That Raila Odinga is walking the political tightrope is not in doubt.
The announcement this week that his ODM party was leaving the National Super Alliance (Nasa), was the last nail in the coffin of a troubled political marriage between him and his former co-principals in ANC, Ford Kenya and the Wiper Democratic Party.
Tied in the same double-knot is Raila’s own political destiny, for the death of the marriage has also gone with critical proxy votes.
Ahead of ODM’s announcement, Kalonzo Musyoka’s Wiper Party and ANC of Musalia Mudavadi declared their own flight from Nasa.
Their announcements left Raila hanging delicately in the political balance. A belated attempt to bait them with shares of the political parties fund has not worked.
This leaves Raila with the Mt Kenya vote as his foremost hope in the changing times and fortunes. The question on many political minds will be, ‘just how far can Raila hope to get with the Mountain?’
Raila’s fortunes with the Mountain have been varied, and informed with numerous ups and downs. The past nearly four years have been a period of an uneasy love, hinged on the legendary March 9, 2018 Handshake of goodwill between him and President Uhuru Kenyatta.
The Handshake brought in its wake a cooling of dreadful tempers and healing of bad blood between two of Kenya’s foremost politicians in current times.
Whether the fever of goodwill has spread to infect the rest of President Kenyatta’s Mountain community and Raila’s Lake Basin backyard is the great question of the day, even as Nasa now gravitates towards the graveyard of political formations.
It will be Raila’s prayer-in-chief that he finds love in the Mountain. Since the Handshake, there has always been hope that President Kenyatta would market him as the bearer of the Mountain’s destiny after August 2022.
The president retires later next year and the competition to replace him is on, in earnest. Each of the country’s topmost four political parties has hoped that its leader will be the person to beat, more so with the president’s blessings.
Also on the cards is Deputy President William Ruto.
So high are the stakes that it has, sometimes, been difficult to tell whether there remains any party, or politician, in the Opposition, as the leaders of ODM, ANC, Wiper, Kanu and Ford Kenya, all look up to the president for a nod and a good word.
It was announced in April 2018 that Raila and President Kenyatta would tour the country in national unity campaigns, after the Handshake. The idea was basically that this would be Raila’s launching pad to succeed Uhuru, with the incumbent’s blessings.
The rallies have, however, kept on being put off indefinitely and, in the process, invited doubts that Raila could indeed be Uhuru’s preferred heir to the throne, the president having visibly fallen out with his deputy, Ruto.
In both the 2013 and 2017 campaigns, Uhuru made it clear that Ruto was his man, with the famous clarion call of “ten years for me, and ten years for Ruto.”
It turns out that this may very well have been no more than a campaign gimmick, and that Uhuru’s heart was always elsewhere. Raila’s political support base has wanted to believe that the “elsewhere” in the equation is where their man sits.
Hence, Raila has once again announced during a visit to Murang’a, last week, that he would soon embark on rallies, jointly with the president, to unite Kenyans.
It is instructive that Raila seems to have chosen to ride for now on the influence of wealthy business people from Central Kenya, in the face of delayed forays that were expected to be led by Uhuru.
Curiously, it is always Raila who has made the announcements about the aborted joint visits with the president. State House never puts in a word, either to confirm or to deny any such plans.
Does someone always wrong-foot Raila, or what usually happens? How would he keep making announcements that invoke the president’s name, only for them to assume the character of false alarms? Does someone set him up for loss of face with these announcements?
If the rallies were to come, the one place where they would most likely begin would be Central Kenya and the Mt Kenya region generally.
There is crying need to undo the traction that the deputy president seems to be gaining in this region, with serial election victories for his allies in Juja and Kiamba constituencies, and in a number of wards in the Mountain region.
The symbiosis in this need is for Uhuru to reclaim a region that is slipping through his fingers and for Raila a region that should replace his lost allies and their home bases in NASA.
Marketing Raila in the Mountain, however, remains a Herculean assignment. The president previously positioned him in the mind of the Mount Kenya voter literally as the devil incarnate.
Pejorative epithets were used to market him as “kimundu (the beast), muguroki (the mad man), and mganga (the witch doctor).
The people of the Mountain were told that they would be forced to wear short trousers under a Raila presidency, to sweep the streets and undertake demeaning menial assignments.
To boot, they were told that their property would be forcefully seized and their rental property would go without rent, where it would not be dispossessed of them.
The sense of urgency to undo this negative marketing is real. There is a need for the Mountain to desorb the earlier messages it previously absorbed about Raila and absorb fresh ones.
Loss of ethnic kingpins
It needs to be persuaded afresh that the person who was called “kimundu” is the same person who was in 2002 called “njamba (the hero), after he proclaimed, “Kibaki tosha” (Kibaki fits the presidential bill).
There is especially need to hype the Handshake and to persuade the Mountain that Raila is the better choice, between him and Ruto.
This need is not just urgent, it is desperate, in the wake of the NASA fallout. While the Raila camp wears a brave face in the face of this debacle, they have been around long enough to know that the loss of ethnic kingpins can often spell political disaster.
In 2013, Raila approached the Rift Valley voter with rare boldness, in the wake of his bitter fallout with Ruto.
His strategic agenda was to appeal to the people directly, having advised Ruto to carry his International Criminal Court (ICC) cross alone.
The Kalenjin people had endeared him with such appellations as “arap Mibei (son of the lake). The moment of truth came when he learned that they had moved on with Ruto.
Things have never been the same again.
The demise of Nasa goes with Raila’s support in the Luhya country, as well as the Akamba vote.
Indications on the ground are that the Akamba want Kalonzo to go all the way to the wire, for better or worse.
It is the same among the Luhya, both at home in Western Kenya and in the Luhya diaspora elsewhere in the country.
They want to see Mudavadi’s name on the presidential ballot paper, regardless of whether he wins or loses the election.
The stances in Luhyaland and Ukambani make things awkward for both Raila and Ruto, but especially so for Raila, who must now gain traction in Mt Kenya – or perish.
Matters will especially come to a head, should the Mountain field a formidable presidential candidate next year. Both Ruto and Raila could find themselves in a huge crisis of numbers.
The likelihood of a presidential vote rerun would be real. This means that even as they run down one another, the foremost presidential candidates must learn how to soothe the wounds they inflict.
For, they can never know whom they will need to form new alliances with, in the very likely event that the presidential race next year goes to a rerun.