Kenyatta-Odinga handshake has elevated Kenya’s geopolitical profile

Written By: Kingori Choto

The March 2018 political truce in the form of a handshake between President Kenyatta and his nemesis-turned-ally Raila Odinga was a historic event.

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With the gesture, the two leaders restored peace and stability to a nation bitterly divided by the protracted 2017 presidential election.

At a time when many previously stable democracies, on every continent, have developed deeply divided and tribalised or racialised politics, Kenya’s handshake was a rare push in the direction of building bipartisanship.

At its core is that most rare quality in pitched and hard fought political contests in this part of the world: pragmatism. It is a model that is being emulated in other parts of the world. Kenya, with all its problems, may turn out to be an example of the world if it builds on that signal moment of political pragmatism and vision.

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One-and-a-half years down the road, the handshake has paved way for national healing and dialogue. Key to this has been the nationwide consultation tour by the Building Bridges Initiative Presidential Taskforce (BBI) seeking citizen views and solutions on the country’s pressing and divisive challenges. These include ethnic competition and antagonism, divisive politics, corruption and exclusion, to mention just a few. Out of BBI will probably come transformative proposals that will then be subjected to further political and legal processes, in line with the Constitution, to ensure that they are implemented.

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The handshake is also credited with cushioning the ongoing war on corruption from political interference. It has also spawned impressive bipartisan goodwill on national issues both in and out of Parliament.

However, a section of the political class remains opposed to the handshake and the BBI as a whole. Naturally, and especially those opposed to Mr. Odinga, view it as a threat to their future political interests and ambitions. Others dismiss it as an attempt by powerful political families (the Kenyattas and Odingas in particular) to perpetuate their influence and hegemony in the country’s politics.

Yet listening to them closely when they famously shook hands, and on different occasions since, it is their families’ long exposure to the peaks and valleys of Kenyan politics that has made them determine that they must forge a different politics for the sake of all of Kenya and the future. They are taking responsibility, and millions of Kenyans seem to recognise this with the strong support for this initiative.

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One of the much touted benefits of the handshake was its impact on the region. The powerful combination of President Kenyatta and his foreign policy apparatus has come together with Mr. Odinga and his continent-wide role as as the African Union Special Representative for Infrastructure Development.

Their clearly coordinated and collaborative approach to regional issues  has brought clear benefits. For Kenya and the region.

They worked together to improve Kenya and Tanzania relations, which has been characterised by misunderstandings that gave way to a sense of division and competition. Mr Odinga also joined President Kenyatta’s push to support peace and stability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their unique handshake has given them the legitimacy to speak credibly of two divided political camps coming together for the sake of national stability and progress.

Another notable aspect of this growing partnership is that, in their own right as influential African political leaders, and as scions of famous Pan-Africanists (Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga), the two men lend considerable gravitas to Kenya’s renewed geopolitical and diplomatic offensive. By presenting a united front, they give the country unprecedented diplomatic leverage in advancing her continent and international agenda.

Back home, the Kenyatta-Odinga rapprochement has seen the fast-tracking of major projects in western Kenya, the ODM leader’s political stronghold. The most prominent of these is the port of Kisumu which President Kenyatta initiated in 2016 but now has a stable environment for its implementation with political confrontation brought to a halt.

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As long as the political dalliance between President Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga holds, it can be expected that Kenya’s geopolitical profile will continue to rise. With the country seeking a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council, the handshake’s significance and impact will be seen in how the two leaders lobby countries in Africa and beyond to support the bid.

Something else is worth noting about the handshake. I am reliably told that a number of political science scholars from other countries including the US have been trooping to Kenya to study the handshake, hailed as a first in Africa. In a continent where political disputes are normally resolved through the barrel of a gun, that one of the most turbulent epochs in Kenya’s history ended with a handshake between two fierce rivals is something worth writing home about.

Mr. Choto is a lawyer and public affairs specialist. 

The views expressed in this opinion article don’t necessarily represent KBC’s opinion


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