Uhuru-Raila handshake Kenya’s ‘Mandela Option’

Wednesday March 18 2020

On becoming South Africa’s president in 1994, after 27 years in political detention, Nelson Mandela did the unthinkable. In what came to be known as the “Mandela Option”, the anti-Apartheid icon unconditionally forgave his tormentors and opted for one term — to the dismay of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ and the world, but especially his African National Congress (ANC) cadres.


In 2017, Kenya was at tipping point after the disputed General Election, whose presidential vote was repeated after nullification of the incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory by the Supreme Court.

Some hardliners refused to recognise the Kenyatta presidency and even advocated secession. A clique would conduct a mock swearing-in of Opposition chief and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga as the “people’s president” on January 30, 2018.

With the economy on its knees and running battles between the police and youths in opposition strongholds claiming dozens of lives, the ship of State was being rocked and ethnic and regional divisions cut deep.

At some point, Mr Odinga and his Nasa coalition had run out of options and it was clear that President Kenyatta did not want to continue leading such an unstable country.

Then on March 9, 2018, “The Handshake” happened.

Kenyans woke up to the news of the truce between the two erstwhile political arch-rivals — President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga. In well-tailored business suits, the two wowed friend and foe as they stood on the steps of Harambee House shaking hands while smiling broadly. The ‘handshake’ would spawn the “Building Bridges Initiative”, whose aim is national unity.


Although the country did not erupt in jubilation but went into a guarded pleasant surprise, that was like a burning house being extinguished with water from Heaven. The high political temperature, then at near-boiling point, plummeted to the bottom. Political detractors and admirers and associates of both sides — Jubilee Party and Nasa — were amazed.

The ‘handshake’, which turned one last Saturday, is among the greatest political events of our time, for Kenya and Africa at large.

President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga might not readily know the implication of their action for Kenyan and African politics. From the perspective of an independent observer and fellow African, who witnessed the 2017 Kenyan elections, however, the two African statesmen have introduced a new lexicon into the continent’s politics: the “Kenyan Option”.

Just like the “Mandela Option”, this is the solution to the problem of winner takes it all in African politics, which usually leads to post-election crises and violence.

In recent elections held in Zimbabwe, DR Congo and Nigeria, for instance, all the losing candidates are yet to concede and some of the winners are not ready to accommodate the losers.

Analysts have dismissed many African democracies and elections as “lawful but illegitimate”. They say that although most Africans want democracy, an increasing number are looking to alternative autocratic meddlers, including foreign benevolent dictatorships.

Probably, many Kenyans do not realise the magic of the “handshake”. It became a catalyst for national unity, integration and cohesion as Kenyans divided along ethnic lines started seeing the need for urgent healing.


While the shilling gained value overnight, the stock market had, by March 16, stabilised as the economy was on an upward trajectory and investors were returning in droves. A day after the truce, the shilling gained against the dollar to trade at between Sh101 and Sh101.30.

It also accorded President Kenyatta time and space to focus on his “Big Four Agenda” legacy projects that touch on manufacturing, universal healthcare, affordable housing and food security. It has given a fresh impetus to the war against corruption, hitherto marred by political suspicion, accusations and sloppiness.

The bigger fruits of the ‘handshake’ can be seen in the pair’s hardcore supporters. On March 14, 2018, Embakasi East MP Babu Owino and his Starehe colleague Charles “Jaguar” Njagua buried the hatchet — having physically fought in late 2017 over the legitimacy of the Kenyatta presidency.

President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga have done what their fathers, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, could not — they dismantled a ‘dynastic’ feud dating back to their childhood days.

 The “Kenyan Option” should be introduced at the African Union Peace and Security Council and recommended as a mechanism for settling post-election disputes and crises as well as adopted as part of Nepad’s African peer review mechanism.

Chief Omeokachie is the minister (political/multilateral affairs) at the Nigeria High Commission, Nairobi. [email protected]