NAIROBI – A surprise handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga has stirred up Kenyan politics as the long-time rivals set their sights on the 2022 elections.
Less than a year since Kenyatta was re-elected to a second and final term in a vote that Odinga called a farce, the two shook hands on March 9 after weeks of secret talks. A warm embrace at a golf tournament followed later.
They said their rapprochement would mean an end to the violence, bitterness and political instability that followed last year’s elections.
But observers say the handshake signalled that Kenyatta and Odinga, who is also in the sunset of his political career, want to join forces so they can influence what happens next.
They say that it may show that Kenyatta intends to ditch a deal to appoint William Ruto, who is his deputy president but comes from a different ethnic group, as his successor. Kenyatta has said he still backs Ruto.
For Odinga, it shows he feels he has more bargaining power for himself and his Luo ethnic group as Kenyatta’s partner.
“Everybody has had to go back to their drawing board and decide how they are going to run in 2022,” said Ngunjiri Wambugu, a lawmaker from Kenyatta’s Jubilee party, a political alliance between his Kikuyu ethnic group and Ruto’s Kalenjin.
“This pact between Kenyatta and Odinga has redefined the race.”
Political victory in a country of 45 million with 44 ethnic groups is usually forged through ethnic alliances. Since independence in 1963, Kikuyu and Kalenjin have dominated government.
The two groups clashed after disputed elections in 2007, in violence involving many tribes that left 1,200 Kenyans dead. They were united ahead of the 2013 vote by Kenyatta in his Jubilee alliance.
The Luo and other groups have often felt excluded by central government and made their own NASA alliance, led by Odinga.
Tensions between the Kikuyu and Luo groups contributed to a dispute between Kenyatta’s father and the founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, and his vice president and Odinga’s father Oginga Odinga, in 1969. That set the stage for years of bitter rivalry between the two powerful families.
The last staged handshake between Kenyatta and Odinga was shortly after the 2013 election when Odinga accepted defeat.
For now, the rapprochement has calmed fractured politics that has also disrupted the economy and put off investors. Odinga called off a months-long boycott by opposition lawmakers of all government business, including vetting Kenyatta’s ministers.
When they shook hands last month, the men said they plan to set up a joint office to be led by loyalists from both sides to “preach reconciliation” across Kenya.
But few observers believe the truce will resolve the deep-seated ethnic tensions as Kenyatta and Odinga have promised.
“Unless there is substance put into the handshake, it’ll be a lost opportunity,” said Maina Kiai, human rights campaigner.
“Anger in the country has not been dealt with.”
Cases linked to the violence after the 2007 election against Kenyatta and Ruto at the International Criminal Court in The Hague collapsed.
The police killings of opposition supporters that marred both the August election and the re-run in October that took place after the Supreme Court annulled the initial poll are also still fresh in Kenyan minds.
The Jubilee alliance was also forged on the premise that the populous Kikuyus and Kalenjins would stick together to lock out Odinga or other opposition challengers.
The Kalenjins may be upset if Kenyatta does not let Ruto take the helm of the alliance with a view to the presidency in 2022.
Ruto declined requests for an interview but his allies dismissed suggestions that his presidential prospects have taken a knock.
“Those are people who don’t know William Ruto. He is a very strategic and experienced politician,” said national assembly majority leader Aden Duale.
The 73-year-old Odinga, a former prime minister, has run unsuccessfully for president four times and is not expected to run again. A spokesman for Odinga declined to comment.
But bringing him closer to the centre of power could cause upset on both sides.
“Jubilee should be cautious so that Raila does not mess it ahead of 2022,” Kithure Kindiki, Jubilee’s deputy speaker in the senate, was quoted by local media after the handshake.
Odinga’s fellow opposition coalition parties are also unhappy, with several accusing him of betrayal.
If Odinga can bring Kenyatta the support of his formidable political base, he may not be as reliant on Ruto and can talk to other political leaders.
Kenyatta could also turn to Gideon Moi. The seasoned politician and senator from the sizeable Kalenjin community is the son of former President Daniel arap Moi, who made Kenyatta his protege.
“Kenyatta has pulled the classic divide-and-rule move of the cunning president, creating as many potential alliances as possible in order to avoid empowering any one successor,” said Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham.
“This will help him to manage Gideon Moi, William Ruto and others with their own presidential ambitions.”