A carefully selected team of elders dubbed “counsels of wisdom” facilitated the handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Mr Raila Odinga early this year, the opposition leader has for the first time revealed.
The revelation is a departure from Mr Odinga’s hitherto held position that the talks were purely a result of his and Mr Kenyatta’s initiative.
Mr Odinga’s remarks will further fuel the never-ending talk that Mama Ngina Kenyatta, the President’s mother, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) Director-General Philip Kameru and Mama Ida Odinga played an integral role in bringing the two together.
In an interview with the Sunday Nation this week, Mr Odinga opened the lid on a series of events that continue to shape the country’s political discourse, ranging from the March 9 peace deal, the spiralling public debt and the quest for a referendum.
Disclosing that the decision to mend fences with President Kenyatta was the culmination of a series of meetings which began some time last year and aided by “counsels of goodwill”, Mr Odinga said they settled for March 9 as doing so any other day after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit would have been “shrouded in speculation” that they were forced into a truce by the West.
“They (foreign powers) had nothing to do with this. It was purely home-grown. We knew doing so after he comes or when he is around would have given the impression that it was the West that brought us together,” he said.
Mr Odinga said that in their discussions with the President, they each evaluated the consequences of the choices they had: For him declaring a parallel government with autonomy in his strongholds, at the risk of being charged with treason and sent to the gallows, and Mr Kenyatta on the other hand clamping down on him and his supporters in what could have ushered in anarchy.
The economy was also already taking a beating.
“Remember the President had said anybody swearing themselves in as president would have committed treason which is punishable by death. They had said they would arrest and charge me. The stage had been set. Both would have caused an implosion whose consequences are too grave to contemplate,” he said.
He said the “the counsels” intervened just when matters were about to get out of hand given that he was also under immense pressure from a section of his advisers not to compromise.
“It is under these circumstances that the “counsels of goodwill” prevailed and facilitated dialogue which culminated in the handshake. It would have led to complete breakdown of law and order in the country. We lost about 350 people, some killed the day I was coming from the airport,” he narrated.
He declined to say who the “counsels” were. “It is a subject for another day.”
So much has changed in a short span of time in how the state machinery relates with Mr Odinga.
Before the watershed moment in March, no government official would have wanted to be seen with him in public as any such association would earn one an instant reproach. The same government provides his security.
Today, senior government officials not only accompany him or invite him to inspect projects as did Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia in Kiambu recently, but the Sunday Nation also established that they consult him on their day-to-day-running of government.
While downplaying this development, Mr Odinga said: “I talk to different ministers. I have run a government and so I may know a thing or two that could be beneficial to them. Whenever there are security issues that are of concern nationally, they inform me. I also give my advice from time to time,” he said.
At the height of national outcry following the proposal by Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich to increase Value Added Tax on petroleum products by up to 16 percent in September, a rare consultation was happening behind the scenes between President Kenyatta, who was in China, and Mr Odinga in Nairobi.
Mr Kenyatta, worried that the public anger would snowball into a national crisis, called Mr Odinga to pick his brain on how to assuage the rage.
“He (Mr Kenyatta) told me he was working it out with his team to see where to cut. That’s how a reduction in allocations to counties, Parliament and more austerity measures affecting foreign travel were arrived at.
"He had earlier been advised to reduce it to 10 percent but he told me he was keen to reduce it at least by half. And that’s what he did in the end,” Mr Odinga revealed.
It emerged in the interview that the consultation on VAT is not an isolated incident in the newfound relationship between the two, a far cry from the hard-tackle politics and name-calling that has characterised the relationship between the two.
Mr Odinga, though keen not to appear to be prescribing what the task force on Building Bridges should recommend, says changing the structure of the executive holds the key to addressing deeply rooted ethnic politics.
“At Bomas, we had proposed a hybrid system which is both parliamentary and presidential. In France, the president is elected and has powers over certain portfolios and they too have a prime minister who heads the majority party. S/he forms government in consultation with the president, we could borrow from this. It (the referendum) could also offer an opportunity to cure the gender representation.”
On Thursday, Mr Kenyatta did not hide this fact. Speaking in Kisumu, he said it is not sustainable to continue with the present winner-takes-all arrangement.
“We said we must look at this issue of winner-takes-all. If that is why some people feel left out of government, we must ask ourselves, is it a good thing or not?” the President said.
Mr Kenyatta was visiting Kisumu, the heart of Mr Odinga’s support base in Nyanza, for the first time since the highly acrimonious polls in August last year in a step seen as key in cementing the “handshake”.
During the tour, which included Deputy President William Ruto in the first day, protocol was discarded to give the ODM leader an enhanced status.
Alive to the reality that making Mr Kenyatta’s succession part of the agreement would make it prone to attacks by all the 2022 contenders, Mr Odinga explained that they chose to leave it out of the engagement so as to achieve national cohesion.
But going by Mr Kenyatta’s past pronouncements when he said his choice for successor would surprise many, observers say the two may be up to something.
With some of Mr Kenyatta's lieutenants charging that he is too young to retire in 2022, the two faced accusations that they may have hatched a plot that would see Mr Kenyatta become prime minister and Mr Odinga president in future. The opposition leader, however, sought to dismiss the claims.
“Uhuru and I have never said we want to run for office in 2022, let alone somebody wanting to be president and another prime minister,” he said.
Were that to happen, it would signal a major realignment in the country ahead of the General Election, with Mr Ruto naturally leading the other faction in a do-or-die duel against the state machinery.
Mr Ruto is already locked in a tough political war.
His foot soldiers, like Nandi Senator Samson Cherargei and Aldai MP Cornelius Serem, say the DP’s political enemies are using the anti-corruption war to target professionals from the Kalenjin community in a plot to clip Mr Ruto’s wings.
“The reason these arrests are not genuine but political is because even the suspects of the NYS scandal have never been convicted. They are petty graft cases meant to settle political scores in order to block DP Ruto from State House come 2022,” Mr Serem claimed.
Mr Odinga however believes that no one is being targeted in the anti-corruption push.
“Was there theft at Kenya Pipeline? The answer is yes. And only those who were in charge have been arrested. Whether you are a Kalenjin or Luo carry your own cross.
"We were not there with you when you were cutting the deals. If you go to NHIF, Geoffrey Mwangi has been arrested because he was at the helm of the organisation, is he a Kalenjin? No. If you go to Kenya Railways, Atanas Maina was arrested, is he Kalenjin? No. I therefore find it cheap that anybody would want to say that his community is being targeted in the war on graft,” he said.
Members of Mr Odinga’s ODM party who have declared support for DP’s presidential ambitions have also found themselves on the receiving end with the party machinery baying for their blood.
“What we have said as a party is we do not want to talk about 2022 politics.”