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The essence and impact of handshake politics in Kenya

Sunday May 20 2018

Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga

President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition chief Raila Odinga at Harambee House on March 9, 2018. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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The handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga has left the majority of Kenyans quite guessing its essence and consequences more than two months later.

This is not surprising. Since the country’s independence, Kenyan politics has had many twists and turns, making its course very difficult to predict accurately.

Perhaps that is why it has always attracted varied interpretations from scholars, politicians and the ordinary citizen. For example, the political scientist Bruce Berman in his book, Control and Crisis in Colonial Kenya: The Dialectics of Domination, has argued that the colonial state hardly managed to resolve the governance contradictions which confronted it, a failure which led to their departure after a handshake with the new African leaders.

Continuing with Berman’s narrative, Daniel Branch has analysed the complexities of nation-building efforts in independent Kenya in terms of a precarious balance Between Hope and Despair. Wanjiku’s concerns about her fate remain muted by the cacophony from her own leaders.


The handshake can be explained in terms of politics generally and the politics of nation-building, in particular.


Politics is the resolution and management of conflict in the formulation and pursuit of social and economic goals: Who gets what and how. Political leaders, therefore, make tactical calculations of the ways and means by which resources should be effectively mobilised and authoritatively allocated. This implies that politics has two dimensions: The realist struggle for power to capture the state and use it to mobilise and distribute resources to one’s own supporters and the utopian or ideal desire to build an equalitarian nation-state.

In the context of Kenya’s neo-liberal ethos and practice, politicians struggle for power through unfair and predetermined electoral process which invariably threatens to tear the fragile country apart.

This is because Kenya’s state institutions, including the IEBC, are not equal to the task. This led to the widespread belief that the 2017 presidential election was manipulated in favour of Jubilee.


Although Uhuru won the presidency his victory was pyrrhic. He soon realised that reliance on the State’s coercive powers alone was not sufficient to ensure that the country remained united and peaceful.

He required more genuine legitimacy to be able to exercise control and to foster social and economic development. Similarly, Raila found out that his swearing-in as the people’s president, without the support of established State institutions, would only exacerbate divisions in the country.

The handshake was, therefore, a shift by the two leaders from the political realism of vicious power struggle towards the idealism or utopianism of nation-building. The crucial question at this point is whether the two leaders’ handshake will succeed in striking a balance between political realism and idealism.

E.H. Carr, the International Relations historian, once made the following comment in his criticism of the League of Nation’s idealist role in the post-First World War peace efforts: “The complete realist unconditionally accepting the causal sequence of events deprives himself of the possibility of changing reality.


The complete utopian (read idealist) by rejecting the causal sequence deprives himself of the possibility of understanding either the reality which he is seeking to change or the process by which it can be changed. The characteristic vice of the utopian is naivety; of the realist, sterility”. Carr appears to suggest the necessity of a balance between the two extremes.

The crucial questions which we can pose with regard to the two leaders’ handshake are the following: Did they accurately interpret the events which have usually led electoral and other crises in Kenya to strike a balance between realism and idealism? Will the handshake lead to lasting solutions to the persistent problems in Kenya? Already Kenyans are divided over these issues.

Many people have wondered whether due to the non-inclusive and participatory nature of the handshake, the country’s fortunes should be left in the hands of two individuals. Further, many Kenyans are wondering whether the two leaders, through the handshake, are primarily concerned about their own interests: Uhuru about his legacy and Raila his relevance in 2022.


These concerns are important and must be addressed. First it should be admitted that prominent individuals are capable of playing major roles that have positively changed the history of their countries and Uhuru and Raila may not be exceptions. Where it has happened, this has depended on the leaders’ ability to interpret situations in their country and the world accurately.

It has also depended on their political will to bring about change. It has further depended on their innovativeness and mobilisation of popular support for their cause. History is replete with such individuals across countries and centuries. Let us hope that our two leaders fit the bill.

In the short run, the handshake may have negative consequences on Kenya’s institutions. For instance, now that the two major political parties are working together, the fate and role of the Opposition are challenged. Who will keep the government in check? Will the political process lead to the evolution of two strong parties with alternative ideologies as in Britain and the United States of America, to facilitate a meaningful electoral “swing of the pendulum” in changing our leaders and policies?


Secondly, the handshake is bound to impact negatively on Parliament. Whilst it has weakened Jubilee MPs who always benefited from their tyranny of numbers, its overall impact will further weaken the August House as actual policy making initiatives now vest in the hands of the two leaders and the committees they appoint. Finally, the handshake will lead to a spirit of reconciliation which will weaken oversight institutions like those in charge of anti-corruption. Some corrupt individuals will take advantage of this reconciliatory spirit and atmosphere to engage in unprecedented acts of impunity. But since politics is the art of the possible, let us give the handshake a chance.

 Prof Ndege teaches history at Moi University. Email: [email protected]