2022: What will make or break Raila Odinga

Fruits of handshake:  Having patched up things with President Uhuru Kenyatta, ODM leader Raila Odinga addresses the nation Jamuhuri Day celebrations at Uhuru Gardens in Nairobi on December 12, 2021. [Emmanuel Wanson, Standard]

Raila Odinga has been characterised as an enigmatic political operative.  He is defined in different ways by different people, depending on their interests.

At the height of the power struggle in the Ford Kenya Party, in 1994–96, after the demise of his father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, his nemesis Michael Wamalwa Kijana characterised him as a deep thinker and an unpredictable individual.

He could not be understood superficially, Wamalwa said, “When you have agreed with Raila, check also what Amolo thinks.” 

Yet what stands out most poignantly was his characterisation by President Moi, at the apogee of negotiations between Kanu, the mighty party of its day, and Raila’s National Development Party (NDP) in 1998.

 Moi saw in Raila a highly gifted individual. He had the capacity to rule and lead the country. “But he must learn to be patient and to cooperate with Kanu,” President Moi concluded.

These remarks, came in public, from the one man who ruled Kenya for 24 years. He called himself a professor of politics and said that Kanu would rule Kenya for a hundred years. But he also reminded Raila that Kanu had its owners.

Placed under the political microscope, President Moi’s words are pithy and heavy with significance. They call for detailed attention by Raila and his handlers in the wake of the launch of the 2022 Raila presidential bid.

Indeed, his adversaries, too, must take note of them. They provide a compass for a political profile that must never get out of eyesight, if the ultimate prize must be captured, or thwarted, depending on where one stands.  

The Moi characterisation of the ODM leader is a sketch of restlessness of soul and impatience of spirit. Put together with the characterisation by Wamalwa, the two roughs speak of the need for conscious and methodic management of the imminent campaign, if the prize should not slip through the fingers.

The country is reminded of how another opportunity for a political comeback slipped through the fingers of another Odinga.

Raila’s father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, lost it in 1981 when it was all but sewn up. Accordingly, there is the family jinx that Raila will do well to consciously pay attention to.

In his first term as the elected head of state, President Moi conscientiously worked towards rehabilitating Jaramogi from the political oblivion that the Kenyatta regime had consigned him into, in the period 1966 – 1969.

Odinga had been variously detained, put under house arrest and veritably obliterated from Kenya’s politics and political speak.

He had been vaporised into a non-extant being, in the style of the South African Apartheid regime, to become what George Orwell calls in his Nineteen-Eighty-Four dystopian novel, “a non-person.” 

Such persons are not only removed from the arena of life, memory of them must also be obliterated through exclusion from daily conversations. 

Former President Daniel arap Moi tried to bring Jaramogi Odinga back to the fold in 1981 but it didn't work. His second in 1993 succeeded. The rapprochement held until Jaramogi's death in 1994. [File, Standard]

It was from such confinement that Moi was rehabilitating Odinga when the old man goofed by directing offensive idiom towards the late President Kenyatta. Getting poised to take over the Bondo Constituency parliamentary in a choreographed byelection, Jaramogi ran ahead of himself, to refer to Mzee Kenyatta as “a land grabber.”

Addressing a gathering at the Kenyan coast in his recently appointed capacity as the chairman of the Cotton Lint and Seed Board, Odinga lavished Kenya’s second president with poisons praise. Regrettably, the septic chalice was in his own lap.

“President Moi is a good leader,” Jaramogi said, “He is not like Kenyatta. Kenyatta was a land grabber. That is why Moi approached me and said to me, ‘Come, Baba, let us work together and build Kenya.’”

That was it. A piquant Attorney-General, Charles Njonjo, stepped up to the plate of political attrition at once. “Who is this man who has no respect for the dead and for our president?”

Njonjo quipped, “How can he call Kenyatta a land grabber?” But that was not all, Njonjo was dismayed at the thought that President Moi was reported to have called the elder Odinga, Baba. “How can he say that the president called him Baba? Is he elevating himself above the president?”

The rest is history that Raila must continue to ruminate on, even as he labours his way through Kenya’s murky political terrain, ahead of August 9, 2022.

As his support base adorns him in colorful appellations of Baba, and adulates his dreams of a future “Babacare,” he will need to remember that his father drank from the Baba chalice, with disastrous outcomes.

The 1981 by-election in Bondo went on, but without Jaramogi. For the Kanu bigwigs swiftly expelled him from the only political party in the country and barred him from an election that was his for the taking.

The immediate former MP Joash Ougo had been made to resign to let Odinga take the seat. His goof was a godsend for his local nemesis, William Odongo Omamo, who now slipped into the seat with the ease of the electric eel in water. 

It goes back to President Moi’s characterisation, “He has what it takes to rule and lead Kenya. But he must be patient and cooperate with Kanu.” Besides, “Kanu will rule for a hundred years,” and “Kanu has its owners.”

In principle, and perhaps also in practice, those who own Kanu also own Kenya. Arguably, they include persons in the frame and ranks of the wealthy and powerful Mt. Kenya Foundation (MKF). To cooperate with Kanu is, metaphorically, to be on the right side of the wealthy classes in the country.

Jaramogi Oginga Odinga: Did he squander a chance to bounce back into national leadership in 1981?

In the past, Raila’s campaigns did not cooperate with these classes. Symbolically, MKF’s endorsement of Raila for the presidency is indicative his ultimate rapprochement with the Kanu class.

Kanu has extended the olive branch of peace and goodwill to Raila, much the same way as President Moi’s Kanu extended the same to his father in 1981. What he does with this political capital will depend very much upon his self-management.

