Revealed: The Intrigues inside Raila Odinga’s poll machine

Opposition leader Raila Odinga at a past function. (File, Standard)
Kenya’s 2017 General Election was unprecedented and bitterly fought. Journalist JOHN ONYANDO, who served in the Opposition campaign, tells the inside story of Raila Odinga’s election machine in his book, Kenya: The Failed Quest for Electoral Justice. In the second of a three-part series, he tells how the Opposition pushed to ensure justice was served after post-election violence.

My first face-to-face encounter with Raila Odinga was in 2007. I was an official of the Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ) which, under Secretary-General Eric Orina, became the first trade union since 1969 to endorse a presidential candidate. The meeting was at the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Foundation offices in Upper Hill.

We sat for the meeting with Raila, Musalia Mudavadi, William Ruto, Charity Ngilu and Najib Balala on one side and Mr Orina, KUJ Chairman David Matende, and council members Ibrahim Oruko, David Ochami, Henry Wanyamah and myself on the other. Raila spoke frankly about politics and what he expected from the media.

For a politician, it was a high understanding about the media’s role in building consciousness. Shortly thereafter, Raila’s spokesman Salim Lone hired me as a campaign research assistant. After the election I worked briefly in the Office of the Prime Minister as a communication officer, still under Salim Lone.

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One of my discussions with Raila happened sometime in October, days before he was to launch the Keroche Breweries’ plant in Naivasha. As was the practice before the Prime Minister officiated at an event, Tabitha Karanja, the founder of Keroche Breweries, and her marketing manager, Kathleen Kihanya, briefed us about the plant for Raila’s speech.

Suspected masterminds

But the PM also wanted to speak about the implementation of the report of the commission of inquiry into post-election violence, the Waki Report, which had been published a few weeks earlier. The report recommended the establishment of a local tribunal to try the suspected masterminds of the post-election violence, failing which the cases should be taken up by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

When the report was published, Ruto had launched a vicious war against it, leading ODM MPs allied to him to deride its contents. But Raila, believing that justice had to be served, supported a local tribunal and wanted his speech in Naivasha, which had seen some of the worst killings, to highlight this. He told me to include the part of Naivasha in the Keroche speech, which I did and handed over to Susan Kibathi, his secretary. The next day was Kenyatta Day. I was in town with friends when Sarah Elderkin called to say that we should edit out references to the ICC from the speech. I went to office and did as instructed.

Less than two hours later, she called again to say we should reinstate that part, which I did. An hour later Raila called from Nyayo Stadium, where the Kenyatta Day events were being held, to make sure that I had made the changes. We finally printed the speech and delivered it to his driver at Serena hotel at around 5 pm.

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The back and forth on that speech gave me a peek into the pressure the PM was under. The national elite was unanimous in its opposition to the Waki report but Raila was standing for what was just, even though, as he surely knew, he stood to lose a great deal of Kalenjin support by supporting a process that would see action taken against Ruto. After he delivered the speech, his support for the Waki report and a fully independent local tribunal with investigative and prosecutorial powers was cemented by the headlines about what he had said.

Calculating that the ICC would take much longer than a local tribunal to investigate the cases, the Ruto group, which was soon joined by Uhuru and all politicians opposed to Raila, pushed for the ICC. Their clarion call was, “Do not be vague, go to the Hague.”

On July 10, a day before the World Cup final in South Africa, which pitted Spain against the Netherlands, the Dutch ambassador, Laetitia van dem Assum, called Raila to ask for his blessing for the Dutch team. The PM told the ambassador that he was also rooting for the Dutch. He told her that he had been disappointed twice before to see the Dutch lose in the finals when they were the better side. The two times were in 1974 and 1978. After the phone call, the PM took all of us through the games, recalling in great detail the superiority of the Dutch team over their opponents, the scores and the political circumstances of those games. He ended the story with a powerful explication of the force of sports, especially football, in the building of nationalism


Those who have loudly blamed Raila for the poverty in Kibera and Nyanza feel at ease with the poverty in the whole country. It would be fair to blame Raila for standing in the way of someone’s effort to eradicate slums, but Nairobi’s slums are getting bigger each day.

