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Uhuru -Raila Handshake May Have Changed Kenyan Politics For Generations To Come-Political Commentator Samuel Omwenga

May 26, 2020

By Ajong Mbapndah L

Former Lawyer, seasoned Political Commentator, and Digital TV Host says the handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga has changed dynamics in Kenyan politics

The impact of the memorable 9 March 2018 handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta, and his opposition challenger Raila Odinga may changed Kenyan politics for generations to come, says Samuel Omwenga. In an interview to discuss recent developments in Kenya, the former Lawyer, seasoned Political Commentator, and Digital TV Host says something definitely changed and things have been turned upside down in the country for the better.

“More than 2 years later, the handshake is holding and this has not only stabilized the political situation in Kenya, it has the potential of reaching the handshake’s ultimate goal, and that is, removing catalysts for electoral misconduct and disputes, destruction of property, violence and deaths that follow each general circle,” says Mr Omwenga.

Talking about Deputy President Ruto, Mr Omwenga says corruption charges against him are real though the extent may not be fully known yet. Mr Omwenga dissects the complex political equations, and opines that with the impending implementation of BBI, Kenya may  be on the way to finally enjoying the fruits of independence that have eluded the country for decades..

We hear accusations of corruption labelled against Ruto and his associates, are the corruption charges real or just giving a dog a bad name to hang it?

The corruption charges are real, though the extent of the corruption is hard to tell simply because those accused of corruption often find ways to camouflage the corruption or altogether make evidence disappear. For example, the government has reopened a corruption case against the DP going back to 2001 where all these charges started. In that case, Ruto and two co-defendants were charged with fraudulently obtaining Sh272 million from a state corporation by selling it public land.

The case dragged on in the court system for years and was ultimately dismissed for “lack of evidence” The government has now reopened this case as it is believed the dismissal of the case itself was the product of corrupt influence. Ruto’s name has also been linked or mentioned in connection with a number of mega corruption cases and his efforts to downplay those cases has led to conclusions there must be a reason and that can only be it is true he is involved or at least the beneficiary of the proceeds.  

If the corruption charges against Ruto and associates are real, what does it say about the judgement of President Kenyatta, I mean, he picked Ruto as running mate twice , is he not at fault for making a choice of Deputy that he now regrets?

I think the best way to answer this is to say everyone in government has been involved in corruption of one kind or another. There are no saints in government or in politics, except rare unknown players. If they are household name politicians or people in government, you can rest assured they have been involved in some corruption either directly or the indirect beneficiaries of corruption.

So, starting from that perspective, one cannot say this says anything about the judgment of President Uhuru Kenyatta in having Ruto as his running mate in 2013 and 2017. However, it should be noted that what makes Ruto the exception, is because he has amassed so much wealth in the years since becoming DP that can only be possible if one was engaged in the mega corruption he is accused of being engaged in. There is just no other way to explain the wealth.

What options are there for President Kenyatta, does the Law permit him to fire his Deputy in case the relations continue to get frail and Mr Ruto refuses to resign or step down?

Unlike under the old constitution where the president picked his deputy and had the power to fire him at will, the new constitution promulgated in 2010 makes removal of deputy president extremely difficult. For one, the president cannot just fire the DP. The only way a deputy president can be removed from office besides resignation or death, is either by establishing mental incapacity or by impeachment, both of which require legislative action. More significantly, a motion to impeach must be supported by two-thirds majority in the National Assembly and the impeachment charges must be upheld by two-thirds majority in the Senate upon hearings or trial.

It was previously believed these votes were just not there, given inroads Ruto had made in Central Kenya with many MPs there supporting him, but this is now in doubt as Uhuru has been able to easily purge Ruto’s loyalists from their Jubilee party, leading many to believe this belief Ruto had the numbers was a farce propagated by Ruto and his supporters.

Besides accusations and going after what some see as associates of Deputy President Ruto, what palpable results has Kenya seen in the fight against corruption?

The fight against corruption in Kenya has become a cliché. To be sure, there has always been corruption in Kenya since independence, with each successive government announcing various efforts to “fight corruption” only for the corruption to get even worse with each successive government. Kenya, like many other countries in Africa and elsewhere, is breeding ground for “state capture,” which is defined by Catrina Godinho and Lauren Hermanus as “. . . a political-economic project whereby public and private actors collude in establishing clandestine networks that cluster around state institutions in order to accumulate unchecked power, subverting the constitutional state and social contract by operating outside of the realm of public accountability.”

In other words, private individuals and their cohorts in high places in government collude to form a cartel that controls mostly procurement in a manner such that they line their pockets with large sums of money in ways no one outside that cartel would know or even do anything about even if they know. This is the system President Uhuru has been trying to dismantle to no success thus far, and many believe Ruto has been the beneficiary at least until he fell out of Uhuru’s favor.

