Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga mark the second anniversary of their political truce, known as the “handshake”, on March 9, as they try to popularise their constitutional reforms agenda in the Rift Valley stronghold of Deputy President William Ruto.
A public rally that was meant to drum up support for the constitutional reforms proposed by the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) taskforce in Eldoret this weekend, was cancelled, and another is planned for March 21 in Nakuru, to avoid the possibility of confrontation between the deputy president’s supporters and those of Mr Odinga.
Before the cancellation, politicians allied to Mr Ruto had ramped up their rhetoric against the rally, especially taking issue with the expected presence and role of Mr Odinga.
The hostility towards Mr Odinga’s presence was shown last Saturday at the BBI rally in Meru, central Kenya, when Mr Ruto’s lieutenants—Kipchumba Murkomen, a senator, and MP Moses Kuria—led a section of the crowd in a walk-out moments before Mr Odinga took to the podium.
Mr Odinga, the ODM party leader, has been the chief guest at BBI’s regional meetings so far held in Kakamega, Mombasa, Kitui, Narok and Garissa.
His stated official role at the rallies—hosted by county governors—is to receive memoranda from local leaders and pass them on to the BBI secretariat.
However, the pro-Ruto group says the rallies give Mr Odinga a platform to build support for his anticipated candidacy in the 2022 presidential race in which, until recently, Mr Ruto was considered the frontrunner.
President Kenyatta is completing his second term, and therefore not eligible to run. Although President Kenyatta has publicly declared his support for the reforms, he has so far kept away from the rallies. Mr Ruto’s camp have asked the president to attend the rally scheduled for March 21.
The Nakuru rally has sparked interest because, being in Mr Ruto’s backyard, it is seen as a watershed moment, and that whatever declarations are made there will signal the future of the ruling Jubilee Party as well as whether the president will support his deputy come 2022.
In 2013, the duo—then facing crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court related to their alleged role in the post-election violence of 2007 and 2008—chose Nakuru’s Afraha Stadium as the symbolic launching pad for their unlikely political alliance that would go ahead to win the election that year.
Politicians allied to Mr Ruto have in the past expressed fears of a return of ethnic hostility in the Rift Valley if the deputy president does not succeed President Kenyatta in 2022.
While on a tour of the county in January, the president admonished local politicians and accused them of “selling fear to the people of Rift Valley”.
“No one is happy when we have bloodshed after every five years. We won’t buy their intimidation. We have to ensure people live in peace,” said President Kenyatta, echoing the statements he and Mr Odinga made on March 9, 2018 when they shook hands.
The handshake has been credited with creating political stability in the past two years. However, the latest standoff over BBI in Rift Valley means the leaders still have their work cut out for them.