In 2007, I used to travel to Ethiopia frequently, as one of a number of international observers monitoring the trial of more than 20 members of the Ethiopian opposition, who were facing charges of treason and genocide.
The defendants included the leader, at the time, of the Ethiopian opposition, Hailu Shawel, who has since died.
From the large number of people on trial, some of them in absentia, to the choice of the charges against them and the curious venue of the case – a godown in Addis Ababa’s industrial area – it was clear from the beginning that this was no more than a show trial, through which the country’s strongman, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, wanted to score a victory that he had found elusive at the elections.
In 2005, Ethiopia held an election for seats in both its House of People’s Representatives and in regional government councils, during which Zenawi came under international pressure to allow the flourishing of democracy by holding free and fair polls.
In the election, Ethiopia’s fractious opposition came together to form the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), for which Shawel became the candidate against Zenawi.
While early results showed the CUD held a big lead, and was on its way to winning a majority in the national parliament, that is as far as it got, before disputes rocked and badly disrupted the electoral process, with ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and the opposition CUD claiming victory.
It took another five months of disputes and boycotts before the National Elections Board of Ethiopia released the final results, which indicated a substantial victory for the ruling EPRDF.
There were countrywide protests over the results which turned violent when the police opened fire on protesters, killing more than 200 people in Addis Ababa alone.
Thereafter, Shawel was put under house arrest and then tried.
Before he fled the country, a judge who served as deputy chairman of an official inquiry into the riots, characterised the violence as a massacre by the Ethiopian state against its citizens, contradicting the official version that the riots were the result of opposition activities.
While in custody, Shawel reportedly went on a hunger strike, worsening his medical condition.
My trips to Ethiopia came to a sudden end when the Federal Supreme Court pardoned all the CUD members, including Shawel, after they pleaded guilty and made public apologies.
There emerged claims afterwards that their pleas and apologies were coerced.
In many quarters, Shawel’s capitulation was met with anger and came to be seen as a betrayal of the cause of Ethiopia’s opposition.
I could not help remembering what happened in Ethiopia after the surprise handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga, now “the people’s president”.
Like his opposition counterpart in Ethiopia, Odinga has created doubts in the minds of a large number of his supporters, with some of them seeing this as an act of betrayal on his part, similar to what happened in Ethiopia.
While there are similarities with Ethiopia, there are also important differences, all of which will determine how the moment between Odinga and Kenyatta will ultimately come to be viewed.
First, the relative positions of the government and the opposition in Ethiopia were different from what exists in Kenya.
Zenawi orchestrated things from a position of incumbency that was not affected by term limits.
His motivation for grinding the opposition to smithereens was to remain in power forever.
Kenyatta is in a different position as he has to retire in 2022.
As a result, whatever deal he makes with Odinga has to also take into account the fact that the two of them will be out of power in five years.
There are also important internal party dynamics resulting from the fact that Kenyatta has a limited term in office.
He has to remain mindful of where his deal-making places his party in the competition in 2022, even though he will not be a candidate.
Unless he wants to hand victory to the opposition, there are concessions he would try not to make, even to Odinga.
Second, at some point, health becomes a factor in politics.
At the time of his release, Shawel had suffered poor health, and was effectively left with choosing to die in prison or accepting freedom in order to save his health.
If Odinga manages his health well, he can remain an effective participant in determining the post-Kenyatta outcome in the country’s politics.
Third, the handshake between Kenyatta and Odinga came with vague promises of reforms and reconciliation.
The success with which these promises will be pursued will be a key factor in how Odinga will get to be viewed, especially by his supporters.
If he can use the new relationship to ensure that grievances around State violence and electoral accountability are addressed, Odinga would have a basis for the position he has expressed that his decision was in the larger interests of the country.
Fourthly, in both Kenya and Ethiopia, the international community played an active role in getting the government and the opposition to reach a settlement.
In both situations, the government gave nothing in exchange for the painful concessions that the opposition made, and it seems that justification for the unreciprocated generosity by the opposition lies in the stability resulting from these arrangements.
While Zenawi and Shawel have since died, the postscript to their actions is the current political crisis that Ethiopia is facing, and which has led to the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and the declaration of a state of emergency.
The lesson here is that Kenyatta and Odinga will eventually leave the political scene, but unless these are addressed, the problems of Kenya will remain intact, and may come to haunt the country even after the two are gone.
While it may have been necessary, the handshake between Kenyatta and Odinga may be insufficient to save the country from problems of the kind that may have necessitated a handshake in the first place.