Handshake deal: Closely-guarded secret that baffles all

Saturday March 09 2019

President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) and ODM leader Raila Odinga reach a political truce, at Harambee House on March 9, 2018. Some legislators are questioning the sincerity and motive behind the truce. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


A secretly-organised handshake on a Friday morning one year ago was all the magical gesture the country needed to calm political temperatures following an ill-tempered electoral process that left dozens dead and hundreds maimed in its wake.

Even before they opened up on their mission, the sight of President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition leader Raila Odinga walking out of Harambee House office together on March 9, 2018 left many Kenyans sighing with relief.

Deputy President William Ruto was the first to congratulate the two leaders, lauding their move as “an act of patriotism and demonstration of statesmanship”.

The excitement that greeted the handshake has, however, since died down in some quarters, with Dr Ruto severally shifting positions on the handshake.


That the handshake has drastically altered the political landscape is not in doubt. Dr Ruto, for instance, is no longer the automatic successor-in-waiting of Kenyatta within Jubilee Party, as had previously been assumed during the 2013 and 2017 electioneering period.


Since the handshake, the President has openly shifted gear to embrace the ODM leader as an ally in government, and indirectly faulted his deputy’s team, now christened “tanga-tanga”, for premature politicking ahead of 2022.

At the turn of this year, during a round table interview in Mombasa, the President curiously mentioned the Opposition leader as an ally in his government while hardly giving his deputy as much as a mention.

“I have engaged Mr Odinga for most of this year (2018). I believe I have a partner who believes in the cause. Ours is a long-term agenda to ensure that we develop a society that is politically inclusive, and that we get a way of doing politics without dividing the country along ethnic lines.”


Mr Odinga appeared to confirm the President’s sentiments when, on Thursday, he defended his engagements with Cabinet Secretaries at his Upper Hill office, saying the unity deal with President Kenyatta “gave birth to shared responsibilities in the running of government”.

Mr Odinga was talking during an interview with a vernacular FM radio station.

The post-handshake era has further witnessed the reorganisation of government operations in the Executive, thanks to the Executive order of January 22, 2019 that handed Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang'i sweeping powers on the oversight of government programmes.

In his new role, Dr Matiang'i now chairs a key committee on the implementation of development programmes, whose membership includes all Cabinet Secretaries, the Attorney General and the Head of the Public Service.


With the no-nonsense minister being likened to a new “chief minister”, many have questioned Dr Ruto’s role and position of influence under the new arrangement.

In a BBC’s HARDtalk show last month, Dr Ruto maintained he was still boss over the Interior minister “who reports to me and the President”.

Courtesy of the handshake, Mr Odinga also won the support of the Jubilee administration in lobbying for his appointment as Africa Union High Representative for Infrastructure Development in Africa.

Besides calming the post-poll tensions, there is no denying the handshake has caused as much confusion as apprehension among Kenyans, particularly the political class.

Amani National Congress leader Musalia Mudavadi, for instance, argues that so far little has been achieved and little is known of the handshake.

To him, the handshake is more of a political agreement between two people than a document that encompasses the rest of Kenyans.


Mr Mudavadi observes that the handshake message has reached virtually every part of Kenya and that almost everyone knows about it.

“What the people, including myself, now need to be told, is the significance of the handshake to our daily lives.”

Except for its resultant baby, the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), the finer details of the Kenyatta-Odinga deal remain a closely guarded secret.

In reaching out to each other, the two leaders completely locked out their lieutenants, thereby causing confusion and speculation.

Politicians allied to the DP, for instance, initially understood the handshake to mean according Mr Odinga a “serious job” within government.

Fresh from the handshake, Senate Majority Leader Kipchumba Murkomen, for instance, played host to Mr Odinga on March 17 last year during the funeral of Mzee Willy Kaino Kilimo in Elgeyo Marakwet County and welcomed the handshake, asking President Kenyatta and Mr Ruto “to give Jakom (Odinga) an official office and good pay so that he can serve Kenyans”.


But a couple of months later, this tune changed when the DP’s supporters realised that Mr Odinga was still actively involved in politics, and getting cosy with the President.

In an interview with this writer, Kericho Senator Aaron Cheruiyot “divulged” that Mr Odinga had been given a senior State job in the deal and that he should take up the assignment “instead of wreaking our party from within”.

On Friday, Kandara MP Alice Wahome accused Mr Odinga of being the obstacle to the Building Bridges Initiative meant for peaceful coexistence.

She further claimed that the handshake is only being used as a 2022 campaign tool.

“You cannot be speaking about a handshake within the government when at the same time you are isolating the President,” she said.


Dodoma University lecturer Prof Amukowa Anangwe maintains that even though the handshake stabilised the country, it has not solved much.

“Not significantly. On the one hand, the handshake restored peace and granted Uhuru's regime respite and legitimacy. On the other hand, what the MOU between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga had promised to achieve is still a mirage.

"Instead of enhancing national unity, the country is politically polarised and this forebodes ill for the political stability of the country, particularly during the 2022 presidential race and its aftermath,” he said.

Speaking last October during the burial of benga musician Joseph Kamaru in Murang'a County, Mr Odinga gave an analogy of his handshake goal.

He said his trip to the Biblical Canaan had briefly been halted by crocodiles on the banks of River Jordan.

He had accordingly resorted to building a bridge to get all Kenyans, irrespective of political affiliation, across to the promised land.

Whether or not this is the sincere intention of Mr Odinga, the truth will soon come out.