By now, anyone who lives in Kenya and is well appraised with the goings-on in the political sphere knows that the much hyped bipartisan talks between William Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza and Raila Odinga’s Azimio La Umoja One Kenya is nothing but a mirage – what the Supreme Court would call hot air – a false start to what was supposed to be the beginning of an important journey of national introspection.
Make no mistake. These talks, or even the talks about the talks (as happens in most scenarios before the talks-proper happen), were absolutely necessary, not because William Ruto or Raila Odinga would emerge victorious, but because as a country and a people, we would have started to learn or re-learn a practice which has become alien to us lately, the habit of talking to each other and not talking at each other or past each other. This is to say, the talks were always going to be difficult, and even before dwelling on what the outcome of the talks was going to be, the more important aspect was the talks for their own sake – because Kenyans need to know and see that no matter how difficult the road ahead appears, there will always be a glimmer of hope because political leaders are willing to converse.
However, going by what has transpired since the President and the former Prime Minister took turns addressing the nation on Sunday 2 April 2022, it is clear that we made one step forward and have now made two steps backwards, leaving us in a worse off place than we previously were. On the Kenya Kwanza side, brinksmen and women have dug their heels into the ground and declared that there won’t be any talks outside the ambit of Parliament, thereby limiting the scope of any talks to what can be dealt with legislatively. On the Azimio La Umoja One Kenya side, the ever growing and shifting list of demands and ultimatums started with a demand for talks about talks; to an ask for a process akin to the Koffi Annan-led mediation in 2008; and now to a requirement that any talks must include broader society – civil society, religious groups, trade unions, the student movement, social justice centers, and so on. This is not to demonize any of these asks and demands.
And now, Raila Odinga has promised a return to Maandamano post-Ramadan, and in the interim, he is carrying out town hall meetings, what he calls Barazas, where he says he intends to keep the people abreast as to what is transpiring between his side and Kenya Kwanza. Naturally, these gatherings, and the attendant statements released during the sessions, are meant to keep the fire under William Ruto’s feet burning, an act that doesn’t augur well for the talks since neither the Ruto side nor the Odinga side seem to be showing goodwill.
On 13 November 1974, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, popularly known as Abu Ammar, received a world famous standing ovation at the General Assembly of the United Nations, this after giving an electrifying speech seeking a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Much as that address, nicknamed the ‘gun and olive branch’ speech was outstanding in its entirety, there stood out three lines delivered in the tail end – from which the speech got its ‘gun and olive branch’ name from.
Attributed to the scholar Edward Said, who had Palestinian roots and worked as one of Arafat’s backchannels (and occasionally read Arafat’s speeches, and is said to have added the ‘gun and olive branch’ line into the speech), the three lines read, ‘‘Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand. I repeat: do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.’’
Granted, the situation between William Ruto and Raila Odinga cannot be equated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by any stretch of the imagination. But as students of history – who we must be as a people and who both Ruto and Odinga must be as leaders of their stature – we must always learn and borrow a leaf (possibly an olive branch) from those who’ve burnt in stronger fires than ours, so that both Ruto and Odinga should carefully listen to Arafat’s poignant words, and internalize them.
When Ruto and Odinga spoke to the nation separately, with Ruto opening an initial window for talks in Parliament, thereby resulting in Odinga calling off Maandamano Mondays and Maandamano Thursdays, the gestures from the two leaders were an equivalent of both of them ‘coming with an olive branch’. That, however, did not mean that they both weren’t holding a metaphoric ‘freedom fighter’s gun’, in the form of mass action for Odinga and overzealous state security agencies for Ruto – both of which (maandamano and state security) shouldn’t be used as caricatures for this metaphor but which unfortunately fit the bill in the context of our history.
This, therefore, is a call to William Ruto and Raila Odinga to stop bluffing, because the more they bluff, the higher the chances of each other’s olive branch falling.
Ruto and Odinga shouldn’t let each other’s olive branch fall.
For both their sakes and for the sake of Kenya.