How does he manage a clear through pass in front of a yawning goal? A born again Raila must remain in the born again lane to the very end. He will avoid erratic pronouncements that in July 2017 irked President Uhuru, prompting him to the call of “Shame on you, Mr. Odinga.”

Raila had dragged the name of the disciplined forces, and especially, KDF into the 2017 election mischiefs. And in 2013, he sucked into the campaigns the National Intelligence Security Services. He also sent the wrong signals to the wealthy classes when he spoke of future state repossessions of ranches and forest lands that, he said, had been illegally acquired.

The issues repeatedly return to the spirit of patience, calibrated public poise, sangfroid and sense of occasion. He must manage his composure, body language, and every word and deed. His characterisation by President Moi as impatient followed his uncomplimentary remarks about Kanu, during the NDP-Kanu cooperation talks (1998).

At a public gathering in Kisumu, in the presence of Moi, Raila rattled against the call for him and his troops to dissolve NDP and join Kanu.

“We cannot bring down our own house and move into a house full of snakes and crocodiles,” he said.  He urged, instead, for limited cooperation and loyal opposition. He explained later that the reptiles in his address were Kanu’s political hardliners.

But, the damage was done. Moi had left the gathering in Kisumu a disappointed and angry president, terming Raila competence as restive.

The restlessness has recently been alluded to by retired Kenya Revenue Authority boss, Michael Waweru. In a newly published biography, Waweru laments Raila’s loss of opportunity to succeed President Kibaki.

He observes that Raila and the ODM brigade in the grand coalition government of 2008 –2013 engaged in unnecessary outbursts of anger against President Kibaki, when they should have been courting friendship.

While the letter and spirit of the National Reconciliation Accord Act (2008) that paved the way to this government spoke of the need for the President to work in consultation with the Prime Minister (Raila), ODM pushed the notion of consultation to the limits, thereby attempting to tie the president’s hands and legs and to gag his mouth. 

Jomo Kenyatta detained fellow nationalist Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. [File, Standard]

The ensuing bad blood of impatience between ODM and President Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU) derailed whatever opportunity there could have been for support by Kibaki, for a Raila presidency.

The 2009 half-a-carpet outburst, when Raila railed against Kibaki’s provincial administration for what he called belittling him tells it all. An angry Raila exploded in public in Mombasa, wondering why there was not a single senior official from the administration at the gathering.

“There is not even a district commissioner. And look at this (red) carpet they have brought here. This half-a-carpet! Half a carpet! Remove this thing here at once! There is even no toilet facility!”

Besides loss of opportunities to bag the support of critical institutions and entities in the past, Raila’s restlessness has cost him political colleagues and their support bases. The biggest of this was easily the Rift Valley vote in 2013 and subsequently 2017, after losing William Ruto.

Perhaps with axes of his own to grind, Ruto had been spectacularly supportive of Raila in 2007.  The happenings of 2008 in the North Rift alleged to have been associated with Ruto spoke of unmitigated zeal.

As a factor of his overzealous support for Raila, Ruto found himself in the dock before the International Criminal Court (ICC), looking straight in the face of some of the very worst crimes in the world – war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Significantly, Raila was riled by the 2007/08 post-election violence-related taunting by Ruto and his supporters that he advised them to carry their own cross and go to hell. 

The effects of the Ruto fallout linger on, three general elections later. Raila’s gamble that he could appeal directly to the Rift Valley vote base flopped. So, too, did his hanging on in 2013 to a remnant of big names from the region, including Dr. Sally Koskei, Henry Kosgey, Margaret Kamar, Franklin Bett and William Ole Ntimamah. It did little to salvage a bad situation.

Giving Raila Odinga a through pass, President Uhuru Kenyatta: [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

The North Rift last man standing in ODM, Magerer Lagat, was roughly bundled out of office in October 2014 as Raila looked on, in what many saw as an orchestrated ejection of what was left of the North Rift in ODM. 

Instructively, in the lead-up to the 2013 election, the ODM starry pentagon of 2007 had withered away, with the departure of one star after the other.

Najib Balala left soon after Ruto, both accusing Raila of despotism. Joe Nyagah resigned from ODM and announced that he had also quit politics. Musalia Mudavadi was one of the last two to leave, citing what he called “dictatorship.”

Charity Ngilu slipped away quietly and joined Uhuru and Ruto in the Jubilee Alliance. Raila was left alone, striving to reload ODM, under the charge of youthful greenhorns, led by Budalang’i MP, Ababu Namwamba, Suba counterpart Millie Odhiambo, nominated MP Rachel Shebesh and Starehe MP, Bishop Margaret Wanjiru. 

All the ODM Reloaded leaders, with the exception of Odhiambo, also deserted him soon afterward. It is a streak that he must guard against in his fresh lease of political life under Azimio la Umoja and support from President Uhuru and those who own Kenya.

It is instructive that as part of cooperating with those he fought in the past, some of his more ardent progressives are missing in action.

Senator James Orengo and Rarieda MP, Lawyer Amolo Otiende, were besieged earlier in the year, following some reservations on the troubled Building Bridges (BBI) draft Bill, after a consultative meeting in Mombasa. They have since been slowly sidelined from the mainstay of Raila’s activities. 

Less heard of, too, are the Brothers Kajwang (TJ, and Moses), Opiyo Wandai (Ugunja) and George Kaluma (Homa Bay Town) and Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o (Kisumu).

Raila has also lost crucial support from his former co-principals in NASA. At the centre today are more Platonically abdominal and duodenal individuals, some of whom have characterised themselves as cows.

The presidential effort, however, requires more thinking than what the abdomen of a cow can provide. Certainly, Raila will need more than cows and sundry ruminants as navigates his vessel towards State House. 

-Dr Barrack Muluka is a strategic communications adviser