Place of Luo Nyanza in post-Raila Kenya as his exit looms

Raila Odinga looks on during the coronation of Luo Council of Elders chair Odungi Randa at Ofafa Hall in Kisumu. [Michael Mute, Standard]

Speculation about Raila Odinga's imminent retirement from the local scene has brought into sharp focus the role his Nyanza backyard plays in the country's politics.

Since the return of pluralism, the region has fielded a presidential candidate in every election. The former prime minister has been that candidate five times (1997, 2007, 2013, 2017 and 2022), with his father trying out in the 1992 polls. In 2002, Siaya Governor James Orengo made a stab at the presidency.

The lake region's political history is very much intertwined with the nation's. Nyanza, despite not having lost large tracts of land to white settlers as Central, Rift Valley and parts of Western were, joined the resistance movement against British colonialism, with its daughters and sons later making a mark in various facets of national life.

Political by nature, the region has produced agitators, who have joined other compatriots in pushing for reforms at different stages.

And since independence when it was considered among the 'large communities', alongside Mt Kenya, Nyanza has held significant political say, producing the country's first vice president and a prime minister but never tasting the presidency.

The likelihood that the region could present a challenge to Ruto in the 2027 elections is growing slimmer, courtesy of realignments that favour a Kalonzo Musyoka candidacy in Raila's absence.

Talk within Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya suggests that Kalonzo's running mate could come from the former Western province, a race currently pitting former Kakamega Governor Wycliffe Oparanya, former Defence Cabinet Secretary Eugene Wamalwa and Nairobi Senator Edwin Sifuna.

The insistence by Raila's Orange Democratic Movement that it must produce a deputy if it forgoes the State House quest threatens to scuttle Wamalwa's chances, narrowing the race to between Oparanya and Sifuna.

Such developments sink Nyanza, specifically Luo Nyanza, lower in the opposition's hierarchy. This reality has not escaped the region's politicians, who are clamouring for the number two slot if they are to seed the flagbearer role.

The matter came up during a fundraising event in Migori last week, with Safina party leader Jimi Wanjigi urging the region to evaluate its influence and settle for nothing less than it deserves.

"Ask yourselves, as the community of Lake Victoria, what is our irreducible minimum? If we cannot occupy the presidency, then we must get the deputy president seat," said Wanjigi.

The businessman, a presidential hopeful, picked lawyer Willis Otieno as his running mate in his thwarted 2022 bid for the presidency. He seems keen to retain the lawyer for his 2027 bid, even as he explores other options.

A fortnight ago, lawmakers from Nyanza also shared this sentiment. Their apparent plan is to have Raila's "temporary" successor in ODM and, by extension, Azimio, picked from Nyanza, given they believe the former premier will continue leading the opposition outfit.

Such a person would eventually be part of the decision-making table and be considered for the running mate position, if not the main candidate.

"If there will be any need to have somebody superintend this coalition and our ODM party, we shall look at the regional representation of ODM. We are not going by any other consideration. It is a fact that only Luoland has 100 per cent for ODM," said Nyando MP Jared Okello, who fronted National Assembly Minority Leader Opiyo Wandayi.

His Alego-Usonga counterpart Sam Atandi shared the view.

"Raila Amollo Odinga has already indicated to us the person he would like to take over and hold brief for him in the meantime, as he goes to the African Union and I am just informing the nation that the person is Opiyo Wandayi," said Atandi.

Luo sages counsel that two cockerels are not to be cooked in a single pot, hence the lawmakers' insistence that Raila remains the opposition's leader, specifically in Nyanza.

Although the opposition leader's influence spans several counties, significantly across the Western and Coast regions, Nyanza is the most bankable, supporting him, rain or shine. Only the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga matches his son's influence in Nyanza, where the two opposition veterans' word has been law.

"Raila has been a unifying factor in Luo Nyanza and his absence might affect the region at the national level unless a strong candidate emerges," says Moi University lecturer of History Timothy Onduru.

"I don't foresee anyone emerging because leaders don't emerge overnight. They are nurtured over time," adds Dr Onduru.

And so it seems that securing the ODM leader's support is critical in winning over the region that boasts 2.1 million votes, according to statistics the electoral commission published ahead of the 2022 polls.

Such numbers are significant for any presidential hopeful, given the region traditionally votes as a bloc. 

Courtesy of his support for Raila in the last three successive polls, Kalonzo is believed to have a head-start in Raila's backyard. With Raila's endorsement, observers note that he should record percentages as high as Raila's in Luo Nyanza, always beyond 90 per cent.

That fact has significantly informed Azimio's preference for a Luhya candidate to deputise Kalonzo, whose Ukambani region currently starts him off at 1.7 million registered voters. The former Western province plus Trans Nzoia, which accounts for 2.6 million voters, has long been a Raila stronghold.

Choosing a running mate from Western could excite the region currently represented in President William Ruto's government by National Assembly Speaker Moses Wetang'ula and Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi.

The same could be true for Nyanza, which has attracted others interested in claiming their piece.

"Luos can make noise, necessary or not, and they will be heard," notes University of Nairobi lecturer of Philosophy Francis Owakah, who faults Raila's failure in grooming a successor and foresees a disintegration of the opposition with Raila's exit.

"Raila refused to bring up the younger generation and did not let them grow... ODM will eventually die a natural death. Luos believe it is their party and the Coastal people, through Hassan Joho, are also saying the same," argues Dr Owakah.

Dr Onduru shares this view, stating the region could disintegrate without a unifying factor.