No politician has taken more names to the graveyard of political parties and careers in the last three decades than Raila Odinga.
Soon after his famous handshake with President Uhuru Kenyatta, there was hue and cry within some quarters of the Jubilee Party that Raila Odinga had come to rock the ruling party. His detractors in Jubilee said he had come to destroy their party. They feared he would leave their party in tatters, with its leaders badly divided among themselves.
Whether this was his intent or not, one thing is not in doubt. The ODM leader has rocked the Jubilee boat. He is taking it down the precipice of political wreckage. What remains is the date of the final collapse of the UhuRuto behemoth of yesterday.
Jubilee Party romped to victory in 2017, with 140 of the 290 National Assembly seats. It also took 25 out of 47 of the Woman Rep seats, with the same number of governors. In the Senate, it carried away 24 out of 47 elective seats. This was in an overcrowded field of close to 70 political parties, with numerous independent candidates to boot. Today, the party stands at the threshold of atrophy and even possible death, courtesy of Raila’s manoeuvring and amity with President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Behind the scenes
In the causal converse is the rift that the amity has generated between the president and his deputy. Put together with Raila’s own traditional animus with the deputy president, the scenario generates more than enough fuel to drive Jubilee to the graveyard of political parties. The emerging dynamics are concurrently incubating possible alliances of the future. If they blossom, they will be alliances in which the ODM leader is likely to play a very key role, if not the most decisive role.
The combined energies that drive this process are housed in the political instrument that is called the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI). Raila is the undisputed field marshal in this agenda. President Uhuru is the invisible commander-in-chief, as Raila and his lieutenants told the BBI rally in Garissa last Sunday. According to the message that was carried to Garissa, Uhuru silently calls the shots from behind the scenes. Only occasionally does he step out in the open, usually to rein in some exceptionally errant political operative who must not be allowed to interrupt the smooth flow of the script.
Here is Raila Odinga the political operative in his element. In the past, he rocked the Kanu boat in 2002. Eighteen years on, Kenya’s independence party is still writhing in pain. Kanu is still staggering from the political blow that Raila dealt it in the wake of the Uhuru project. It is difficult – almost impossible – to know what is going on in Raila’s political mind at any one time. When you think that you are with him, he is miles ahead of you. You only know where he is when he pulls his next action. Even then, however, he may very well still be elsewhere.
This man knows his mind. Regardless of the risks, he will take them if he must. Apart from clear knowledge of what he wants, he has the determination and courage to do it. This is regardless of who else will come with him, and who will not. This is easily the duet that defines his two-decade dominance on Kenya’s political landscape. Time and again, he has been ready to walk alone, if need be. In 1998, he disappointed the Opposition when his National Development Party (NDP) voted with Kanu to defeat a no confidence motion against President Moi.
The no confidence motion was sponsored by James Orengo, then of the Ford Kenya party. Except for two NDP members – Shem Ochuodho of Rangwe and Oloo Oringo of Alego-Usonga – all NDP MPs stood with Moi and Kanu. The motion was defeated on a vote of 137 for Moi, against 67. The Opposition accused Raila and NDP of betrayal. Yet Raila had begun walking the independent path in 1994, when he resigned from Ford-K and from his Langata Parliamentary seat, in the wake of the chaotic Ford-K party elections in Thika. It was a daring move that saw him win the seat. For the next three years, he was the only NDP MP.
A rising Raila
Things changed dramatically during the 1997 General Election. While Raila came third in the presidential election (behind Moi and Mwai Kibaki), NDP won a significant number of seats in Luo Nyanza. With the exception of Mr Orengo and Achieng Oneko (Rarieda), all other Luo MPs resigned from Ford-K ahead of this election to join Raila in NDP. It was the only way to secure their seats against a rising Raila. Some of them went on to lose, regardless. Orengo ran on the Charity Ngilu-led Social Democratic Party, while Oneko remained in Ford-K. They both lost, paving way for Raila as the undisputed Luo political kingpin after his father’s demise in 1994.
Raila’s gamble with NDP paid off. He would go on to take more risks. His dalliance with Moi and Kanu (1998-2002) was one such a gamble. He ignored the noise in the Opposition and moved from opposition to co-operation to merger with Kanu. Much of the time, he did not consult anybody. Once he made the decision, he moved into action. He left everyone else to either catch up with him, or find their own alternative paths. Few dared to take the second option.
