By Juma Kwayera
The Odinga family is synonymous with opposition politics, which has seen them isolated from the centre of power since independence. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s first Vice-President, was shunned by the Kenyatta and Moi regimes for what they deemed Marxist ideology.
Oginga Odinga stumped for the state being in control of the means of production. It was an economic model socialist countries like the USSR, China and Cuba, with whom incidentally Odinga had strong links, that created the impression that he was a Marxist. Communist countries, which wanted to have a foothold in East Africa, supported Odinga’s political activities before and independence, which had him marked in the West.
From his writings, this was more of a tactical approach to fighting enemies than an ideology. In his book, Not Yet Uhuru, he talks of a desire for economic empowerment of Africans through investments that yielded high returns.
“I was convinced that to start the battle against white domination, we had to assert our economic independence. We had had to show what we could do by our own effort we had had it drummed into us that the white had the brain to give orders and it was for Africans to carry them out. We had to show we are capable of enterprise and development in fields beyond our shambas (farms).”
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It is against this backdrop that he formed the Luo Thrift and Trading Company, which had investments in transport, farming, milling and export businesses. His investments were spread all over East Africa. To a man who pursued socialism, this was a contradiction.
However, what is not in doubt was his unswerving belief that all communities and regions in Kenya were entitled to equitable access to national resources. Such strong beliefs put him at loggerheads with Kenyatta, precipitating the 1969 riots in Kisumu during the president’s tour of Nyanza. Odinga had publicly criticised Kenyatta for neglecting the rest of the country, except Central Kenya.
Thereafter, Oginga Odinga spent stints in detention and under house arrest for embracing views the government of the day perceived to be treasonous, hence the communist tag.
The marginalisation of Odinga only helped to reinforce the herd mentality among his community and even after Daniel Moi succeeded Kenyatta, there was no respite for the man the media loves to describe as the doyen of opposition politics.
As Odinga marginalisation persisted, Raila arrived on the political scene. His university education in East Germany, the a communist state imbued him with radical Marxist principles that would later earn him the tag of a political activist who spent the longest time in detention for his revolutionary ideals. With the benefit of hindsight, it has never been clear whether Raila was really a communist or such a tag was inspired by fear.
He has never quite advocated for the overthrow of the government by the poor. Of course as any student of politics, he acquainted himself with writings of the ideologies of Karl Marx, Max Angeles, Josip Lenin and former Cuban president Fidel Castro, after whom he named his first-born son.
The height of Raila’s radical views was in 1982 when he took part in the planning of a military coup to oust Moi from power.
Over time and with the re-introduction political pluralism, Raila’s hard-line politics has mellowed and has been keen to shed the communist tag. Raila has had to explain himself as an advocate of free enterprise, the same view held by his father whom successive regimes in Kenya portrayed as a Marxist ideologue, and Raila a hew of the old wood.
The different positions Raila held on politics paint him as a socialist, republican, liberal democrat – virtually anything, but a capitalist. In the end, one can safely say Raila only wanted a platform to make a contribution to national politics, which included a reconstruction of the constitution. It is the confrontational approach to change that cast him as communist. Interviewed on KTN in 2002 about his economic vision of Kenya, he said: “It is not a crime to be wealthy. We should encourage that under free enterprise system, the problem arises when people use office to accumulate.”