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All major towns in Kenya - Nairobi, Mombasa, Thika, Murang’a and Nyeri - have slums, a testament to the deteriorating urban life in Kenya. Incidentally, the slums have expanded in the past decade when Kibaki and Uhuru were supposed to be transforming Kenya into a paradise.

Least vindictive

Among Kenya’s senior politicians, Raila is the least vindictive in his handling of political opponents. While his public persona is one of a ruthless politician, in reality his record demonstrates a high degree of forgiving enemies, many of whom have joined up and flourished in his camp over years of maligning him. In the last election, Prof Sam Ongeri, one of Raila’s fiercest critics, joined ODM and won the Kisii senatorial seat after the Jubilee Party that he served at his prime had openly undermined him.

Musyoka, Mudavadi and Wetang’ula, who were Raila’s foremost champions in the last election, were his detractors not long ago. Even in Nyanza, James Orengo and Anyang’ Nyong’o were once Raila’s opponents.

Jubilee leaders Uhuru and Ruto are ruthless in their handling of opponents. Top leaders such as Franklin Bett, Martha Karua, Henry Kosgey and Peter Kenneth, who rejoined the Jubilee Party hoping to recoup their lost time, were crushed by Jubilee minions.

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None of this is to say that Raila is an innocent victim of his misfortunes. In the pursuit of his goals, Raila can be callous to the point of not caring about his image as the person Kenyans have invested their hopes in. His inattention to campaign management and his associations in the last two elections significantly undercut his capacity to detect vote fraud and his credibility as a reformer.

In the last election, he made Jimi Wanjigi, a man loathed by reform-minded Kenyans, a top member of the NASA coalition. A senior aide told me that Wanjigi’s prominent role in the campaign contributed to poisoning Raila’s relations with Western ambassadors.

At one stage, I was informed, Raila was invited for breakfast by an ambassador, only to turn up with Wanjigi. The ambassador, whose country had a comprehensive file on the businessman, was horror-struck. “We can read in the papers that you are a friend of Wanjigi, but to bring him to my house!” the diplomat reportedly sighed later. Wanjigi’s prominence in NASA raised doubts about Raila’s commitment to address grand corruption.

Such grey areas in Raila’s commitment to fight corruption stood in the way of his capacity to link Jubilee corruption to the country’s economic difficulties, including the unga shortage that Kenyans were experiencing ahead of the election.

In early 2000, Raila argued that the preferred candidates helped to finance the party’s campaigns. One of the biggest challenges anywhere is the cost of elections. Being outsiders, the Odingas have found it hard to finance campaigns. But getting money from candidates isn’t the best of fundraising ideas. In 2017, aspirants on ODM ticket paid the highest nomination fees, which many party members said was an obstacle to democracy.

The imposition of candidates on ODM members gets worse when Raila’s family members are involved. In 2013, his elder brother, Oburu Oginga, and sister, Ruth Odinga, made controversial runs as the Siaya and Kisumu gubernatorial candidates. In Kisumu, Ruth was well liked but the voters were repelled by the Odinga family demanding too much from them, with Raila going for the presidency and Oburu the Siaya governorship.

The environment was eventually poisoned against Oburu and Ruth, resulting in violence, which threatened to spoil Raila’s presidential campaign. I was working for Lone and recall Raila asking him to help Bett manage the communication disaster the nominations provoked and talk to Oburu to quit the race.

Oburu, as a condition for quitting the race, insisted that his main opponent for Siaya governor, Oduol Denge, not get the ticket, which the party eventually handed to Cornel Rasanga, a former civil servant. After the last meeting at the Serena hotel where this was agreed, Oburu walked to Lone and said. “I know you are the one behind this. You’ve robbed me of the ticket.”