The pattern would repeat itself in October 2002. Dissatisfied with the Uhuru project, he walked out of Kanu and got virtually every Kanu MP, with the exception of the Kalenjin Rift Valley, in tow. The only other three MPs of note to remain in Kanu were Musalia Mudavadi (Sabatia), Cyrus Jirongo (Lugari) and Katana Ngala (Ganze). They all lost their seats in the subsequent poll in December. Raila’s decisive gamble paid off once again.
It would pay off again when, without consulting anybody, he proclaimed at a public rally in October 2002 that Mr Kibaki was the right person for the new united Narc Opposition to field for the presidency. And when he fell out with Kibaki, he technically walked out of Narc and led fellow rebels to defeat Kibaki’s team in the 2005 constitutional referendum.
On other occasions, however, he has not been so lucky. He lost the 2007 election (and some say the 2013 one, too), out of failure to heed calls for the need to protect the vote. His confidence has occasionally bordered on the hubris, with devastating outcomes. Such was the case when he decided, in 2013, that he could make a direct appeal to the Kalenjin voter without the support of key players like William Ruto, who had been in his team in 2007. He courted bad blood and fondled defeat when he disowned Dr Ruto in his crisis with the International Criminal Court (ICC). He has never regained the support of that community. His thought, similarly, that he can manage the Luhya electorate without local kingpins has also undermined his appeal to this constituency.
Be that as it may, Raila is a political operative after his own fashion. Others may wait to see how things will shape out before making their next move. Raila knows, however, that things have no internal energy of their own. Accordingly, things will never shape themselves out. They are shaped out. He knows how to strategically position himself to shape them in his preferred way. In the alphabet of politics, he is the quick brown fox that jumped over the lazy dogs. The proverbial lazy dogs that wait for things to shape out must bide their time, while the quick and foxy Raila acts. They can thereafter react – either to echo him, or to shoot invective his way. It is to his advantage today that there is hardly anybody in the country to make him react to anything. He, therefore, sets the agenda. Others follow passively.
It was his quick brown fox attributes that led him both to the controversial extra-legal swearing-in of January 2018, and the handshake of March the same year. In both instances, he confounded friend and foe alike. In January, his three comrades-at-arms (running mate Kalonzo Musyoka, chief campaign manager Mr Mudavadi and teammate Moses Wetang’ula) were left flat-footed. They were duped to keep waiting as Raila took the oath that they all thought was off the cards. The stage was set for more surprises.
What observers did not know was that the Jubilee Party and the deputy president were set to be targets in the crosshairs of Raila’s subsequent moves. For this man never says what he is going to do. In the public space, he will appear to give away the strategy. In practice, however, he will do something completely different. In 2017, he seemed set to do something really big, following the announcement to boycott the repeat presidential election. He ‘announced’ that he would make a big announcement on October 25, 2017.
By their own admission, his NASA co-principals had no idea what the ‘big announcement’ was going to be. Until the very end, they waited, just like everybody else, for the ‘big announcement’. It turns out, from Mudavadi’s biography, Soaring Above the Storms of Passion, that there perhaps was no big announcement. They ended up workshopping an announcement about the stillborn National Resistance Movement (NRM).
After the October 2017 election boycott, the three co-principals went in one direction, not so sure what to do next. The NRM went in another direction, under the self-styled but clueless ‘General’ Miguna Miguna. They made vague announcements about boycotts against Jubilee-friendly enterprises and Raila’s imminent swearing-in. The Jubilee fraternity went in a third direction, agonising on what to do with a rogue political operative with a massive political support base. The support base, for its part, was stuck in one place, waiting for direction from the leader.
Then there was the fifth column, the solitary column occupied by Raila Odinga himself. And only he knew what was there. He knew that the battle was lost the moment the High Court admitted other presidential contestants from the August presidential race into the repeat poll of October.
He also knew that a head-on confrontation against Uhuru and Ruto would lead nowhere, at least in the short term. With the entire international community against his extra-legal swearing-in, he stood on very thin ice.
His political loneliness was, moreover, compounded by the fact that his NASA colleagues, the religious fraternity and the business community were all against his extra-legal swearing-in. He was an isolated political sitting duck. It was the time to sink completely, or to do a political somersault and reinvent himself. He chose the somersault. Trapped in the mid-air swing were the deputy president, the three NASA co-principals and their coalition, as well as the Jubilee Party.
