For Raila Odinga, it has not been a walk in the park

Azimio la Umoja supporter carry Azimio presidential candidate Raila Odinga at Kasarani stadium on August 06, 2022, during the last rally before elections. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Today marks either the beginning of Azimio presidential candidate Raila Odinga’s celebration as the country’s fifth president, or an end to his long-held dream of ruling Kenya.

Except for 1997, when he made his debut in the presidential race, Raila has always staged an electrifying campaign bid, losing under controversial circumstances in 2007. In 2013, he unsuccessfully petitioned his loss but was successful in 2017. He however boycotted the repeat poll directed by the Supreme Court, claiming the electoral body had not complied with court directives enabling it to be a fair arbiter.

Pundits and supporters alike believe the ODM leader’s presidential bid this year is the most portent ever since his first attempt a quarter century ago.

“It is Baba’s (Raila) destined time and the stars have aligned perfectly. The obstacles hitherto placed on his path are falling away and it’s incredible to watch this happen,” Edwin Sifuna, the Secretary General of the former Prime Minister’s party, Orange Democratic Moment (ODM), recently told this writer.

Sifuna, who is eyeing the Nairobi senatorial seat, cited the entry of Narc-Kenya party leader, Martha Karua, whom he said has “captured the country’s imagination” as a strong leader with great credentials, and who has offered the most realistic opportunity of Kenya producing the first female deputy president.

And describing Raila as “father of devolution”, Tony Gachoka who served as Head of Protocol in the Prime Minister’s Office, concurs. He observes that his former boss Raila has been consistent in his quest for democratic space, devolved and equitable distribution of national resources as well as defender of human rights. Raila and Gachoka first met nearly three decades ago, when the latter was an editor of “Finance Magazine” – then a fearless publication of Njehu Gatabaki, former MP for Githunguri.

Indeed, Raila’s political journey has not been a walk in the park. It has been a long journey of painful sacrifices. While, for instance, his father, Adonija Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, had access to good education in high-profile institutions – Maseno School, Alliance High School and Makerere University where he graduated with a diploma in Education – his children were not as lucky.     

Jaramogi, who, upon his return from Uganda was posted to Maseno School as a teacher, immediately got immersed in union affairs. Before long, he found the political bug irresistible, dumped the noble profession and teamed up with other national leaders including Jomo Kenyatta, who were drumming up support for the country’s independence.

The move signalled the beginning of the painful struggles for Jaramogi children in pursuit of education. Jaramogi’s eldest child, Dr Oburu Oginga, was the first casualty after failing to secure admission to his dream school, Alliance. He had passed the Kenya Preliminary Examination, the equivalent of today’s Standard Eight, with top grades of “A”, but school heads were reluctant to admit him.

Raila and the other children faced similar rejection with Sir Carrey Francis, the Principal of Alliance High School, telling Jaramogi that the school administration feared his children would turn out to be political agitators like their father “by poisoning the minds of other students”. 

Rejection of Jaramogi’s children in 1960, recounts Oburu, was apparently communicated to all principals of leading schools. When he noted the impediments, Jaramogi opted to take his children overseas for studies. With help from comrades on the continent, including Kwame Nkurumah of Ghana, Jaramogi who was then President of the Panafricanist Movement in Eastern Africa, flew out his two sons, Oburu and Raila, to Russia and East Germany.

The airlift of Raila and his brother, coupled with the good news back home of Kenya’s independence and appointment of their father as vice president a few months later in 1963, was a major source of joy for the Jaramogi sons.

Unfortunately for the duo, the delight only lasted three years as Jaramogi differed with his boss, President Jomo Kenyatta, and resigned from government: “Although some have labelled us as a dynasty, Raila and I never experienced or enjoyed our father’s trappings of power as vice president. We left the country when he was a mere political agitator on the continent and returned to find him out of power and in custody.”

Upon their return, Raila secured a job at the University of Nairobi, Mechanical Engineering Department, as a lecturer in production technology, the theory of machines, material science and technical drawing. Despite being among the few holders of a PhD in the early 1970s, Dr Oburu was not as lucky. Because of his social science and economics background, he was regarded as “the dangerous one” as opposed to Raila, who was dismissed as “the harmless one”, because of his engineering background.

“Further, as the older of the siblings, intelligence agents believed I was the one being groomed to take over my father’s mantle in politics. Oh, how wrong they were,” said Dr Oburu in uncontrollable laughter, at a past interview with this writer.

Indeed, it did not take long before the political animal in Raila was awakened. A racist incident at the university in 1970 enraged Raila, forcing him to call out his colleagues for their unfair treatment of African students. According to his autobiography, “The Flame of Freedom”, Raila was enraged by his mostly white and Asian colleagues to deny one of his students, who deserved to be awarded a First Class Degree, on account that he was African.