There have been echoes that opposition leader Raila Odinga is open to joining the government, if this were to happen, what impact will it have on the political dynamics in Kenya?

Raila is effectively in government since his famous handshake with Uhuru back in 2018. Although his primary focus has been spearheading efforts to turn Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) into law, he has no doubt been one of the key advisers of the president at least in as far as handling Ruto and those opposed to BBI goes.

More recently, there has been talk of formalizing his role in government in forming a government of national unity (GNU) but this is now less likely because it would require Raila and ODM being fused into Jubilee, which is an undesirable prospect for many political and practical reasons. As a result, what is likely to happen, is Raila continuing to act as co-president without the title but helping Uhuru accomplish his legacy objectives, some of which overlap with Raila’s own political and party interests. Presently, one of these is making sure Ruto’s power is sufficiently clipped as to not to be an obstacle to BBI implementation or having Uhuru succeeded by someone other than Ruto.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga have been moving in sync since the famous handshake. The playbook could help leaders in other African countries to diffuse political tensions, says Samuel Omwenga. Photo credit REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya/
President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga have been moving in sync since the famous handshake. The playbook could help leaders in other African countries to diffuse political tensions, says Samuel Omwenga. Photo credit REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya/

Do you share the view from many other observers that something definitely changed in Kenyan politics following that memorable handshake 9 March 2018 handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Mr. Raila Odinga, and in follow up to that what lessons do you think African leaders both in power and in the opposition can learn from the détente between these two fierce rivals?

Yes, something certainly changed in Kenyan politics following the memorable handshake of 9 March 2018 between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga. Nobody saw that coming even among the closest advisers and insiders of these two men. That is how secretive and monumental the pact was because the men knew the handshake will turn things in the country upside down though for the better as it has.

More than 2 years later, the handshake is holding and this has not only stabilized the political situation in Kenya, it has the potential of reaching the handshake’s ultimate goal, and that is, removing catalysts for electoral misconduct and disputes, destruction of property, violence and deaths that follow each general circle. As things stand now looking ahead, implementation of BBI, which is the byproduct of the handshake is well under way and poised to happen and, when it does, Kenyans can go into the next election circle more confident the elections will be credible and without the disputes, destruction of property, violence and death that would otherwise be lurking to yet again rear their ugly heads.

For this reason, I would say, yes, African leaders both in power and in the opposition should borrow the playbook and apply the same in their respective countries. A key element to note here is, even as this handshake remains intact and BBI is likely to be implemented, what is happening is those in the system are not simply giving up control; rather, they are allowing more inclusivity in the government and that is key because one of the reasons those in power never want to give it up is because they do not wish to give up control. In this setting, they retain control, but power is shared more widely than before. That may be hard to understand but the short of it is, it is better to have that than nothing or status quo.

Mr Kenyatta is approaching the sunset of his second and last term of office as President, how has he fared so far, where has Kenya seen progress and failure under his leadership?

If you ask most Kenyans the question how has Uhuru fared thus far, you will find a surprising answer as those who supported and voted for him twice, will tell you Uhuru has been a total failure and they will throw in a few epithets and insults to make the point while those who did not vote for him and even hated him, now find him acceptable and say he is doing a good job.

The explanation is simple: the handshake and the reason being Raila. It is not possible to go into details here but the short of it is when Uhuru and Ruto joined forces to face Raila in the 2013 elections, they took advantage of dislike and even hatred of Raila in Mt. Kenya region, which is Uhuru’s backyard and demonized him there and a good part of Rift Valley, which is Ruto’s backyard with the promise they elect the duo, power will remain in the two communities for at least another 20 years, with mutual benefit.

It was not the winning formula as neither Uhuru nor Raila had the requisite 50%1 majority vote in the 2013 elections, but putting together the two strange bedfellows and their respective communities gave the system enough votes and cover to rig in Uhuru in the first round of the elections—though I should hasten to add I and others long ago conceded Raila would have likely lost in the second round, had there been a run-off between him and Uhuru as should have been had the constitution been followed, but the system chose to rig Uhuru in therefore doing away with the required runoff.

This, then, became the basis for the two men (Uhuru and Ruto) to have the pact they had to keep the presidency in their respective communities for at least 20 years or “kumi kumi” as they baptized the illegal power grab, meaning 10 years for Uhuru, followed by 10 years by Ruto.

The handshake tossed that agreement out of the window, or shred it to pieces and thus the flip in Uhuru support from those diehards who bought into the kumi kumi nonsense now hating him and calling him names, while those in the opposition and, specifically, supporters of Raila see the handshake as paving the way for Raila to be finally sworn as president.