At this point, Raila only needed to have on his side President Uhuru and the ODM party. Nothing more. In point of fact, the sooner everything else would be destroyed, the better for him. Hence, he has since allowed NASA to go into a deep Rip Van Winkle sleep. Through a combination of blackmail and vague promissory inducements, he drags along the NASA co-principals. Nobody knows the detailed rewards in his BBI promissory notes. The same notes, however, have been extended to a new crop of alternative leaders, who are hobnobbing in his wings, hopeful for a second political coming for themselves in 2022.
For their part, the NASA co-principals’ body language and their often vague positions on the BBI are indicative of a combination of hope and fear. They hope and fear that the BBI, as a political process, will succeed. If it succeeds, they must be seen to have been a part of it. They can, therefore, have their piece of the cake in the post-2022 dispensation that BBI is supposed to define. Raila will sit at the head of the table, with the cake and knife. You do not want to be left out. On the other hand, the BBI could also turn out to be pushing a purely selfish UhuRaila agenda. In this case, it would be good if it failed.
The Promised Land
If a selfish UhuRaila agenda fails, it will give the NASA trio the opportunity to jump to the centre stage and attempt to run with the country. Raila, the master political craftsman is aware of both possibilities. His strategy is to keep everybody, except the deputy president, within his wings and in his sights. The DP should only be in his sights, but not under his wings. With even their most equivocal support for the BBI at this stage, the NASA co-principals will help to marshal the citizenry to take home the final BBI report at a referendum. With that, they can lay the stage for the ultimate Raila dominance in 2022.
When the time comes, he will determine who gets with him to the Promised Land and who will not. For now, they must be seen to be his subordinates. This is best demonstrated in the pecking order of speaking at the BBI rallies, where he speaks last – symbolically having the last word.
Meanwhile the deputy president must be left out and be cast in the role of the enemy of the BBI. This way, the deputy president plays the much-needed role of the foil that generates excitement for mobilisation around the BBI. Without a formidable opponent – or at any rate an opponent who looks formidable – the BBI loses the excitement that makes it a fertile platform for political mobilisation. Even when the DP and his political acolytes have desperately said they support the BBI process and the report, it has remained very important to keep on telling them, and the country, that they are against it. Whenever the DP and his friends express even the faintest reservations against the BBI, therefore, they play right into the hands of Raila, the master political operative.
Yet there is an even more important reason the deputy president must be seen to remain the enemy of the BBI. Unanimity on the BBI across the political divide would place all the major presidential hopefuls on equal ground. If the deputy president starts off on the same ground with Raila in the 2022 race, he places Raila’s chances of victory in a bad place, what with all the advantages of incumbency.
Fancy an environment in which the DP remains a darling of the president’s and continues to hold the Jubilee strongholds together. Fancy, further, the BBI process going on amid such harmony. Raila would look like a junior player who was groping in the dark corners of political possibilities and relevance.
Ruto, like the other NASA principals, must therefore be completely upstaged. The billowing storms around him are so heavy that it is difficult to tell whether he could hold on beyond a few more months. If Ruto survives, then Raila is done, for all his political art.
Meanwhile, what happens to Ruto’s massive support across the country, should he sink politically is a story for some other day. For now, Raila Odinga, the master political artist, is riding high. How far he flies remains to be seen. So, too, is how far his new political amity with President Uhuru will go. If the much-touted referendum does not take place before June this year, as Raila and his acolytes would like it to do, the amity will begin coming under very heavy trial. Raila might rudely discover that he probably flew too close to the sun.
Bag of political tricks
Indications are that there will be no referendum before June 2020 – and perhaps none this year, or even next year. It begins looking like Raila Odinga, the political craftsman, is not yet out of the woods. His fortunes hang so delicately on the frail string that is the BBI. It snaps and he is done. He may have to go back to his bag of political tricks beyond the ongoing BBI thing to seek a plan B.
The biggest danger to Raila’s schemes, moreover, would be if Ruto should survive the present onslaught against him. Matters would get to a head for Raila, the master craftsman, if the rest of the co-principals in the NASA family should suddenly get into their own handshake with Ruto. But to get here, they would all need to wake up to the reality that in politics, things do not just shape out. They are shaped out. They must never forget the political alphabet of the quick brown fox that jumped over the lazy dogs.