Africa

Letter from Africa: The handshake that left millions of Kenyans confused

Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Odinga and Mr Kenyatta shook hands to end a political standoff following last year's controversial election

In our series of letters from African journalists, Joseph Warungu reflects on the plight of supporters of Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga following his reconciliation last month with his bitter rival, President Uhuru Kenyatta.

One of the games I enjoyed a lot in my childhood was called "kauka" in Kiswahili, which roughly translates as "freeze".

The idea was, you would go about your normal business until your play partner shouted "freeze".

This command forced you to stop dead in the middle of whatever you were doing, and keep very still until your friend "unfroze" you.

The strategy was to catch you in an extremely awkward, embarrassing or uncomfortable moment, such as having your mouth wide open with houseflies hovering nearby.

Unfortunately some "froze" you, then forgot to bring you back to life.

This is what former Prime Minister Raila Odinga has done to his huge army of loyal supporters.

Although last month's public handshake signified a political truce between Mr Odinga and his arch-rival President Uhuru Kenyatta, and brought calm and a sense of relief in Kenya following last year's disputed elections, opposition supporters have been frozen since 9 March and are waiting for a sign from their leader.


Joseph Warungu:

Image copyright BBC Sema Kenya

"It's been eight months now and Mr Odinga is yet to unfreeze his supporters from the sexual abstinence. They've girded their loins, waiting for a sign."


Raila Odinga, whose supporters affectionately call "Baba", is a master strategist and an excellent political mobiliser.

An engineer by training, he also has a deep understanding of human systems.

He has after all been detained for years and spent time in exile for his tireless pursuit of democratic reforms, freedom and equality for Kenyans.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Odinga's fanatical supporters have made him a political force in Kenyan politics

He can rally millions to any cause and keep the momentum until his goal is achieved.

But he sometimes forgets to unfreeze his backers, either when the objective is achieved or when there is a sudden change of plan.

In mid-July last year, just a few days to the general election, he asked his supporters to freeze all sexual activity until after the election.

He was quoted in the local media saying: "All women should deny their husbands conjugal rights on the eve of voting. This will ensure that we wake up early to vote and remain vigilant until the results are tallied and announced… then you can have sex to celebrate victory."


Who is Raila Odinga?

  • Aged 72, son of Kenya's first Vice-President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga
  • Nicknamed Agwambo (act of god) by supporters
  • Trained as medical engineer in former East Germany
  • MP for Africa's biggest slum, Kibera, for 20 years
  • Plotted coup in 1982
  • Holds record for being Kenya's longest-serving detainee
  • Also for switching political parties - currently standing for Nasa

Raila Odinga - The man Kenyans either love or loathe


To many of his die-hard fans, the veteran leader's word is law.

So it is safe to assume marital beds were dead silent in large swathes of the country.

And we're talking many beds, given the fact that in the last three presidential elections since 2007, the opposition leader officially managed to win almost half of the total votes cast.

In the controversial August 2017 election, victory didn't come as anticipated, and he boycotted the repeat election in October, arguing that without certain key reforms in the electoral system, there was no prospect of a credible poll.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Odinga's opposition colleagues were unaware that he was mending fences with President Kenyatta

So it has been eight months now and Mr Odinga is yet to unfreeze his supporters from the sexual abstinence. They've girded their loins, waiting for a sign.

He also successfully mobilised his supporters to boycott the repeat election and they dutifully obeyed.

One week after Mr Kenyatta was declared winner of that second election, Mr Odinga announced a plan of economic boycott reminiscent of that against apartheid South Africa.

He named three prominent companies, among others, that his supporters should resist, including the dominant mobile phone operator, Safaricom.

He saw this as a safe way for his people to challenge Mr Kenyatta's legitimacy.

Five months later, some of his supporters are still resisting the products and services of the targeted companies, waiting for a sign to stop the boycott.

Confused supporters

And now there's the famous handshake of peace between Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga, which both presented as a symbol of unity.

The handshake was frozen in time in newspapers around the world, but opposition supporters were left somewhat confused.

Should they also have been shaking hands with their neighbours who support the governing Jubilee Party?

What about those who had lost loved ones in the election violence - how do they shake off their pain?

The other three leaders of the opposition coalition National Super Alliance (Nasa) were caught by surprise when they saw Mr Odinga on the steps of the president's official office with Mr Kenyatta in toe.

They didn't get the warning that it was time to embrace the government that they had been fighting.

One assumes the three are now walking about sexless, powerless and Odinga-less.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Miguna Miguna (L) played a key role in the swearing of Mr Odinga as "peoples' president"

Of his many supporters, one man has especially suffered.

Miguna Miguna, an abrasive and vocal lawyer and a self-styled "General" of the National Resistance Movement (NRM), an initiative launched by Nasa to oppose Mr Kenyatta's presidency, has been targeted with arrests, detention and deportation.

Mr Miguna took part in the mock swearing-in of Mr Odinga as the "peoples' president".

"General" Miguna, who holds dual Kenyan and Canadian nationality, has twice been forcibly banished from Kenya with authorities saying he is now a citizen of Canada.

The government has said that Mr Miguna is not a citizen of Kenya and will have to apply to obtain the privilege.

He too didn't get the sign from Mr Odinga that things have changed and that all "officers" of the NRM should be "decommissioned".

He's now fighting a lonely battle in the immigration "bush" to be allowed back into the country.

Indeed Mr Odinga's supporters are still waiting for a sign about the true meaning of his now famous handshake with his erstwhile political nemesis - was it done for personal or national interest?

Until they get an answer, they'll remain frozen.


More from Joseph Warungu:

Inside the gated communities of WhatsApp

Bible-bashing for votes in Kenya

Should degrees be necessary for leaders?

How to stop exam cheats

Kenyans beg for mercy


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