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The making of Azimio: Political milestone for handshake duo

President Uhuru Kenyatta when he first shook hands with ODM leader Raila Odinga. [File, Standard]

Long before anyone could dream of Raila Odinga’s Azimio la Umoja–One Kenya Alliance, his father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, was already talking of another Azimio, in the mid 1960’s. Irreconcilable ideological differences between the elder Odinga and President Jomo Kenyatta gave birth to the left-leaning Kenya People’s Union (KPU), with Azimio la Wananchi as its rallying call. 

The citizens, Odinga asserted, were unhappy with the direction the country was taking. The Kenyatta government had stepped into the shoes of the colonial masters and the country was not yet independent. It needed to be liberated a second time, now from the liberators. Hence the clarion call for a second liberation as the people’s call – Azimio la Wananchi.

Fifty-seven years on, his son Raila is rallying a slew of the population around what he calls the third liberation. The agenda is economic liberation, he says, going right back to the same theme and concerns that engaged his father and KPU in the 1960s.

The question that is likely to travel into history, beyond the present political dynamics, will be whether Raila’s Azimio was truly about economic liberation, as he says, or whether it was about political succession and capture of power. When Raila and President Uhuru Kenyatta for the first time brought into the open the process that has morphed into the entity that is today known as Azimio la Umoja–One Kenya Alliance, they stated that their focus had nothing to do with politics, and especially not the politics of Uhuru succession. 

Their mission was to bring about inter-ethnic goodwill and unity, and to spread the benefits of economic development to all Kenyans. This was crisply captured in the theme of Azimio la Umoja – the call for unity. Yet, the centre has slowly shifted from a unity call, to a call for a third liberation, and now a quest for political power.

The first liberation has been defined as political liberation that came with independence in 1963, while the second liberation was the restoration of multiparty democracy in November 1991. Was economic liberation always the Azimio la Umoja objective, or was the economy a red herring? 

Last month, on May 22, National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi accused Azimio of being a smoky and rudderless entity with a vague agenda. Its leadership was unknown, he said, and those fronting for it indifferent to the plight of the people. Muturi told a UDA town hall gathering in Murang’a, “I am not too sure whether the team in Azimio can tell us who their leader is. My good brother from Machakos, Governor Alfred Mutua has run away from them, because he could not tell who their leader was. It is not even clear who has selected Martha Karua (as Raila’s running mate), or what they want.”

Muturi, like the UDA boss and flagbearer, William Ruto, suggested that Azimio was a power-grab outfit, “by a few people who want to dominate Kenyans.”

Wherever the truth may lie, the bringing together of slightly more than 20 political parties under one umbrella to support Raila’s bid for power will for long be remembered as one of Uhuru’s legacies. Never before in the history of the country has a sitting president supported an Opposition chief to succeed him.

Elsewhere in Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi ascended to power in 2019 as President Paul Kabila’s project against the deputy president, Martin Fayalu.  

President Kabila’s political flirtation with Tshisekedi was a unique political experiment that has exploded in Kabila’s face. Tshisekedi has not become the marionette that he was supposed to be. Uhuru’s intentions with Raila remain hazy. Beyond recurrent declarations to the effect that Raila will be good for the country, and Raila’s own reciprocal promise to continue where Uhuru leaves off, in the same direction, the two leaders have not been clear on the political implications of their pact. 

Political power

Kenya is going to the election from a place where Uhuru and Raila have given the optics of a shared presidency, whose power-sharing accord was never declared, or dressed up in law, or in public. Yet, it is not lost on observers that the collapsed Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) had a power sharing framework as one of its goals. Its proposal to create the office of prime minister with two deputies betrayed power sharing and continuity of the Uhuru dispensation in some guise. Uhuru would continue to be part of Kenya’s political power matrix, with some level of State authority. This has been hinted at as one of the Azimio goals, especially by ANC leader, Musalia Mudavadi. 

Mudavadi has often chided Raila as a potential doll president, who would operate on remote control by Uhuru. And in his last Madaraka Day address, President Uhuru described BBI as Kenya’s deferred dream. It will be a reality someday, he said. Hope remains alive that BBI shall be reborn, should Raila ascend to power. The taking of Martha Karua into the Azimio fold has been a major victory for Azimio. Previously, an eager opponent of BBI, Karua is now for Uhuru and Raila a strategic beachhead. From here, further forays and political sorties could be undertaken against BBI’s adversaries. She has already shown signs of thawing, with the shift of position that she would now support BBI, if it is conducted within the coordinates of the existing law. An Azimio victory in next week’s election would provide a good opportunity for a fresh go at BBI, this time circumnavigating the illegalities that made three consecutive courts throw it out. 