In Kisumu, Ruth became a running mate to her main opponent, Jack Ranguma. Nomination violence had rocked Homa Bay, too, where former Rangwe MP Philip Okundi was running against retired Marie Stopes country director Cyprian Awiti. After examining the facts, Bett handed the ticket to Awiti.

With these shenanigans, it was indeed confounding that in 2017 the same gubernatorial contests spilled into violence, with the same cast of people involved. Oburu’s sense of entitlement to political leadership continues to undermine his brother to this day.

After quitting the gubernatorial race in 2013, he earned a free pass to Parliament, courtesy of special nominations which should have gone to a youth. But ahead of the August elections, he was determined to reclaim the Bondo parliamentary seat that he had held since his father’s passing in 1994. Despite a negative, clan-based campaign against incumbent Gideon Ochanda, the MP beat him hands down.

Yet the returning officer declared the results in faraway Siaya town, showing Oburu had won. This time Raila was courageous enough to have the win nullified and have the nomination given to Ochanda. Embarrassed, Oburu agreed to support Ochanda and took up the role of campaign coordinator in Nyanza, but in exchange, like in 2013, for a fresh parliamentary nomination, this time to the East African Legislative Assembly (Eala).

ODM qualified for just two of the nine seats, and Oburu, who believed he deserved one, went about his campaign in the most embarrassing style. On the day of Uhuru’s inauguration on 28 November, as tensions were boiling over NASA’s plan to hold a parallel meeting at Jacaranda grounds, the Star’s front-page reported a meeting Oburu had held with Jubilee parliamentary leader Aden Duale. Although Oburu told the paper that he met Duale in his own effort to lobby for ODM’s nomination to the Eala seat, that a senior member of the Odinga family was consorting with Jubilee for private benefit at that time disillusioned NASA supporters.

But just as Oburu was embarrassing NASA on the national stage, the Nyanza governors who were handed tickets by Raila in 2013 had performed dismally and voters were gearing up to replace them. The corruption in Homa Bay County was breathtaking. EACC officials had made the county seat their second home, getting kickbacks in endless investigations. In Kisumu, county officials had been caught in one financial scandal after another.

Notwithstanding IEBC’s officials’ blatant mishandling of the August 2017 elections, that poll revealed the limits of Raila’s organisational strategies. ODM came out of the election wounded. ODM had been Kenya’s largest party since 2007, with a reach in every village in Kenya apart from Central Province. In the 2013 elections, ODM was the single biggest party in Parliament with 96 MPs, followed by The National Alliance (88) and the United Republican Party (76).

These fortunes were reversed in 2017, a trend that should have been foreseeable. During the campaign, I learnt from a member of Raila’s inner circle that, after the 2013 election, Raila set out to do a prognosis on ODM’s poor performance to establish weaknesses that needed addressing in readiness for the 2017 elections. This is what responsible parties do the world over.

Raila assigned that task to a new breed of young MPs led by Ken Obura (Kisumu Central) and Ababu Namwamba (Budalang’i). However, lacking political tack, the MPs after their discussion launched a campaign for party leadership, campaigning against the so-called old guard who had messed up the election.

A few days later, Homa Bay Senator Otieno Kajwang, told the former PM that the young Turks were promoting Jubilee’s notion that the election was not rigged and ODM old guards were responsible for Raila’s defeat. Kajwang told the party leader that if the MPs, who could not be trusted, tasted blood by removing Secretary General Anyang’ Nyong’o, who was their first target, the rest would follow in a process that would see Raila removed from his party leadership. After that talk, Raila reportedly changed his mind about the party reorganisation.

Pro-Raila forces were left groping for a way out of a leadership change that Raila had endorsed, and the only recourse available was to use the infamous ‘Men in Black’ to scuttle the ODM elections at Kasarani in February 2014.

Copyright, John Onyando, 2018

Published by Free Press Publishers, Nairobi

2017 General ElectionJOHN ONYANDORaila Odinganasa