Raila Odinga boasts of unfamiliar allies in his 5th stab at the presidency

Azimio la Umoja One Kenya coalition flag bearer Raila Odinga. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

For the fifth time in his political career, Raila Odinga will today seek to be cleared as a candidate for the presidential election. Raila and his running mate Martha Karua will walk into the Bomas of Kenya as aspirants and walk out as candidates for the August 9 General Election. 

The Azimio la Umoja One Kenya coalition flag bearer harbours dreams of becoming the fifth president and chose today, June 5, as his clearance day for the symbolism. “The fifth will be cleared on the fifth,” Raila’s lawyer Paul Mwangi told journalists recently.

Like in previous consecutive three attempts, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) leader goes into the polls a top contender, one of the two with a realistic chance of victory.

And for the second successive time, he walks into the election as leader of the opposition. It is in the opposition that Raila cut his teeth as a politician and has thrice been an opposition presidential candidate (1997, 2007 and 2017).

Unlike in his previous stabs, including in 2013 when he went to the election as the outgoing prime minister, Raila finds himself in a peculiar situation. Though the opposition leader, he enjoys the support of President Uhuru Kenyatta and government officials, hence the ‘state machinery’.

That support has rubbed Deputy President William Ruto the wrong way, with his Kenya Kwanza Alliance allies terming him Uhuru’s project, even as it has visibly excited Raila’s allies, including his elder brother Oburu Oginga.

Since his handshake with Uhuru, Raila has kept his criticism of the Jubilee administration hushed, departing from the whistleblower persona previously associated with him. And by so doing, he has lost the chance to directly attack the failings of Uhuru and Ruto’s regime. He has been painted by the DP as a continuation of government mismanagement.

Raila has said his friendliness with the president has given him an avenue through which he can offer Uhuru solutions to challenges that may arise. The support from the president, conversely, bears the advantage the DP will, most likely, not inherit all of Uhuru’s 2013 and 2017 voter percentages from Mt Kenya. And so, the ODM leader can capitalise on a dent the DP might suffer in the region.

This year’s election is also different for the company the ODM leader has chosen to keep. Eager to explore his chances in populous Mt Kenya, up for grabs for lacking an outright inheritor to Uhuru’s throne, the former premier picked Karua. In the Narc-Kenya party leader, Raila has a chance to test the unexplored gender card, too.

“Karua’s entry has energised the belief of those who care about the progress of this nation owing to her reform credentials. Theirs is a ticket of the reformists... by picking Karua, Raila relieves himself of the puppet tag,” University don Prof Gitile Naituli said.

He does so with an uneasy comfort of having the unpredictable Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka in his corner after much courting and some assurance that he will bag majority of the Ukambani vote. 

The ODM leader has lost friends along the way. Since 2007, he has enjoyed the support of either Musalia Mudavadi or Moses Wetang’ula (both in 2017). The Amani National Congress and Ford Kenya leaders, respectively, have abandoned Raila for Ruto.

Although the former prime minister has polled considerably well in the Western region without either of the two’s support, the true test of their departure will be on August 9. The same applies to Kilifi Governor Amason Kingi, who has also joined the DP, and his Kilifi turf.

Even with such exoduses, Raila has expressed confidence that he will win the election first round and it is a message he will take to his supporters in Nakuru today after he is cleared, the latest stop of a journey that began before thousands at the Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani, in December last year.

Raila will then launch Azimio’s manifesto this week, which his press team is popularising as the launch of the “agenda for Kenya.”

Final political bullet

Few things have been as constant in Kenya’s political play of the last two decades as a Raila presidential candidacy. If he is fifth-time lucky, Raila, 77, will be the oldest person to ascend to Kenya’s presidency. And, therefore, 2022 might, indeed, prove to be the year in which the ODM leader spends his final political bullet.

Ruto and his allies have not capitalised as much on Raila’s age as a campaigning tool. His supporters call him, with much endearment, “Baba”. The name has been the most enduring from a catalogue that includes Agwambo and Nyundo and Tinga, among other monikers, owing to Raila’s presentation of himself as the voice of the downtrodden majority for many years. 

“Raila has matured into a statesman. His age and experience give him an obvious advantage,” Cotu secretary general Francis Atwoli said in a previous interview.

Raila first sought the presidency, which was more of a statement, a test of political might, by a novice who was itching to escape the shadow of his father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the three-decade opposition figurehead who had died three years earlier.

His father’s death had resulted in supremacy wars within Ford Kenya pitting Raila against the late former vice-president Kijana Wamalwa. After losing out to Wamalwa in the party elections, Raila quit Ford-K to form the National Development Party. 

Raila was hardly a favourite to unseat the late President Moi and he knew as much. He had only served a term as Lang’ata MP, which he won in 1992, fresh from detention without trial for close to a decade over alleged links to the abortive 1982 coup.

But despite playing a significant role in the fight for multipartyism, he would not be jumping the queue. And he trailed the incumbent Moi and Kibaki in the 1997 election, but by emerging third, he had announced his arrival on the national stage. Five years later, Raila would cement his place in national politics, playing the kingmaker with his “Kibaki tosha” declaration that rallied the opposition, united for the first time since the advent of pluralism in 1992, behind Kibaki’s candidacy. That year’s election is the only one Raila has not featured as a presidential contender since 1997.

Having sat out the 2002 presidential election and after a fall-out with President Kibaki, the ODM leader cast his gaze on the 2007 contest. The two faced off in a duel in 2005, courtesy of a referendum on a government-sponsored push to change the Constitution.

Formidable team

Leading a formidable team that included Uhuru, Ruto, Kalonzo and Mudavadi, among others, Raila humiliated Kibaki with a landslide win in the referendum. And there, his 2007 march began. Along the way, he lost Uhuru, who chose to back Kibaki for a second term, and Kalonzo, his greatest loss, who sought the presidency.

In the months preceding the December 2007 election, pollsters had placed Raila ahead of Kibaki in the presidential race. Raila took an early lead when the counting started, but in the end, lost in a controversial election that resulted in two months of bloodletting. A truce between Raila and Kibaki landed him in the grand-coalition government, with the ODM leader as prime minister. And it is as prime minister that Raila sought to succeed Kibaki, engineering the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (Cord) that included Kalonzo and Wetang’ula.

He suffered his second consecutive defeat, this time to Uhuru, whose 2002 bid he had helped block. Unsatisfied with the result, he challenged the presidential election at the Chief Justice Willie Mutunga-led Supreme Court, which dismissed his petition.

The same would play out in 2017, but this time the Supreme Court agreed with his plea. Having trailed Uhuru in the August polls, Raila sought redress in the David Maraga-led apex court. After analysing the arguments before it, the Supreme Court found the electoral agency had bungled the election and ordered a fresh one.

Citing trust deficit in the IEBC, Raila boycotted the rerun whose turnout was 39 per cent, stripping Uhuru’s 98 per cent victory of significant legitimacy. Raila would not recognise his presidency and after a series of demonstrations that he convened, he swore himself in as, in his words, “the people’s president”.

That was in late January 2018, slightly more than a month before Raila and Uhuru shook hands on the porch of Harambee House, ushering in a partnership that eventually saw the president declare Raila his preferred successor.

Today, he officially begins a journey to the presidency that regardless of which way it ends, may as well be his last.

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