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In ‘Politics of handshake’ of Kenya, lie many lessons for Burundi



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I have been marvelling at how President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya has managed to sweet-talk his nemesis Raila Odinga, and other key opposition figures into backing his agenda, when odds of doing so seemed zero after his contentious re-election in October 2017.

Kenyatta was re-elected for a second term in controversial repeat polls boycotted by the opposition.

But on March 9, Kenyatta and Odinga emerged from Harambee House smiling to the cameras and vowing to “work together” in what became the “handshake”.

This statesmanlike gesture has stabilised Kenya and given Kenyatta “breathing space” to pursue his agenda and, if the “handshake” holds, his second and last term in office might end on a positive note.

As we marvelled at Kenyatta’s political-marksmanship, Ethiopia gave us Premier Abiy Ahmed who is freely breaking-bread with former opposition “enemies” and enacting reforms that were unthinkable a year ago.

But over in Burundi, the political crisis seemed to deepen with Pierre Nkurunziza’s government orchestrating the flop of the EAC Heads of State Summit that was set to discuss the Mkapa Peace talks report and issuing international arrest warrants for 17 former leaders, including former president Pierre Buyoya accusing them of assassinating former president Melchior Ndadaye in 1993.

The more I tried to make sense of the situation in the three countries, the more I was persuaded that they represent two historically contending approaches to governance in post-colonial Africa broadly: politics of tribalism, exclusion and dictatorship; and political inclusion and democracy.

The critical difference between the two is that in the first approach, political opponents are treated as “enemies” who should be stopped by all means possible while in the second, they are treated as worthy challengers protected by law.

The Kenyatta-Odinga handshake and Abiy reforms then is the counterpoint to the politics of treating political opponents as enemies while Nkurunziza’s re-embraces this politics.

Of course, the handshake is a short-term tactic to allow Kenyatta govern and we don’t know how reforms in Ethiopia will end but both symbolise the failure of tribal politics and dictatorship and a yearning for politics of accommodation that Nkurunziza is now dismantling in Burundi.

Almost all African countries have at one point or the other oscillated between these two approaches of exclusion and dictatorship and attempts at accommodation and democracy.

Unfortunately, for the better part of Burundi’s 56 years of Independence, merchants of ethnic politics and dictatorship have ruled the country; but the good news is that they have never managed to extinguish forces of democracy.

In the Independence struggles, Prince Louis Rwagasore, who was assassinated as premier before Independence and President Melchior Ndadaye represented the accommodative approach while presidents Michel Michombero, and Jean Baptist Bagaza represented the dominant counterpoint.

The Arusha Peace Deal signed after more than a decade of civil war was an attempt at reviving politics of accommodation and democracy.

At the moment, Nkurunziza is trying to return to the past by treating opponents as enemies and establishing himself as the “Eternal Supreme Guide”, a title given to him by his ruling CNDD-FDD party in March.

In effect, Nkurunziza is attempting to gain what his party failed to gain on the battlefield when it sued for political accommodation with its “enemies” in the absence of a decisive military victory in the 1990s.

Yet, while what Burundi got at Arusha wasn’t perfect and some criticised it for embracing politics of power-sharing based on ethnicity, its merit lay in the fact that it had the signature of the major protagonists in the country.

Undoing this consensus might keep Nkurunziza in power longer but won’t give him peace nor stabilise his country as the Ethiopian case, where the ruling party dominates, everything and the Kenyan cases illustrate.

Instead, what Nkurunziza’s approach will give him is sleeplessness; prolonged suffering for his people; wasting the country’s resources as security services hunt down political opponents while poverty grows worse.

The lesson in the handshake and reforms in Ethiopia for Nkurunziza and leaders like him then is that treating political opponents with respect not only liberates the person in power to do good for the country with minimal opposition but also saves the country from going to the dogs.

Christopher Kayumba is is a senior lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR, and lead consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd. E-mail: [email protected]; Twitter: @Ckayumba Website: www.mgcconsult.come

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