deep, coming around them to unite the country is a Herculean task.

The intelligentsia is divided like the rest of the country.

The older Mr Odinga (born 1945) is supported by youngish intellectuals across ethnic lines.

His left-leaning supporters genuinely believe in a thing they call “democracy and good governance”, which is not clear if their party gives a hoot about.


On the other hand, the younger Mr Kenyatta (born 1961) enjoys loyal support from some academics with questionable credentials, mostly from his backyard, who are old and wise enough to know which side of their bread is buttered.

To Dr Sam Kamau, a young lecturer at the Graduate School of Media and Communications at the Aga Khan University, the handshake is nothing more than a media spectacle without any substance.

“The public camaraderie among Kenyan political leaders is just that — nothing more.

"It means the underlying issues like feelings of exclusion, extreme poverty and electoral injustice will remain buried and unaddressed,” the don says.

He shares this opinion with many others of his generation.

“Nothing much will change for the mwananchi unless the root causes of political divisions and violence are addressed,” Dr Njoki Wamai, an early-career Kenyan academic in the Department of Politics at the University of Cambridge, says.

But Prof Eunice Kamaara of Moi University disagrees.

“There is mystical power in that handshake. Managed effectively, the handshake might be the beginning of a prosperous Kenya.” 

The memorandum includes a litany of aspirations: End ethnic divisions in politics and at work places; ensure equitable distribution of government jobs; work towards fair elections and fight against corruption.

There is nothing terribly original on their laundry list, but Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga have agreed to rollout a programme that would implement their shared objectives.

Whether anything will come out of this before the next electioneering season remains to be seen.

Both political dynamos owe their stranglehold on the nation to corruption, nepotism, and tribalism, without which their political careers would be over in a minute.

Dr Wamai thinks the proposed changes are not possible unless Mr Odinga, an engineer, is given executive authority in a structured power-sharing deal.

Others think Mr Odinga will be kicked to the curb as soon as he successfully engineers the death of the National Super Alliance, the opposition coalition he heads.

“Kenyans should know there are no permanent enemies or friends in politics, only permanent interests,” Dr Sankok says — of course, without mentioning that those interests are not likely to be the welfare of the people.

Dr Kamau is too cautious to join the bandwagon:

“Political coalitions in Kenya are driven by the interests of the political players, and their foundation is normally shaky.”

Although Kenyans, majority of whom live in grinding poverty, envy their politicians because of the wealth and trappings of power the honchos enjoy, the animosity politicians spew at each other daily to fire up their ethnic hordes can take a toll on anyone’s sanity.

It is likely Kenyan politicians lead lives of wrenching pain away from the public limelight — and it shows in the plastic smiles they wear when staging handshakes for the cameras and the public mood swings and temper tantrums they treat us to once in a while.

Like any other person steeped in this kind of hate day and night for years on end, healing cannot happen within the span of a handshake.

Warring politicians need joint sessions with mental health experts if any meaningful healing is to start. Yet telling them that would be taken as an insult.   

For now, to Mr Kenyatta’s and Mr Odinga’s supporters, manna is about to start falling from heaven.

How might the handshake affect the development of the country, especially the welfare of youth? 

“Inclusivity and shared prosperity will greatly benefit youth in areas of education and other opportunities of personal development,” Mr Denis Mosota, a lawyer, says.

Dr Kamau is not as optimistic, noting that “while Kenya has a largely youthful population, beyond voting, attending political rallies and acting as polling officials and performing other menial tasks associated with elections, the youth have no meaningful engagement with politics”.

While there is consensus that youth and women can put pressure on the two leaders to deliver on the pact, our inability to determine how that will happen remains the issue we can’t shake off with a handshake.

Twitter: @evanmwangi


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