Uhuru-Raila’s big meeting and ‘madman’ theory of politics

Wednesday March 14 2018

President Uhuru Kenyatta

President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) and opposition leader Raila Odinga conclude a joint press conference at Harambee House on March 9, 2018, where they said they will cooperate with each other in the growth of the country. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
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Last week’s meeting between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga clearly caught several people on the Jubilee Party and Nasa coalition sides by surprise.

Going by the fury on social media, it seems the folks on Raila’s side took the meeting much harder, seeing it as a “betrayal”.

That’s understandable, given the acrimony of the election last year in which the two men faced off, claws and everything out, and Raila’s decision to go ahead with his controversial “swearing-in” as the “people’s president” in January.

There are many theories about how the two political leaders came to meet but a source close to Raila says that, among other things, both sides were under pressure to “give (visiting) US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson something concrete to take home” following a period when the Americans didn’t emerge smelling of roses from their positions during the elections.

TILLERSON FIRED
It seems Tillerson and allies actually needed something to save his job because, barely had he arrived back in the US than President Donald Trump sacked him.

Clearly, it required more than an Uhuru-Raila rapprochement in Nairobi to save his hide.

Yet, while some of that might be correct, it underestimates both Uhuru and Raila’s political gamesmanship.

The sense one gets listening carefully to fellows in the know is that the roots of that meeting were laid when the Kenya Supreme Court nullified the August presidential election, in which Uhuru had been declared winner. Raila had argued that he had been robbed of victory.

REPEAT ELECTION
The historic victory placed Raila in a very sweet place, and he is too shrewd to have risked his political capital by going into a repeat election in October unless he was 100 per cent sure of winning it.

The failure by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to carry out the reforms to sufficiently assuage Raila and Nasa before the repeat poll was a gift to them. They boycotted the poll.

That made Raila’s swearing-in inevitable. But since it was only a symbolic event, why did he go ahead with it?

The foot soldiers needed a swearing-in for closure and as a logical last chapter of the narrative that their side had been mugged at the polls.

In practical terms, though, it seems in the Nasa coalition there were pro-Raila voices who were sure that his deputy Kalonzo Musyoka wouldn’t show up.

Nor would co-principals Musalia Mudavadi or Moses Wetang’ula.

NASA'S FUTURE
This was an opportunity for, especially, people in Raila’s ODM part of the coalition, who were concerned that Nasa was becoming a political coalition yet it was meant to be an electoral coalition without life beyond the polls.

Raila’s swearing-in, and the fact that the rest of the co-principals failed to show up, effectively allowed the end of Nasa, and allowed him to pull away the more militant sections of the other principals’ bases.

But most importantly, it freed Raila to support someone totally different for 2022.

STRATEGY
Having not showed up for the swearing-in, despite commitments to do so, it seems Raila saw that it was logical not to consult the co-principals before meeting Uhuru.

In politics, like in war, sometimes it is good to do the “unthinkable”.

It throws your enemies off balance, as they can no longer reasonably predict what you might do next.

It’s a version of what Americans call the “madman theory”, linked with President Richard Nixon.

During the Cold War, Nixon and his hatchet men sought to make the leaders of rival communist nations think he was irrational and turbulent.

DONALD TRUMP

As a result, those leaders would then avoid provoking the United States, fearing an unpredictable American response.

In many ways, Trump has put the world in much the same place.

After the swearing-in, it should not really be surprising that Raila met Uhuru and will next make an equally dramatic decision for 2022.

For Uhuru, he just bought himself a lot of freedom in how he plays in the succession, despite the “written understanding” that he is to back his deputy William Ruto.

And all they had to do, really, was pose for a photo to achieve all that.

2022 SUCCESSION
The real genius of this is that it’s the hardline fringes of Nasa/ODM and Jubilee that are unhappy with the prospect of an Uhuru-Raila political love-in.

However, those extreme fringes are the most unlikely to strike an alliance even if it were negotiated in Heaven. Effectively, they have been orphaned.

But we speak too soon. More surprises could be on the way.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]