Away from possibilities of power sharing deals, Azimio paints the portrait of Raila as a masterful serial builder of campaign alliances. He has had at least three sterling moments. He would hope that next week will crown his previous efforts with the grand prize of the presidency. In 2002, his Kibaki Tosha plea electrified a hitherto disjointed Opposition into unity of purpose.

They thwarted President Daniel Arap Moi’s Uhuru for President Project. Hardly three years later, however, Raila had viciously fallen out with President Kibaki. It was time for a new alliance.

Flawed laws

His Orange Democratic Movement of 2005 was a political and campaign powerhouse that laid waste to President Kibaki’s effort to give Kenya what critics have dismissed as a flawed Constitution, in the name of ameliorating the supreme source of the laws of Kenya. Nudged on by the victory in the 2005 constitutional referendum, Raila went on to transform ODM into a political party, a veritable campaign behemoth in 2007.

Together with 2002 and 2005, the three occasions mark the apogee of Raila’s political organisational skills. The 2013 Cord effort with Moses Wetang’ula and Kalonzo Musyoka and the NASA effort of 2017 were pale shadows of the earlier efforts. Can Raila up the performance? Only a clear presidential victory could achieve that. Raila appears to know this, hence his effort to make 2022 a hybrid of 2002, 2005 and 2017. 

The pattern, going back to 2002, is usually to create a euphoric rallying call against a common object of dislike. Then there is a messianic team of liberators (with him as the captain) and a cause the people can be made to believe in. In 2002, the object of distaste was the Uhuru Project, together with its sponsor, President Moi. The cause was to defeat the project, and the liberators the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). In 2005 the object of derision was President Mwai Kibaki and his government, complete with the Draft Constitution. The liberators were the ODM orange crusaders. The Orange team devised the mantra of “forty-one against one” as the clarion call for 2007, with pyric outcomes. 

The BBI effort and Azimio as its outcrop have focused on Ruto as the bad guy, and corruption and strong-headedness as his sins. During President Uhuru’s first term of office, Raila scoffed at the President’s promise to fight corruption with the words, “How can you talk about fighting corruption, while the high priest of corruption is seated next to you?”

It turned out that the alleged high priest was Ruto. Azimio has cast Ruto as the symbol of everything that has gone wrong in Kenya. Hence no effort has been made to disaggregate the country’s failures over the past 59 years, and their individual ownerships. Put together with such other political bigwigs as Kalonzo Musyoka (Wiper), Gideon Moi (Kanu), Charity Ngilu (Narc), and Karua of Narc-Kenya as a late entrant, and Uhuru as the overall political giant, Azimio expects that it could vanquish Ruto and his Kenya Kwanza allies in a first round victory, to keep power in its circles. 

If they should be victorious, the taste of the glue holding Azimio together will be eaten in post-election solidarity. It could get tricky. In December 2002, a freshly inaugurated President Mwai Kibaki scoffed at the Narc detractors, “Some prophets of doom have predicted a vicious infighting following this victory. I want to assure you they will be disappointed.”

Kibaki assured Kenyans that Narc had a solid unity of purpose. “When a group of people come together over an idea, or because of a shared vision, such a group can never fail, or disintegrate. Narc will never die as long as the original vision endures. It would seem there was no common vision, after all, beyond removing Moi from power and defeating his Uhuru Project. Narc disintegrated within the first three months of the elections. It collapsed totally in November 2005. 

Can Azimio succeed where the euphoric Narc of 2002 failed? If it does, it will be a profound success for Kenyatta and Odinga and their two families, whatever else they do or don’t do with their unity. Holding together for five years, if it happens, will be a first in Kenya since 1963, given the rich platform of distinct sectional interests – such as those that kept Kalonzo flip-flopping before he could finally say, “I do.” Yet, they ought to hold together, for they are called Azimio la Umoja – One Kenya Alliance. 

The writer is a strategic communication adviser