Two years after his controversial swearing in ceremony as “the people’s president,” Raila Odinga has defined competition for 2022 as a two-horse race between him and Deputy President William Ruto.
The definition of the two horses is a factor of regular run-in between the two leaders, making them the most active players in the political arena.
The post-swearing in tension that gripped the country at the start of 2018, both in the lead up to the swearing in and after, came to a sudden end with the unexpected handshake of March 9. The aftermath has since changed the political landscape, to begin giving critical pointers in the race towards 2022.
Even without the benefit of opinion polls, the race for now seems to be between Raila and Ruto. It has taken hugely thawed relations between the ODM leader and President Uhuru Kenyatta to rearrange the matrix in the looming competition.
The more things have improved between Uhuru and Raila, the more they have deteriorated between Raila and Ruto on one hand, and between Ruto and the President on the other. Ironically, within this matrix of troubled relations, Raila and Ruto continue to emerge as the two horses to watch.
Regular confrontation between the two leaders and their supporters has eclipsed other pretenders to the throne, leaving them in the precarious situation where they could end up with no option but to line up behind either Raila or Ruto.
Raila’s comeback proves he is an unpredictable political maverick and acrobat. He has capacity to execute an aerial somersault that leaves everyone breathless, while also giving him a fresh lease of life.
Facts remain scanty on who brokered the handshake between him and the President. Some narratives have it that it was close members of both the Kenyatta and Odinga families. Even then, it is not clear which side made the first move.
The only thing that both Raila and Uhuru have disclosed is that they sat together for 19 hours, with little being said by other side. They eventually spoke and redefined the political landscape.
Raila’s aerial somersault brought him down to land on two horses, both at the same time. One leg straddled the state sector while the other one remained in the Opposition space. He moved quite swiftly to whip ODM in line, to support both the handshake and the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).
Today, ODM legislators speak as if Raila is the principal resident at State House. By Mashujaa Day 2018, he had been appointed the African Union’s Special Envoy for Infrastructure. But Raila also remained in the Opposition. To date, therefore, he is a man riding two horses at once.
ODM never got into a formal contractual arrangement with the ruling Jubilee Party after the handshake. Even the nine-point agenda between Raila and President Uhuru was not an ODM matter.
The two leaders appear to have signed the memorandum in their individual capacities. Accordingly, there is no official accord between the two parties at the Office of Registrar of Political Parties (ORPP). The Political Parties Act (2011) would otherwise have this as a requirement.
As none exists, therefore, it is difficult to classify the pact between the two leaders within the existing legal framework. At the very best, it is only a gentleman’s agreement.
Yet, this gentleman’s agreement is both the engine and fuel running politics in the country ever since the handshake. It is shaping the political landscape in an unprecedented and unpredictable manner. For a start, it seems to have killed the political Opposition.
Raila trades cautiously on issues about which the Opposition would previously have taken the government to task.
In the intervening time, numerous allegations of corruption in government have come up. They have included multi-billion shilling concerns in the water sector, and others in the agricultural sector.
Also in the crosshairs have been matters in healthcare. It is instructive that both Raila and the rest of his senior party officials have made less than perfunctory comments about such allegations.
And when they have done so, it has been to direct their barbs at the Deputy President, whom they like to associate with corruption.
It is no secret that Ruto, the Deputy President, has been a favourite punching bag of Raila’s and his party. This has been one more of the spin-offs of the swearing in and the handshake. The Raila somersault has steadily driven a wedge between the President and his deputy, leading Uhuru to, every so often, throw snide remarks at his deputy.
It was President Kenyatta who first remarked in 2018 that “this young man Ruto was loitering around the country, claiming to inspect government projects.” That was how the tag “Tangatanga (Swahili for loitering aimlessly) was born.
This isolation of Ruto from the centre of power has kept him at a safe vantage point, for Raila and ODM to fire missiles without worrying that any of them could unintentionally land on the President. Raila and his squad have managed to create a fifth column in Jubilee. The column is a very helpful alternative in ODM’s verbal assaults against the DP.
Accordingly, ODM and the Jubilee fifth column – christened Kieleweke – alternate in their now recurrent onslaughts against Ruto and the Tangatanga squad.
The BBI is by far Raila’s most potent weapon against the DP, whom he seems to have defined as the person to beat in the 2022 bid for power. The man must, therefore, be accosted and if possible be defeated way before 2022.
The DP was from the very outset, therefore, cast as hostile to the handshake and the BBI. The DP’s own recurrent and irate public pronouncements against the BBI – and often the handshake – have buttressed his isolation from the centre of power.
From another point of reckoning, the unhealthy political relations between Raila and Ruto have increasingly defined them as the captains of the two main political camps to watch in the race towards 2022 and beyond.
By default, rather than design, the two have created a two-horse perspective, with them as the riders. The other NASA notables of Musalia Mudavadi, Kalonzo Musyoka and Moses Wetang’ula continue fading away steadily, as the political roughhouse between Raila and Ruto gets sharper.
Unless they urgently get back to the drawing boards to come up with something astoundingly refreshing, they risk finding themselves being forced to pick up their places behind either Raila or Ruto. They do not seem to have much time and space however. Raila is defining the camps.
For Raila, the roughhouse has simplified matters between him on the one hand and the other NASA principals on the other. Already forgotten is the fact that there was a fifth NASA co-principal in the person of the leader of Chama Cha Mashinani, former Bomet Governor Isaac Ruto.
The four of them entered a pre-election coalition agreement with Raila and ODM, effectively making him their flag bearer in 2017, but also locking him out of the 2022 race.
The clause that locked him out has, however, gone into natural atrophy. Raila’s reinvention of himself after the swearing in and the handshake has brought up issues that would make their invoking of that clause to sound like unnecessary whimpering, especially in the face of their lackluster performance as an alternative Opposition. Navigation of the BBI process, sustained onslaught against the DP and continued marginalisation of the Nasa co-principals is Raila’s raft in the times ahead.
To do this effectively, he must continue to ride his two horses skillfully. He must continue to work closely with the President, while also riding the Opposition horse and sidelining the DP and his Nasa colleagues. Alternatively, he must make the Nasa co-principals join his raft as his juniors. If they don’t, then they must join Ruto, or just remain irrelevant.
If the BBI report and the proposed referendum should fail the popularity test, however, Raila will find himself in a difficult place again. Equally important, if Ruto should win back the President’s support, Raila would find himself in hot spot. He is, therefore, working hard to keep the two as far apart as possible, while also doing his best for the BBI’s success.
Raila’s biggest boon besides President Kenyatta’s support remains the inability of the Nasa co-principals to step out of the shadows. They are unable to take firm positions on issues and to lead from the front.
They continue to give Raila and Ruto an easy ride that is defining them as the two people to watch. Even with the proposed changes in the Constitution, it begins to increasingly appear that those who will not team up with either of the two will be eclipsed in dark shadows.