Objectively, I would say the country’s economy under Uhuru has been nothing but mediocre at best if the comparison is to previous years when the economy was worse but on the political front, the handshake is making it possible for Uhuru to reshape his legacy such that by the time he is done with his two terms, things would have picked up enough to lift his performance to acceptable levels on both fronts, namely, economically and politically.

The wild card here is COVID-19 and the aftermath but, with the handshake in place and Raila being positioned to be a key player in the post-COVID-19 economic recovery, things will be far much better than they would be were the handshake not in place.

Mr Raila Odinga has been unsuccessful in previous attempts to seek the top job in Kenya, how are things shaping out for him, could 2022 finally be his year?

Just so it is clear, it is not true that Raila has been “unsuccessful” in his previous attempts to seek the top job in the country; rather, on at least 2 tries, he was successful except the system (those in power) denied him the opportunity to be sworn in after flooring his opponents at the ballot. Given that, the right question to ask is, will he (a) be as successful as in the past come 2022 and (b) will the system allow him to be sworn as president if he is. The answer to the first question is even though Raila remains to be a popular opposition figure, now quasi-in government, his level of support is not at the same level as it was back in 2007 when he clearly won the election, and each election circle since where support is strong but less so than all these other years.

For Raila to win at the ballot as he did previously, he has to be the flagbearer for the grand coalition being formed to take care of and ensure Uhuru’s successor. If he is the flagbearer for that coalition, then it’s hard to imagine how he is not successful and, if he is successful, the system will not prevent him from being sworn because the grand coalition being formed has its blessings, which answers the second part of the question.  

Elections in Kenya are often fraught with tensions, what lessons have been learned over the years and what reforms have been put in place to minimize tensions, and prospects of fraud and violence?

As noted above, the handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga was specifically to make sure we no longer have circular disputes, destruction of property, violence, and deaths each election circle. The BBI team was tasked with canvassing the country and gathering views to formulate proposals to make this a reality and what they have proposed is what was in the process of being brought up as a referendum to make it law but the process is halted owing to COVID-19.

The key proposal in BBI that will make a big difference in making elections disputes and violence a thing of the past, is restructuring the Executive branch to allow for sharing of power between the president and a prime minister, rather than having all executive power resting in the president’s office. Kenya has had this power structure before; at independence for a brief period and in 2008 as means of avoiding a civil war following the post-election violence that rocked the nation. However, in both cases, the prime minister was not what is envisioned in BBI. The details of what the new structure would be are yet to be hammered out but, it is expected the PM position will be very powerful position with a weaker presidency and this may end this winner take all associated with the current US-style presidential system.   

President Uhuru Kenyatta (centre), Deputy President William Ruto (left) and ODM leader Raila Odinga . Deputy President Ruto may be the big loser in the high stakes political games with corruption charges against him and his associates gaining steam
President Uhuru Kenyatta (centre), Deputy President William Ruto (left) and ODM leader Raila Odinga . Deputy President Ruto may be the big loser in the high stakes political games with corruption charges against him and his associates gaining steam

What is your take on the way the government of Mr Uhuru Kenyatta has handled the coronavirus pandemic?

Uhuru is certainly doing a far much better job in handling the coronavirus pandemic in Kenya than President Donald Trump is doing for America.

More specifically, actions taken by the Kenya government to strengthen the health system and caring for the infected as well as health policy measures such as promotion and encouragement of social distancing, working from home, travel restrictions, the closure of schools, the suspension of public gatherings, and a nightly curfew have all thus far been effective in keeping the spread of the virus at relatively low rates ditto deaths from the pandemic. However, the poor and most vulnerable are bearing the brunt of these policies as the government is not proving enough assistance to enable them to feed themselves and have access to essentials for their daily living. To compound the problem, it is feared money provided by the World Bank and other sources to combat the pandemic has either been stolen or misused, which is a shame but, nothing surprising at all. The CS for Health has been doing a good job and he promises to make sure all the funds are accounted for, which means if there is any monkey business with it, those culpable will be held responsible.  

We end with a last word from you on the future of Kenya, what makes you hopeful, and what are your fears?

Kenya is a beautiful country with an abundance of natural resources, human capital, and great potential to become an emerging economy. Bad governance, disputed elections and tribalism have all combined to become a roadblock to reaching this utopia. However, I am hopeful with the impending implementation of BBI, we can go over this roadblock and finally get to enjoy the fruits of independence that have eluded us all these decades.

My biggest fear is fear of uncertainty from the pandemic for we truly don’t know how this ends, but  we hope and pray for the best.

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