Raila’s big referendum gamble and aftershocks of his deal with Uhuru

Sunday October 14 2018

President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) and Opposition leader Raila Odinga welcome each other at Joseph Kamaru's funeral service at Muthithi Secondary School in Murang'a on October 11, 2018. PHOTO | PSCU


A “handshake” is an ordinary gesture of friendship but, in politics, it also denotes a break from past political hostilities.

For Raila Amolo Odinga, the handshake has, over the decades, also signalled a political game-changer, which is why pundits are asking — will his handshake with President Uhuru Kenyatta on March 9 similarly alter Kenya’s political landscape?

Over the decades, Mr Odinga has used the “handshake” with political rivals to re-engineer himself politically. This time round, he has warmed up to Mr Kenyatta, with whom he has twice fought vicious battles at the ballot for the presidency — first in 2013 and again in 2017.


Handshakes occasionally drive constitutional changes and debate is ongoing over an anticipated referendum.

Speaking on Friday at a function in Bungoma County attended by Deputy President William Ruto, Ford-Kenya leader Moses Wetang’ula pointed out that referendums should be an initiative of the people and not leaders who want to resurrect themselves politically.


Dr Edward Kisiang’ani also doubts Mr Odinga’s political acrobatics will this time round bear fruit: “To begin with, he appears unclear on what he wants in the referendum. What we are seeing is a man who wants to put clauses in the constitution to secure his personal interests, and this may not resonate well with Kenyans.”

Describing the referendum path as a difficult one for Mr Odinga to realise his ambitions, the Kenyatta University lecturer singles out the first headache for the pro-referendum crusaders as “the crisis of agreeing on a simple and precise referendum question able to capture all their desired changes”.


However, political scientist Mutahi Ngunyi describes the ODM leader as the grandmaster of politics of change: “No one can smell change as freshly as Raila does. And that is why we cannot argue with him over the referendum. If Raila says it will happen, it will surely happen”. Mr Ruto, who has vehemently opposed the referendum, for instance, curiously shifted gears on October 6 in support of the plebiscite. But come Friday, he made an about-turn, terming the referendum debate “idle talk.”

So far, two MPs, Joshua Kuttuny (Cherang’any) and Kassait Kamket (Tiaty), have separately proposed the creation of a Prime Minister’s position.

Handshakes, sometimes leading to referendums, have a history of realigning the political scenario in Kenya, hence the resistance and cautious approach by some to the Kenyatta-Odinga handshake. With just nine months left before exiting office, President Daniel arap Moi, for instance, wooed Mr Odinga to the ruling party, Kanu.


In a political marriage consummated on March 18, 2002, Mr Odinga’s National Development Party (NDP) entered into a merger with Kanu. This particular “handshake” momentarily disoriented the political equation in the country, with Opposition forces labelling Mr Odinga a traitor.

However five months later, the then Langata MP engineered a revolt from within, leading to a major walkout of Kanu political heavyweights, including Vice-President Prof George Saitoti. Mr Odinga’s next “handshake” was when he buried the hatchet with Democratic Party leader Mwai Kibaki. He followed through with his famous “Kibaki Tosha” declaration at Uhuru Park on October 14, 2002, thereby signalling the end of the independence party’s four-decade hold on power.


The Uhuru-Raila handshake has received support and resistance in equal measure. Backers of the DP are particularly vocal about their reservations. Mr Kipchumba Murkomen, for instance, claims the handshake has accorded Mr Odinga an opportunity to play politics and lobby for his personal interests.

Murkomen’s sentiments sum up the resentment within the Ruto camp of the Kenyatta-Odinga led Building Bridges Initiative. Politicians allied to the DP are concerned that the handshake could disrupt Jubilee’s Kenyatta succession plan. Mr Ruto claimed while on a tour in Mombasa that Mr Odinga was taking advantage of the unity deal with President Kenyatta to further his personal agenda: “The handshake is not a licence for you to bring confusion, propaganda and con man-ship into our party,” he said in reference to the ODM party leader.

This view is shared by Mr. Wetangula, an Odinga ally-turned foe, who opines, like many others, that the referendum is geared at creating positions for certain individuals, including the former Prime Minister.


Ngunyi argues in his latest online political analysis that young nations like Kenya cannot build nations, “they can only be built by individuals. Therefore creating a position for Raila so that he can build our nation is perfect with me”. What is more, the political analyst observes; “If Uhuru and Raila support the referendum, nobody can change it”. Mr Ngunyi regards the referendum avenue as a win-win situation for Kenyans in inspiring patriotism and realising an all-inclusive government.

Previous plebiscites have similarly influenced political events ahead of General Elections. The 2005 referendum pitting the Orange and Banana sides, led to the formation of the Orange party. Spearheaded by Mr Odinga, ex-Vice President Musalia Mudavadi and Mr Ruto among others, the party ran an electrifying campaign in which many believe they won the chaotic and discredited 2007 presidential polls.

The 2010 plebiscite, five years later, Mr Ruto went against the tide by leading campaigns against enactment of the Constitution. Although Mr Ruto’s “No” campaign team lost by 30 per cent against 67 per cent of the “Yes” team that included President Kibaki, Mr Odinga and Mr Kenyatta, the then-Eldoret North MP emerged the biggest beneficiary as it accorded him opportunity to exhibit his mobilisation skills and build a solid support base in his Rift Valley backyard. The referendum thus helped him to position himself ahead of the 2013 polls.


Even before the next planned referendum, Mr Kenyatta is already enjoying fruits of the current handshake, for as his Jubilee party’s vice chairman Mr David Murathe observes, “Raila has accorded the President the much needed tranquillity in the country to enable him execute the ‘Big Four Agenda’ and secure his legacy”. As for Mr Odinga, so far there is nothing tangible he has individually achieved — a factor that makes him a target of mockery by some, including Ford-Kenya’s deputy party leader, Dr Boni Khalwale.

“Except for the few parastatal jobs he has lobbied for his relatives and kinsmen, Raila has given himself for misuse by the Jubilee administration. The embarrassing moment is soon coming when he will realise there is nothing for him,” says the former Kakamega senator.

But the National Assembly Minority Leader, John Mbadi, maintains that the handshake was not an exclusive idea for Mr Odinga to manipulate.


“The handshake is a product of Kenyans and our two leaders (Kenyatta and Odinga) out of their magnanimity, and after a lot of behind-the-scenes efforts, became candid with each over the need of healing this nation by bridging existing tribal and political rifts,” he says.

Mr. Mbadi, who is the ODM party chairman, defends the idea of altering clauses of the Constitution to create specific political positions. Noting that a referendum is a political process, Mbadi argues that if the process of addressing national cohesion and inclusivity, demands creation of certain positions, so be it: “The problem is not the creation of positions, but rather the personalisation of these positions.”

Speaking on Thursday during the burial of popular 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 out.