To leave, or not: ODM expulsion and the effect on rebels' future

Opposition leader Raila Odinga speaks at Bomachoge Borabu in Kisii County on October 10, 2023. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

Opposition leader Raila Odinga's ODM party faces a tough litmus test following the decision to open a fresh war front with perceived rebels in the party's backyard.

This fight has thrown the political future of MPs Gideon Ochanda (Bondo), Senator Tom Ojienda (Kisumu), Caroli Omondi (Suba South), Elisha Odhiambo (Gem), and Lang'ata MP Phelix Odiwuor into uncertainty.

The Standard has learned that the party is devising a strategy to regain the seats held by the embattled MPs while focusing on eroding their grassroots support for betraying the party.

History, marked by similar conflicts between the party and former allies, does not bode well for these five individuals. Their future appears uncertain as they seek to fend off ODM's attempts to dismantle their political careers.

Unrivalled support

In Nyanza, where the party enjoys nearly unrivalled support, few leaders have shown a willingness to challenge ODM recently, and fewer still have succeeded.

ODM has nurtured and dashed numerous political careers since its inception 18 years ago. Raila's party stands out as one of the few political entities that have weathered the storm of realignments, maintaining substantial support in most parts of the country.

While some leaders who disagreed with Raila's party have witnessed their careers fade into obscurity, particularly in Luo Nyanza, others have been fortunate enough to realign themselves with the government and rejuvenate their careers through state appointments.

However, this trend now faces an ultimate test in the wake of last week's decision by the party to expel the five MPs.

According to observers, the decision to expel the members could potentially spell doom for the political careers of the five MPs, considering the significant support that the party enjoys in Nyanza.

ODM dominance

On the other hand, allies of the embattled lawmakers believe their expulsion might mark the start of the end of ODM's dominance in the region, should these leaders successfully stage a comeback and align themselves with anti-ODM forces in the area.

'ODM rebel MPs', from left: Elisha Odhiambo (Gem), Felix Odiwuor (Lang'ata), Paul Aburo (Rongo) and Caroli Omondi (Suba South). [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

They remain optimistic that the five will change allegiances and join President William Ruto's camp, actively working to gain support in Nyanza through UDA.

On Friday, a confident Raila and a group of allies hinted at the possibility of the five legislators fading away from the region's politics, effectively ruling out their chances of ever receiving the party's endorsement again.

He announced the party's intentions to initiate an extensive grassroots mobilisation campaign to fortify the Orange party in its strongholds.

"We will organise grassroots elections and ensure the party's strength," said Raila, emphasising their readiness to confront the rebel MPs at the ballot box.

Contentious party primaries

This marked the first instance where the Orange party expelled many MPs from Nyanza. Historically, the party heavily relied on campaigns against perceived rebels leading up to party nominations, ensuring their failure at the ballot or granting direct tickets to their favoured allies to exclude the rebels.

In the past, most leaders who had disagreements with the party struggled to revive their political careers, with the majority remaining in political obscurity for years.

Except for Ugenya MP David Ochieng and Kisumu East MP Shakeel Shabbir, who had disagreements with the party after contentious party primaries but managed to secure subsequent election victories, the journey has been far from smooth for other leaders who parted ways with ODM.

Not even the substantial influx of independent candidates in the 2013, 2017, and 2022 General Election in Nyanza troubled ODM at the ballot, as former allies fell short in their attempts to challenge the party after parting ways with it.

The list of former party stalwarts is extensive, with most of them joining forces to promote Ruto's UDA party, while others have gradually faded from public life.

This includes former MPs Edick Anyanga (Nyatike), former governors Evans Kidero (Nairobi), Jack Ranguma (Kisumu), former Kisumu Senator Fred Outa, along with numerous former MPs and aspirants.

ODM popularity

Anyanga, who currently chairs the Kenya Nuclear Regulatory Authority board, had a falling out with Raila and recently defected to UDA. He is among the leaders spearheading an offensive to diminish the popularity of ODM in favour of UDA.

"We will persist in promoting President Ruto's party to the fullest extent. We have a well-defined strategy, and the tide is swiftly changing. We will not yield to outdated politics where a party opposes the government merely for the sake of opposition."

Kenya Nuclear Regulatory Authority board chair Edick Anyanga. [Nanjinia Wamuswa, Standard]

However, whether the embattled MPs will seek refuge in the president's camp remains uncertain. They all maintain their innocence and have pledged to fight for their right to remain in the party.

Observers believe this conflict could potentially escalate to the Supreme Court but also anticipate the possibility of a weakened ODM due to these disputes.

According to constitutional lawyer Wilfred Nderitu, the leaders can survive.

"I don't believe this is a matter that anyone will accept passively. I anticipate it will escalate to the Supreme Court," he said, adding that it would be challenging for ODM to achieve its objectives.

"The party may not possess the same strength as it once did. It could be somewhat challenging for the party to attain its goals," Nderitu said. Nevertheless, the MPs remain resolute amid these controversies and have pledged to contest the party's decision.

Emerging victorious

According to Ochanda, they are gearing up for a legal battle to contest the party's decision to expel them.

"Since February, the party ceased communication with us. If the party stopped enforcing party discipline, what's wrong with taking the stance we've adopted?" Ochanda said. 

Allies of these leaders conveyed to The Standard their optimism about emerging victorious. "The reality is that no one is eager for a by-election at this moment. These leaders have been fulfilling their duties effectively, and their disagreements with the party should not hinder their work," one lawmaker said.

According to political analyst Bruce Odeny, the ongoing dialogue between Raila's camp and the government could save the MPs.

(Additional reporting by Anne Atieno)