Despite being a new member of staff and this being his first meeting on the department’s academic board, an emotional Raila protested: “Mr Chairman, I beg your pardon. I’m new here - this is my first meeting - but this discussion sounds to me like a debate in the South African Parliament,” he asserted. According to his autobiography, Raila’s intervention eventually paid off as the lecturers voted to reverse their initial recommendation.

Speaking in November last year, Nyeri Senator Ephraim Maina, one of Raila’s former students, described the Azimio presidential candidate as a lecturer who was popular with the students, and defended their rights.

“Raila was my lecturer in university. So anytime you refer to me as an engineer, know that I gained my knowledge from him. He is also an engineer like me and I have no doubt in his ability to lead this country,” he said during an event convened by Mt Kenya region leaders to endorse Raila’s presidential bid.

But for his controversial stand and sustained scrutiny from intelligence officers, or Special Branch, as they were popularly known at the time, Raila opted out of teaching to a new job of director at Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs). A few years down the line, however, Raila would become the establishment’s biggest headache, leading to his arrest and dismissal from Kebs.

Soon Raila was a hunted man and his family members persecuted. His wife, Ida, would later be hounded out of her teaching job at Kenya High School. Raila, who was on permanent flight, would at some point get arrested and detained for nine years, over his political activities, including alleged involvement in 1982 attempted coup against former president Daniel Moi.

But there were many individuals in academia and civil society who were pushing for political reforms, and Raila is just the face of that team. Most of those who fought alongside him in the trenches, including running mate Martha Karua, governors, Kiraitu Murungi (Meru), Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o (Kisumu), Charity Ngilu (Kitui), Siaya Senator James Orengo, former UNCTAD Secretary General Mukhisa Kituyi, lawyers Gitobu Imanyara and Pheroze Nowrjee, and Mombasa-based Islamic preacher, Sheikh Khalid Balala, are among those backing his presidential quest.  

Although these, and other so-called Young Turks, scattered to various political outfits upon the reintroduction of multi-party politics in 1992 by Moi, the Raila-Karua bid has evidently excited and re-united these political heroes of yesteryear.

Speaking in 2020 at the University of Nairobi during the launch of Prof Nyong’o’s anthology of short stories titled, ‘Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy in Kenya?: Choices to Be Made’, Kiraitu reflected on Raila’s long “journey to Canaan”, which he hoped would come to fruition this year.     

Kiraitu first met Raila, at Shimo La Tewa prison in Mombasa County where they consulted deeply and even quarreled over food. Kiraitu Murungi, then a young lawyer, had paid a visit to a new client, Raila, who had gone on a hunger strike for seven days. Raila, recalled Kiraitu, had become severely sick and looked so weak after seven days of not eating anything.

Kiraitu alerted his client that he may have been playing into the Kanu regime’s net: “If you continue doing this (hunger strike), you are soon going to die my friend,” Kiraitu warned Raila. “Don’t you think (the regime) will be very happy to see you dead?” the young lawyer posed. That single threat did the magic.

“The former PM and I are no longer the boisterous young men of the 1990s who arrogantly and forcefully pushed for democratic change. Nonetheless, we and the rest of the Young Turks are available and remain the best bet for this country having seen it all and experienced the regimes of Jomo, Moi, Mwai Kibaki and now Uhuru Kenyatta,” said Kiraitu.

Tony Gachoka, now a media consultant, is optimistic that Raila’s spirited efforts will pay off this time around: “I have covered politics for nearly three decades now and I can tell you, this time around the gods are with him. And having finally endeared himself to Mt Kenya voters – even 15 or 20 per cent of the vote is enough to see him through.”

In his quest for the top job, though, Raila has stepped on the toes of many, including of allies.

Bungoma Senator Moses Wetang’ula, for instance, considers Raila unreliable, unappreciative and overconfident – factors which he claims have rightly or wrongly impacted negatively on his political career.

Another factor that stands in his way is apparent complacency. Nyeri Town MP Wambugu Ngunjiri, who served as head of political affairs in Raila’s 2013 campaigns, points to major lapses, including “total failure in protecting Baba’s vote”, especially in Mt Kenya region. Courtesy of Azimio’s presence in the region, Wambugu believes such gaps will be addressed this time around.

Even though he has good chances of emerging victor this time, the rival Deputy President William Ruto political juggernaut is not a walkover. The DP, who is vying on a UDA ticket, has continued to whip up emotions among the masses in what promises to be a mouth-watering contest.