Opposition leader Raila Odinga’s allies say his truce with President Uhuru Kenyatta accords him a high profile role to continue defining political discourse that could bolster his presidential bid.
When National Super Alliance (NASA) boycotted the 2017 repeat presidential elections, some observers saw this as the end of Mr Raila’s firm grip on Kenya’s politics.
But his March 9 ‘handshake’ with President Uhuru Kenyatta and their new-found camaraderie and the push for referendum to change the country’s governance system has again thrust Raila into the centre of the country’s politics.
Politicians and other political commentators have varied opinions on whether the Uhuru-Raila Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) will alter the country’s 2022 politics.
This was evident when Uhuru last week visited Kisumu to launch the pilot Universal Health Coverage. The President later visited Raila at his Opoda Farm in Siaya and attended a graduation ceremony at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology.
Allies of Raila, Uhuru and his Deputy William Ruto all had their contributions, some calling for Uhuru-Raila unity beyond 2022, others seeing the BBI as meant to scuttle Mr Ruto’s presidential ambition.
NASA co-principal Musalia Mudavadi said Raila, like him, has been at the centre of Kenyan politics for over a decade and half.
“The handshake isn’t therefore what has thrust him to the centre. Remember he was the NASA candidate last year and millions voted for us. He is not short of supporters. What the handshake has done, however, is make it easier for him to operate without the usual barrage from the State,” Mr Mudavadi said.
With a friendly State machinery, Mudavadi said, there has been a broad ripple effect of the handshake also making it easier to define what and who is in Opposition.
“In fact, what we need to guard against is the possibility of the handshake scuttling and dimming Opposition to the extent of “Opposition lying in State”, so to speak,” he said.
Mudavadi said the tale-tell signs were already there with Opposition in Parliament confused between keeping Government in check and being in Government.
“Opposition is currently muted and it could easily turn a dangerous corner where it enters formally into Government. Then you will have a de facto single party informally reintroduced in Kenya. That will be betrayal of the letter and spirit of the Constitution that requires us to nurture multiparty democracy in Kenya,” he said.
He said the handshake impact on 2022 politics remains to be seen especially whether it is a conviviality between two individuals or a serious approach to issues affecting Kenyans.
“If the armistice were to collapse, the turmoil that will greet Kenya will be unapparelled. That is why I keep reminding my two brothers - Uhuru and Raila – not to be selfish but make the BBI an all-inclusive dialogue platform rather than a made-to-fit entity for the two,” Mudavadi said, adding that he fears for Kenya under the current fragile political peace.
“The handshake could easily burst at the seams throwing the country into untold agony,” he added.
Former Presidential candidate Joe Nyagah supported the handshake, saying it has brought calm to the country, and allowed people to go on with their businesses.
“I was the first person to call Uhuru and Raila and urge them to make peace. This is because it was evident both have equal number of supporters across Kenya,” Mr Nyagah said.
He revealed that when he made his presentation to the BBI task force when they visited Embu, he was categorical that Kenya needs to change its governance system.
“I support the referendum and urge Kenyans to go back to the Bomas Draft which had recommended a hybrid system of presidential and parliamentary mix. This will allow for an expanded executive,” Nyagah said.
Orange Democratic Movement Chairman John Mbadi said those who imagined Raila would die politically lived in utopia.
“Raila stands for ideals and he was naturally born a politician. His strong political ideals make him a frontrunner in 2022. There is no leader in Kenya likely to get support across Kenya, regionally and internationally,” the Suba South MP said.
National Assembly Public Accounts Committee Chairman Opiyo Wandayi described Raila as a phenomenon, with or without the handshake.
“Those who have wished him away in the past have invariably been disappointed. Raila’s influence in Kenya’s politics will continue to be felt for a long time. His consistency in fighting for the rights of the downtrodden is unparalleled,” said Wandayi, who is also the Ugunja MP.
Makueni Senator Mutula Kilonzo Junior said succession politics will play a central role in the post-handshake scenarios.
“All presidential candidates are angling for endorsement or an ear of the President. The statements made in Nyanza point to the 2022 presidential elections. The handshake and its success will largely depend on how 2022 shapes up. Everyone says it will not matter but it will,” Mr Mutula Jnr said.
Former Ruto ally now turned foe Joshua Kuttuny said after the 2017 elections people thought that Raila would fizzle out.
“But the handshake is now a blessing in disguise as it has given Raila a lifeline. He is now seen as a front-runner in the 2022 succession politics. Jubilee was coined out of fear so that Raila doesn’t ascend to power but now after the handshake that fear is no longer there. Even those who feared him are now warming up to him,” said Kuttuny, who is the Cherangany MP.
Nyeri MP Wambugu Ngunjiri said the handshake was not about 2022 politics but was about finding a lasting solution to divisive politics.
“We all agree that ‘winner takes it all’ tends to keep Kenyan politics tense before, during and after every election. That is why our elections are so divisive because only one person will win and the rest will become irrelevant for five years,” Mr Ngunjiri said.
He said the handshake was a pilot on whether it was possible to create a system where the person who wins the election, and any other person who has a large support base get to work together.
He said if Kenyans agreed that the peace they are witnessing now — where there is unity among all leaders — was the solution to divisive politics then they could push for a referendum to bring legislation on this.
“If we agree that we want to get there then a referendum to make it part of the Constitution will be the way to go,” Ngunjiri said.
Kitutu Chache MP Richard Onyonka said Raila would be at the centre of Kenya’s politics for as long as he lived.
“I have always said that anyone who dismisses Raila does so at their own peril. The man is always formidable, smart, calculative and strategic. His experience has also given him an advantage. He has learnt from his mistakes and changed tack,” Onyonka said.
Belgut MP Nelson Koech - a Ruto ally - said the handshake had brought peace to the country but the DP’s men were watching its every move.
“We are watching every step. We are not sitting pretty. We are strategising all the time so that we are not thrown off the rail if the DP is alienated from what is happening,” Mr Koech said.
The MP said Raila had joined Jubilee and he was now singing the Jubilee song, though he still remained a formidable Opposition leader.
“If he continues to back Jubilee, good for us because Ruto will use Jubilee scorecard to campaign in 2022. If Raila has other wishes, then let him be sure that the DP has learnt a lot from him and former President Daniel arap Moi. He is a shrewd politician and is aware of all the machinations against him,” Koech said.