For historians who engage in the study of the post-colonial or post-independence, soon they will also have to contend with the ‘post-handshake period’. Despite all the current uncertainty with regards to the mechanics of it, many (myself included) will be hopeful that the post-handshake era will mark the beginnings of a turning point for Kenya.
Many Kenyans heaved a collective sigh of relief that fateful day in March, when President Kenyatta and Hon Raila Odinga took to the steps of Harambee House to symbolically bring an end to months of electoral hostilities. Not necessarily because we were under some illusion that the handshake would immediately improve our lot, or miraculously transform our nation into a land of milk and honey, but more so because we have become too accustomed to the loss of life and property around political processes, and the country was seemingly in the midst of a political stalemate with no discernible solution in sight.
I recall soon after Jamhuri Day last year, writing in these pages that I had never seen nor imagined a Kenya so deeply divided. Yet divided we were, with positions from both sides of the political divide hardening with every passing day. In the throes of such deep-rooted division, with emotions running high, even the most sober-minded amongst us found our vision a little clouded, unwilling or unable to reason as we normally might.
As unexpected as the handshake may have been to many, it presents a unique opportunity. With the benefit of hindsight, and a measure of sobriety, it is clear that this may present an opportunity for us to begin necessary, and potentially difficult national discussions, with a view to exorcising our demons, once and for all. Surely, we cannot revert to hostilities every electoral cycle!
In the recent State of the Nation address, President Kenyatta struck a positive and encouraging tone. In his remarks, he asked that Kenyans forgive one another for ‘…the words, for the anger, and malice’ that were commonplace during the campaign period. Furthermore, he recognized the role that Hon Raila Odinga played in arriving at the decision to reconcile, and acknowledged the fact that all too often our politics is characterized the leaders actively ‘…manipulating our ethnicities to seize power, and exploiting it to avoid accountability’.
While these words are reassuring, it is the actions accompanying these words that will ultimately determine the extent to which the country can begin to walk a path of genuine healing and reconciliation. Over the last few days, an initiative to begin this hard work was announced, complete with the unveiling of a 14 member committee. Comprised of persons appointed by President Kenyatta and Hon Odinga, it must be remembered that there are numerous Kenyans beyond those two political formations, and that ‘…no one is more Kenyan than his brother or sister…and all deserve to be heard’, as stated by the President during his address. That being said, to the Building Bridges Initiative, we can and must wish them Godspeed! The country desperately needs them to succeed, where we have failed so many times before. It would be prudent for them to publicize their terms of reference at the earliest opportunity, to give Kenyans an opportunity to buy into the initiative, as well as to be able to hold both leaders and their teams accountable.
It must also be acknowledged that there are those who view the handshake with skepticism, and they are well within their rights to do so. Indeed, as they argue, true reconciliation is not about 2 people, nor does the handshake resolve all our problems. While this may be true, it must also be recognized that it is an important first step towards addressing the deep-seated wounds and historical injustices that serve to divide us during every electoral cycle.
We should not be naïve enough to imagine that the handshake will be a panacea for all that ails us, and the cycle of attendant bigotry and violence that besets every electoral process. By the same token, it would be foolhardy not to embrace the opportunity that the handshake represents: to honestly reflect and examine where the rain began to beat us and to begin to work together to ensure that we confine those troubles to the annals of history.
Personally, I choose to give the handshake a chance, to imagine and actively pursue a post-handshake Kenya where we may not all belong to the same side of the political divide, the same ethnic group, or social class; where we will likely not agree on all issues; but will all jealously defend and ferociously pursue the stability and unity of our great nation.