"Forgive me.” Those were the two words that marked the climax of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s State of the Nation address on Wednesday as he used the annual event to make a call for Kenyans to unite in the wake of a divisive and fraught electioneering period last year.
“If there was anything I said last year that hurt or wounded you, if I damaged the unity of this country in any way, I ask you to forgive me, and to join me in repairing that harm,” asked the President, who was sworn in for a second term in January this year after months of bruising political campaigns and two elections.
His one-hour-and-22-minute speech was met with an eruption of handshakes in the joint sitting of Parliament, and used words and expressions that advanced the spirit of the conciliatory tone that has characterised his speeches since March 9, when he made a peace pact with opposition leader Raila Odinga at Harambee House in Nairobi.
Although he did not answer a lot of questions on what the pact means, particularly on the constitutionalism of proposals to create special posts for the two of them once his term ends, he spoke highly of Mr Odinga and described their unity deal as an exemplar of statesmanship.
“When he and I met earlier in the year, we agreed to work together to strengthen the unity of our country. We hoped to emphasise then that collaboration comprises both competition and disagreement. We did not immediately solve all Kenya’s most pressing problems, nor did we see eye-to-eye on every proposed answer; it is important to emphasise that unity doesn’t mean unanimity,” said President Kenyatta.
However, he criticised governors, saying immunisation had fallen from 90 to 70 per cent since the devolution of the bulk of healthcare services, but was less harsh on the Judiciary, which he asked to ensure the highest standards of integrity and to remember that inter-dependence unites the three arms of government.
His unity and reconciliation message echoed throughout the speech, which also urged restrained politics.
“Neither peace nor unity is a given; we have to work for them,” he cautioned. “I say so because last year taught us that if we don’t put an end to unrestrained political competition, it will put an end to Kenya. You saw what happened. In the heat of the campaign, words of anger, malice, and hatred were spoken. Politics was no longer a debate between opponents on issues; it was a clash of irreconcilable enemies.”
He noted the loss of lives in political duels – and some in confrontations with the police – as well as the destruction of property, and repeated the call that it should not be allowed to happen again.
“All of us, and in particular we leaders here, will have to admit that last year we failed in our duty to preserve the unity of this country. And we must make amends. First, I pray that all of us will spend the days and weeks after this address repairing the bonds that frayed last year. Let us apologise for our words, and for the anger and malice that Kenyans heard,” he said.
“From Mandera to Maseno, from Mbita to Mvita, from Lodwar to Lunga Lunga, let us shake hands and embrace our neighbours, and let us celebrate the diversity that is God’s gift to us.”
When he called for everyone to shake one’s neighbour’s hand, the lawmakers took the cue and he had to stop his address as there were handshakes all round.
Embakasi East MP Babu Owino, previously one of the most vicious critics of the Jubilee administration, grabbed the chance to make a statement. He was seated on the government side, three rows away from where the President stood, and passed four MPs, walked down the aisle to the front of the chamber, and gave President Kenyatta a vigorous handshake.
As he went back to sit next to Jubilee-nominated David ole Sankok, previously one of Mr Odinga’s harshest critics, the House was in stitches.
In the first half of the speech, President Kenyatta highlighted the achievements of his administration since he took power in 2013 and the steps he is taking to address the concerns of Kenyans.
On the establishment of efficient working county governments, President Kenyatta noted that some individuals have been fraudulently diverting public resources to benefit themselves.
He said his administration remains committed to supporting the county governments, pointing out that so far the national government has surpassed the 15 per cent threshold for resource allocation to the counties as provided for in the Constitution.
Urging Kenyans to join hands in the fight against graft, he said that, last year, ill-gotten public assets valued at about Sh500 million were recovered and civil proceedings instituted for the preservation and recovery of other assets valued at more than Sh6 billion.
“We must all come together to fight this vice if we are to conquer it,” he urged. “The Government and the private sector must report fraud and protect whistle blowers without the slightest hesitation.”