NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenya’s top political rivals met Friday for the first time since last summer’s contentious presidential elections, a surprising turn after months of escalating tensions, and the start of what they called a jointly led push for national unity.
Odinga said: “The reality is, we need to save our children from ourselves.” He called Kenyatta “my brother,” and said the two had come together to bridge the country’s generations-old differences.
“We refuse to be leaders under whose watch Kenya slid into a failed nation,” he added.
Their remarks represent a significant turn of events, coming little more than a month after Odinga, who lost last year’s presidential election, swore himself in as the “people’s president.”
The government responded by shutting down television stations, arresting opposition politicians and deporting an opposition lawyer, defying court orders along the way.
On Friday, the two leaders released a lengthy joint statement lamenting, among other things, “a continued deterioration of relationships between ethnic communities and political formations” in Kenya and the “negative cycle” of insecurity and economic instability that has often followed the country’s elections.
The statement and the meeting, at the presidential offices in downtown Nairobi, marked an about-face in Odinga’s position.
He had repeatedly refused to recognize the legitimacy of Kenyatta’s presidency, and he had insisted that any dialogue between the two men would require discussion of yet another presidential election.
All of that now appears to be off the table.
“That is behind us; it was not even part of the conversation,” said Dennis Onyango, Odinga’s communications director. “These guys agreed the country needs to move forward. It’s not about elections — not the past election or the upcoming elections. That’s what they said, and that has been the spirit behind the discussions.”
“It’s a beginning,” he added.
The meeting happened just hours before Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was scheduled to land in Kenya for a three-day visit, though representatives for both men said the timing was a coincidence.
“It’s a Kenyan matter that Kenyan leaders are looking into,” said Manoah Esipisu, the presidential spokesman.
Kenyatta had reached out to Odinga “in the last few days” to request a meeting, Esipisu said, and there were no preconditions for the sit-down.
Salim Lone, an adviser to Odinga, said intermediaries for both men had been drafting a joint document but had kept the conversations strictly secret, including from the other three leaders of Odinga’s opposition coalition, fearing spoilers.
The resulting seven-page joint statement outlined nine key concerns, including corruption, security and electoral reform, and put Kenya’s recent political battles in a broader historical context. It said the country “appeared to be reliving the same divisive experiences” it saw at independence, and risked repeating “the same kinds of calamities” it has seen since, including a prolonged period of dictatorship and a more recent episode of deadly electoral violence, perpetrated largely along ethnic lines.
This was the first meeting between Kenyatta and Odinga since a presidential election in August set the country on an uncertain path. Kenyatta, the incumbent, won that contest, but the Supreme Court nullified the result, citing widespread irregularities. Odinga withdrew from a second presidential election in October, insisting it could not be free and fair.
An elections commissioner fled the country a week before the second vote, and the elections commission chairman said he had lost faith in the process, but it went ahead. With the opposition boycotting the polls, Kenyatta won 98 percent of the votes cast that day.
But Odinga refused to acknowledge Kenyatta’s win, and the opposition coalition he leads began organizing parallel local legislative processes and, in some parts of the country, talking about secession.
Onyango said those matters were not discussed at Friday’s meeting, which he said Odinga attended in his capacity as a “statesman.”
The opposition coalition, meanwhile, has begun to fracture, wedged apart by different views on Odinga’s alternative swearing-in and by internal competition over who should lead the opposition as it prepares for the 2022 election.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.