What you need to know:
- The last national day event before this year's General Election would have provided the perfect chance for President Uhuru Kenyatta and Orange Democratic Movement presidential candidate Raila Odinga to put on a display of amity.
- Failure to act upon recommendations of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission could come to haunt Kenya.
It might have seemed like a petty issue of no consequence blown out of all proportion, yet the storm over the apparent snub suffered by Mr Raila Odinga at the Madaraka Day festivities reveals the deep fissures that are a powder keg in any election year.
If the experiences of past election violence are to be any guide, issues around peace, unity, reconciliation, national cohesion and integration, ought to be high on the list of priorities for any political party.
In that regard, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s State House did well by extending an invitation to Mr Odinga, his main rival for the presidential elections, to the Madaraka Day fete at Nyeri’s Kabiru-ini grounds. And Mr Odinga did well to honour the invitation and make his way to Nyeri.
Unfortunately, it was all downhill after that. What became the big talking point was not the official messages delivered at an event marking Kenya’s attainment of self-rule 54 years ago, but the apparent snub that Mr Odinga was subjected to.
The bone of contention was that the former Prime Minister and Orange Democratic Movement presidential candidate was not recognised during introduction of the guests, and neither was his presence acknowledged by the main speakers including President Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto.
Mr Odinga was not given a chance to even wave at the crowd, leave alone say a few words. There were also complaints that unlike other dignitaries he was forced to alight from his car at a distance and walk to the venue, and did not have a reserved seat.
Another issue that generated plenty of debate was that the national day for the first time marked in a county that was a cradle of the armed struggle for independence, the home of fabled Mau Mau leader Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi, was reduced to a Jubilee campaign rally, and also to an exclusionist provincial affair conducted partly in the mother tongue despite the fact that it had a nationwide live television audience.
Reactions were fast and furious, but the most worrying aspect might be that instead of sober, resonated debate, what came out were angry recriminations based on the ingrained ethnic prejudices and hatred that still very much define Kenyan political boundaries.
For many of Mr Odinga’s supporters, the opposition leader should by right have been given a chance to address the crowd. Denying him that opportunity was a deliberate snub aimed at humiliating him, and a refusal to recognise his status as an opposition leader, as a former Prime Minister, and also in his own right a hero of the struggle for a second liberation.
But there was also a flip side. Jubilee supporters saw nothing wrong in Mr Odinga not being given a chance to speak. They pointed out, rightly, that protocol for such State events does not provide room for speeches other than a welcome by the host governor, followed by the Deputy President welcoming the President, and none are constrained by protocol or custom to recognise any other individual.
They pointed out that Mr Odinga has in the past snubbed national day festivities or organised parallel events; venturing that he did not respect the president anyway, and if given the microphone might have launched into tirades against the government.
They also saw nothing wrong in Nyeri Governor Samuel Wamathai , as well as the event comperes drawn from vernacular radio stations, speaking in the Kikuyu language, arguing that they were addressing a largely a local audience in the stadium.
Both sides probably had justification for their points of view, but it was the anger and invective put on display that reveals the urgent need for healing and reconciliation.
The arguments became not about protocol and the gestures that could play a role towards promoting unity and peace ahead of the elections, but about deep-seated hostilities rooted more in ethnic hatred than in anything else.
The last national day event before the General Election in August would have provided the perfect chance for both President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga to put on a display of amity – demonstrate to their respective supporters that political competition does not have to translate to anger, hatred, and the threat of violence.
In that regard the Nyeri event was a missed opportunity, and the outcome can be seen in the anger exhibited on the social media exchanges.
The angry exchanges have been witnessed regularly on almost any topic, including just recently on the debate that followed launch of the Standard Gauge Railway.
It was seen in the debate following announcement of opposition plans to setup, like Jubilee is doing, its own vote tallying centre, and on the High Court ruling on the sanctity of vote counts recorded at the counting stations.
An analysis of the conversations on Twitter and Facebook will reveal that for the most part, contributors take positions not on any sober appraisal of the issue, but on blind adherance to some ethnic or party line.
That the rifts still run so deep is a worrying indictment of the healing and reconciliation efforts pursued after the 2007-2008 post-election conflict.
It is a reminder that failure to follow through on recommendations of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission could come to haunt this country.
It also exposes the ineffectiveness of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission chaired by former National Assembly Speaker Francis ole Kaparo, whose most recent interventions displayed a tendency to parrot the Jubilee line.
But there could be a silver lining in the Madaraka Day cloud: Amongst the first to express dismay at the Odinga snub were Jubilee supporters from Nyeri and elsewhere in Central Kenya, who rued the petty display, and the lost opportunity for a bit of magnanimity.