Is the “Handshake” and its Spawn Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) a Smokescreen For Self-preservation Created by Those Responsible for Kenya’s Dysfunctional Politics?


By Washington Osiro

The second anniversary of the handshake heard (and seen) around the world is fast-approaching and I am still trying to figure out what the March 9, 2018 act of supposed rapprochement between the two former antagonists Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga accomplished. 

What has the “Handshake” achieved thus far? 

What of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI)? What (initiative/s) have Kenyans seen as a result of the reported KSh.10B spent cobbling together the one hundred and fifty-six paged document titled “Building Bridges to a United Kenya: From a Nation of Blood Ties to a Nation of Ideals?

Has it allowed a critical mass of Kenyans to wake up each day with a renewed sense of patriotism, purpose, and optimism – about their country, fellow citizens and their collective future – or has it created a tenuous sense of peace and stability? 

Did the event unify these same Kenyans around a common vision as articulated by its principals, or did it replace one bogeyman – Raila Odinga – with another – William Ruto – also as articulated by the event’s principals?

My take: At best, the détente between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga remains a mixed bag. 

At worst, the “Handshake” absolved persons DIRECTLY responsible for the actions that necessitated the national act of pause and recalibration. It did this by re-directing focus on Jubilee’ umpteenth version of the “war against corruption” AWAY from Uhuru Kenyatta’s wing of State House towards William Ruto’s wing of what was sold to Kenyans as a co-equal power-sharing coalition – of former crimes-against-humanity suspects. So while the initiative lowered the political temperature between the two doyens of Kenyan politics, it upped the rhetorical heat between the country’s dynasties (Uhuru/Raila) and its upstarts (Ruto) – in direct contradiction of Chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7 of the initiative’s charter document. The “Handshake” brought about “peace and stability” to the country without addressing the issues at the core of the animus between Kenya’s various factions thereby underscoring the first half of Baruch Spinoza’s adage. The Jewish-Dutch philosopher warned that “Peace is not the absence of war”.

Yes the 2017/2018 protests and ensuing violence AGAINST the protesters that marked Jubilee’s first term in office have dissipated some; bottled up by the handshake – but the operational and cautionary expression remains “bottled up.” This is NOT the first time that participants in Kenya’s contentious electoral politics have reconciled or rallied around a singular leader, signed a MoU (memorandums of understanding), or swore “Never again” (to ethnic-induced violence). They have offered these public acts of brotherhood only to turn around and curl these platitudes into fists of fury amidst acrimonious xenophobia, name-calling, and accusations of betrayal. It is this progression that instructs my skepticism over the much-ballyhooed “Handshake” – because now as in the past, the fundamental bones of contention are being papered over and one bogeyman (WSR) is replacing another (RAO). These concerns dovetail with the second and more worrisome part of Spinoza’s quote:

That peace is the presence of “…..virtue based on the strength of character.” 

Seen in this light, the “Handshake” and its spawn “BBI” have not achieved much unless one sees the now-exposed cesspool of grand malfeasance across Jubilee as the aeration of an abscess that’s been left untreated by an irresponsible or clueless patient; aeration that allows the boil that is an infinitely corrupt and ineffectual Kenya to begin healing. 

It has not achieved “virtuous” leaders with the strength of character to resist the seductive allure of power.

Not Uhuru or Raila or Ruto. 

And given the recent attempts at tilting the scales of Lady Justice in favor of the impeached Governor of Nairobi Mike “Sonko” Mbuvi, it has not achieved Albert Einstein’s definition of “peace,” i.e., the “pervasive presence of justice of law.” 

Mahatma Gandhi offered that “peace…is the ability to cope with conflict.” I have reservations about this definition of peace – because “coping” speaks to “forbearance,” in this case of societal discomfort and conflict – even though persons directly responsible for causing the discomfort and conflict are known to most yet are not held accountable. It thus looks like Kenyans have indeed “settled,” i.e., “Bora uhai’d” for a most inept and corrupt leadership and government. 

Finally, the current “order” the “Handshake” has occasioned is a deceptive and tenuous one – that will be tested circa 2022 – when Kenyans line up to choose who replaces Uhuru as the carver of the turkey that is “matunda ya uhuru.” 

Control of the national cake/treasury IS the issue that has fueled Kenya’s violent politics. 

It was responsible for the ethnic antagonism/national disturbances that precipitated the events of 2007/2008; antagonism that now appears to be pitting Uhuru and his base against Ruto and his base – even as one side feels entitled and the other side believes it has been hoodwinked.

This is a dangerous turn of events because one of the goals of the “BBI” is to address ethnic antagonism and competition (Ch. 4). As evidenced by the rhetoric between the proxies of the two erstwhile “brothers,” the initiative has failed to do that and the country’s institutions, especially the judiciary, have only provided legal cover for the incumbent’s many misdeeds especially when push comes to shove – as Miguna Miguna found out – and Sonko was poised to find out until the executive signaled its preferred outcome.

I cannot stress enough Macharia Gaitho’s warning in his November 2017 piece titled “Only urgent dialogue will save country from the fire next time”. This is a reality that is gathering momentum with the aforementioned acrimony between supporters of the former “digital duo.”

Seemingly emboldened by the “Handshake,” Uhuru Kenyatta and his supporters are now trying to side-line William Ruto and his supporters but the likes of Oscar Sudi and Kipchumba Murkomen and their supporters don’t appear ready to go quietly into Kenya’s political night/darkness. As foreboded in Gaitho’s article, unless the “Handshake” allows Kenya and her leaders to have a serious AND sustained national conversation about the ideals bullet-pointed in the governing document delivered to Mr. Kenyatta on October of last year, the country may “…..implode…..come 2022 elections, when one side that retains the credible threat of an irregular ethnic militia realises it has been conned…..” out of the Number One position – by the same side that has conned numerous sides throughout Kenya’s history – of the same.