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Opinion Don’t believe the Kenyatta-Odinga handshake hype — Kenyans are still on their own

President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, left, with National Super Alliance leader Raila Odinga on March 9 in Nairobi. (Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)

A handshake outside Harambee House was all it took. Or so it seems.

Last Friday, a long-awaited and widely hailed meeting between Kenya’s two presidents — Uhuru Kenyatta, the president of the Republic of Kenya and Raila Odinga, the “people’s president” of the Republic of Kenya — held at Kenyatta’s office, has changed the country’s political dynamic, and has sparked a new round of political realignments among the country’s notoriously fractious elite.

Acolytes of Kenyatta’s governing Jubilee Party have belatedly rediscovered the nationalist credentials of Odinga. And Odinga’s opposition National Super Alliance is salivating at the prospect of making deals with an administration it had previously refused to recognize. A joint statement released by both men acknowledged Kenyatta as “president” (though Odinga could not bring himself to say it at the press conference) and proclaimed that all Kenyans are now “brothers and sisters.”

But has anything truly changed? Not really. The August election remains contested and the electoral system is a shambles; the police are still a partisan, brutal and corrupt lot, and justice for protesters maimed or killed by security forces still remains elusive; the state remains unequivocally colonial, and its destructive and tribalized politics are undiluted. A deal to make a deal between the two main protagonists was never going to magically fix any of this, but it has not stopped the merchants of “positivity” from declaring the dawn of a new era.

Kenya has been here before. Agreements between political foes have long substituted for real action to address the underlying, fundamental and systemic issues that ail our polity and turn elections in to death duels. Despite the 1997 Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group reforms, talks that led to the 2008’s National Accord and Reconciliation Act, and discussions in 2016 over the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, the credibility of our elections continues to be both disputed and a cauldron of violence and polarization. Essentially, deals between politicians end up satisfying their short-term ambitions while the people’s issues remain unaddressed.

Nothing exemplifies this more than the fate of the Agenda 4 of the 2008 National Accord talks. The accord — also announced with a Harambee House handshake — had four key planks, which included ending the violence that followed the 2007 election and addressing the political crisis that sparked it. The immediate humanitarian problems generated were also featured, as was Agenda 4, which was meant to address long-term “historical injustices.” Under this plank were issues such as constitutional reform, police reform, land reform, poverty, inequality, unemployment, national cohesion, accountability and impunity.

It is not be lost on most observers that the politicians were quick to address the portions of the accord that benefited them most — especially the political accommodations, which generated new jobs and offices they could occupy. It is how Kenya ended up with the infamous “nusu mkate” (half loaf) coalition government and a cabinet of more than 90 ministers. On assuming office, their first act was to set in motion what came to be known as the Maize Scandal, in which a sharp decline in domestic food supplies, particularly in the country’s staple, became a pretext for a $20-million subsidy scheme. PriceWaterhouseCoopers, who audited the program, suggested that is was “from the outset designed to fail and to provide a means for considerable financial exploitation at the expense of the state.” The scheme vastly enriched members of parliament, government officials and their relatives — and left a third of the population starving.

As for Agenda 4, apart from the enactment of a new constitution (which was no small feat, but also vastly increased the number of “eating” opportunities for politicians), it was mostly buried. The report by the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission died in Parliament. Police reform has been reduced to a few welfare issues, and land reform to issuing title deeds which have, in reality, functioned as a form of dispossession. Corruption, inequality and impunity still rule the land. Many recommendations of the Independent Review Commission (also known as the Kriegler Commission), meant to lead to more credible elections, remain unimplemented and only a handful of people have ever been prosecuted for the violence that left more than 1,100 Kenyans dead.

A similar substitution of politicians’ problems for those of the people is once more at play. The joint statement released by Kenyatta and Odinga blames “diversity” for Kenya’s problems, rather than the predation of a tiny elite at the helm of the colonial state. On the contrary, it posits that such predation — resulting in a situation where nearly two-thirds of Kenya’s economy is controlled by a tiny clique of 8,300 super-wealthy individuals — was merely a disagreement over “the best road to travel towards [a] commonly agreed destination”.

The statement incredibly elides the history of state-sanctioned and elite-driven ethnic antagonisms, preferring instead to see “a deterioration of relationships between ethnic communities and political formations.” Nowhere does it acknowledge the dozens of Kenyans killed by the state since August. In fact, it blames the citizenry for country’s problems, offering that “corruption and violence are the main characteristics by which Kenyans [rather than Kenyan politicians] are defined by the international community.”

To be sure, there are a few crumbs thrown our way. But even here, substitution persists: Promises to fight corruption are prefaced by a reminder that it is the citizens who are corrupt, rather than the victims of corruption; electoral reform is preceded by a rebuke to Kenyans who make too big a deal of electoral competition; and promises of aid for the hungry rather than addressing the systemic causes of chronic hunger. Tellingly, the joint statement concludes by promising to roll out a program to implement the “shared objectives” of Kenyatta and Odinga. Again, not those of Kenyans.

This is in keeping with the sorry history of Harambee House handshakes. So don’t believe the hype. Almost inevitably, the talks between the two presidents will be about solving their problems, not those of Kenyans.