President Uhuru Kenyatta has promised key electoral reforms to permanently exorcise the ghosts of post-election violence that have haunted all but one election since 1992.
On his first tour of Kisumu since last year’s divisive polls, made possible only because he and his political opponent Raila Odinga mended political fences through a March 9 détente, the President said it was appalling that electoral contests have destabilised the country in the past.
“We must examine whether our winner-takes-it-all approach to elections is a good or bad thing for the nation,” the President said. “We must then find ways to address it.”
This was seen as signalling constitutional changes as the law currently does not provide positions for runners-up in electoral contests.
It could also signal a change in the political system, as Mr Odinga has argued before, from a presidential to a parliamentary one, so that the choice of the head of state is not determined by tribal leanings.
The President, who was in Kisumu to launch a pilot of the universal health coverage programme, targeting the four counties of Kisumu, Isiolo, Machakos and Nyeri, told the crowd he had been “invited” by his “elder brother” Raila Odinga.
Mr Kenyatta also inspected the Sh7.6 billion Kakamega-Kisumu road works at the Mamboleo junction. He later had lunch with local leaders.
Deputy President William Ruto and opposition leader Kalonzo Musyoka accompanied the two leaders.
They defended the March 9 peace deal that ended months of political tension after the disputed August 2017 General Election, whose repeat Mr Odinga’s political bedrock of Nyanza boycotted.
Mr Ruto said he supported the handshake. The DP, initially accused of insulting the former Premier at rallies, referred to Mr Odinga as “Prime Minister” or “Baba”, the last reference made popular by Mr Odinga’s fan base.
At Ahero where the President launched a road interchange, Mr Ruto told a welcoming crowd that the political animosity between him and Mr Odinga was a thing of the past.
“We have agreed that any enmity we had between us in the past is buried. We are turning a new page of uniting all of us. We closed the chapter of elections last year,” he said, adding: “If you see Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga here, and me, the ‘Hustler’, standing between them, know everything is OK.”
Mr Odinga voiced the same sentiments, saying the handshake was not political but for the benefit of all Kenyans.
“It is here in Ahero where Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Jomo Kenyatta had their first handshake. We are now bringing our handshake to the grassroots and it will be purely for development purposes,” Mr Odinga said.
He added that he will never allow politics to derail the development agenda of the nation.
Mr Ruto kept his speeches short. He frequently referred to himself as the eldest son of ‘Baba’.
“As you have seen, my two bosses have already spoken; what more can I, The Hustler, add?” he asked.
He said the presence of three of the country’s topmost leaders in Kisumu testified to the country’s unity.
“We are now a team and we will continue working together,” Mr Ruto said.
As recently as two weeks ago, Mr Ruto accused Mr Odinga and his followers of taking advantage of the peace deal to undermine the Jubilee administration.
Earlier, Mr Ruto’s lieutenants had accused the government of using the war on corruption to target State officials who are believed to be allied to the Deputy President, or who come from his Rift Valley political base.
Mr Odinga responded by saying that the war was against individuals, not a community.
Mr Ruto’s last public visit to Kisumu, in July last year, was met with the occasional jeer as he tried to speak to a crowd that, ironically, wore Jubilee Party-branded T-shirts.
He has since avoided the region, although he visited Migori in November and was hosted by area Governor Okoth Obado.
Yet yesterday, the animosity with Mr Odinga appeared dissipated, as they hugged, held hands and laughed.
President Kenyatta will, together with Mr Odinga, be awarded honorary degrees by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology during a graduation ceremony today for their contribution to national peace following their March 9 handshake, which calmed post-election tensions.
Mr Odinga is expected to host Mr Kenyatta at his Opoda home in Bondo after the event.
Speaking at the Mamboleo showgrounds, where the pilot phase of the health programme in Kisumu was launched, the three leaders defended the handshake and vowed to rally the country towards peace and reconciliation.
They also took their anti-corruption campaign a notch higher, promising locals that the newfound friendship between them will remain.
“If you are corrupt, you are so as an individual and not your whole community. We will jail you irrespective of the ethnic group you represent,” Mr Kenyatta warned.
The first day was dotted with extreme excitement despite pockets of jeers directed at Mr Ruto.
The overriding tone throughout the journey was reconciliation. In their speeches, the three leaders, though supportive of national unity, steered clear of perceived political injustices.
The chaotic aftermath of last year’s General Election made the disdain against the central government even worse here.
Some human rights groups claim up to 26 people may have been killed by the police in the short period of sporadic violence. Police deny the claim.
Mr Odinga came closest to addressing these feelings of disdain against President Kenyatta’s administration, telling the locals that they should support his Building Bridges Initiative with the President in order to solve the problems affecting the region.
During the tour, protocol was also shelved as Mr Odinga spoke and invited the President on more than one occasion.
Mr Kenyatta landed at the Kisumu International Airport aboard a Kenya Air Force plane at 11.15am. He was received by Mr Odinga, his host.
Also at the airport was Mr Ruto, Wiper party leader Kalonzo Musyoka and a host of Cabinet secretaries, governors and MPs.