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Uhuru-Raila handshake amounts to sweeping things under the carpet
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Kenya: Sweeping things under the rug (again)

15 March 2018 - 16:03

If you drew up a definitive dictionary of Kenya’s presidential election cycle since mid-2017, you would end up with a series of loaded phrases like ”tuko pamoja” (we’re together), “NASA hao” (seize them), ”open the server”, “accept and move on” and, as of last week, “the handshake.” 

A week ago today, the president of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta and former prime minister Raila Odinga (aka “the people’s president”), stunned the nation with, of all things, a handshake. 

It wasn’t just merely a handshake, of course. Uhuru and Raila were announcing the permanent cessation of hostilities. Since last year, Kenya has been in a state of political limbo as the princelings from two of Kenya’s most powerful families jostled and plotted for the presidency. Two presidential elections and repeat visits to the Supreme Court hadn’t been able to settle things definitively. In the end, a handshake before a battery of journalists and television cameras is all it took. 

For those with half-decent memories, the Uhuru-Raila rapprochement is not entirely without precedent.  President Mwai Kibaki and Raila also famously had to “shake hands” in 2008 to bring a tense and bloody presidential contest to an end. And here Kenya is, 10 years later, doing the same thing. 

There is no shortage of polite commentators congratulating Uhuru and Raila for resolving their differences (for now)

But there also cleared-eyed observers who understand the folly of Kenyans merrily marching behind Uhuru and Raila as they sweep the country’s historical problems under the carpet. As the Washington Post’s Nairobi columnist Patrick Gathara writes, “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,” Gathara argues.

As we’ve reported on this site, the violence that characterised Kenya’s 2017 election cycle claimed the lives of more than 100 people, 70 of them reportedly killed by the police. Never Again has also reported on the minors killed in post-poll chaos and put Kenyan authorities to task to bring the culprits to book. As a platform created to keep the memory of the victims of political violence alive, Never Again will never tire of reminding the powers that be that handshakes are not a path to lasting peace.

Lasting peace will only come when Kenya’s political leaders make a sincere effort to bind up old wounds, put in place systems to address the causes of injustice and inequality and, most importantly, make a commitment to never diving Kenyans along tribal lines.

Most Kenyans know that the Uhuru-Raila handshake amounts to nothing more than kicking the proverbial can down the road. It’s a political fudge that will reward a few and postpone Kenya’s much needed internal reckoning.  

Unlike in the past, the victims of post-poll chaos this time around aren’t being fooled by the optics.

Ernest Ngesa, who lost his child during the 2007/08 post-election violence, isn’t allowing the hoopla surrounding the handshake to distract him:

 “I was fighting very hard this year for something more. We say we’ve come together in spite of our differences, but this is the second time we’re hurting,” he told the New York Times.

Rachael Mwikali of the National Coalition of Grassroots Human Rights Defenders put it even more plainly:

“The country needs to have a dialogue, but the voice of the ordinary people hasn’t been raised,” she said, adding, “Sometimes, I feel when they’re calling for reconciliation, it’s only about their interests. And these are two men who are supposed to be looking after the country.”

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