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Raila's anti-Ruto crusade could either sink his career or revive it

Azimio la Umoja Raila Odinga. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

The Raila Odinga of 2022 is not in any form, disposition and mannerism the Raila of 2013 or 2017.

Nowadays, whenever the opposition leader appears in public, he uncharacteristically wears a woebegone look. Gone is the cheerful Raila who radiated with humour, regaled jubilant crowds with parables and sported a sphinx-like smile on his face. 

There’s no longer the swinging and the swag, the dancing in a squat position and the head bobbing, nor the overuse of the hands, especially the left, which he mostly used to make a point or hold a handkerchief to wipe tears from his ailing left eye.

The Azimio la Umoja leader has no time for campaign antics. He’s in a race against time preoccupied by the urgency to meet the moment and rescue his tanking, decades-old political career. His national appeal is fast fading. His messaging is increasingly sounding unpersuasive and bland. His party is tottering. His loyalists are being poached or co-opted. If it’s not one thing, it’s the other.

Raila is straining every nerve to try to remain relevant in a different Kenya, where William Ruto’s election victory ushered in a new reality that threatens to end the former prime minister’s chokehold on the national psyche. 

At 77, Raila, the once quintessential crowd-puller, would have liked to go out with a bang, the title of president and commander-in-chief of the Republic of Kenya to which he scarified himself too much — and then immortalise his legacy.  

Previous setback

But the recent election rout has dashed that dream, sending him back to the drawing board and to what he’s adept at: Finding fault with the government of the day, disputing the fairness of election results and blaming foreign countries for his misfortune. It seems he’s left with no choice but to return to his old self.

This time around, though, Raila is in for a rude awakening. While his tactics didn’t change, Kenyans did. For many, “freedom has come.” 

If in 2017 Uhuru Kenyatta was desperate for political and social legitimacy after Raila withdrew from the presidential race, Ruto is sitting pretty, believing that he earned the presidency after overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles and defeating the Establishment’s favorite and its machinery.

For the gleeful Ruto, taking on Raila in a bareknuckle post-election battle would sound as easy as taking candy from a baby. 

Ideally, the pair’s antagonism should have ended the day the country’s Supreme Court pronounced its verdict on the results of the presidential election.

But, for Raila, the August election loss and its aftermath were unlike any other he endured in previous setbacks. They were past bearing and his chance of recovering from them are minimal. He will soon turn 80, something that could erode his hope of running for 2027 elections. Worse still, a new vocal and malcontent generation with little respect for him has emerged and the party that once had the largest number of lawmakers in parliament is being hollowed out slowly, but systematically. Most galling to him is, Ruto has already cannibalized his once-rock-solid support base. 

Single proposition

Many of Raila’s supporters have also moved on, leaving him ploughing a lonely furrow. Raila’s fans blanche when they ruminate on what had befallen their idol. They particularly bristle at his failure to take advantage of the machinery of government. 

Now, Raila appears as someone who’s playing a game of whack-a-mole — the moment he resolves one problem, another pops up. Pickles are pouring in from almost every nook and cranny, from his enemies calling on him to retire from politics to rebellious party members sighing for a slice from the new dispensation.

Raila, the phenom, has other Augean tasks to contend with: If he wants to survive politically, he has to peel more Kenyans away from Ruto, the former chicken seller who wormed his way into Kenyans’ affections. Raila’s current pitiable propaganda machine is barely capable of creating a national narrative resolving around his cause, as he did with great dexterity in the past.

His maniacs are torn between those willing to die with him and others dying for a new beginning with a new kingmaker. 

His refined rationale in election campaigns against Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta was premised on a subtle, but single proposition: One tribe, Kikuyu, wanted to be the overlord of the other 40 plus tribes in the country.

The August elections revealed that the Kikuyus themselves have been sufferers of a camarilla on the make that for its own interest amped up members of the tribe with a message of a siege mentality.

Quick on the uptake, Ruto tapped into that resentment and won Kikuyus’ votes. His running mate, Rigathi Gachagua, a firebrand, also played a pivotal role in turning Kikuyus against Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of the country’s first President.

In power, Ruto appears to be leaving nothing to chance: The much-talked about Hustler Fund is up and running, and according to officials, receives thousands of requests each second. Cabinet members are set to contribute their December salary to the drought kitty. Cabinet Secretary for Interior and Administration of National Government Kithure Kindiki tamped down a wave of crimes that recently hit the capital. Poaching and co-opting opposition figures are a 24/7 affair that has so far netted or is about to net some Raila loyalists.

In central Kenya, the nucleus of Kenya’s politics, Gachagua is charming his fellow Kikuyus with a clarity and frankness not seen by them in decades. Kicked around by their elites, Ruto’s bottom-up economic model is what the doctor ordered.

On his part, Musalia Mudavadi, Prime Cabinet Secretary, who hails from the Western Region has recently been working hard to convince governors and lawmakers from his area to support the Ruto administration.

Mombasa Governor Abdulswamad Sheriff Nassir, a Raila loyalist, said after meeting with President Ruto on November 18 that he looked forward to “deepening our collaboration on other policy areas to revive the economic fortunes of Mombasa for the benefit of the people.” 

Nassir lauded Ruto’s decision to align the national administration’s policy on the Port of Mombasa with the county’s position. On his first day in office, Ruto returned to Mombasa all port operations that were moved during President Uhuru’s tenure to Nairobi and Naivasha Inland Container Depots.   

“This regime wasn’t ready to lead. It has no idea of how to solve Kenya’s problems and seems obsessed with campaigning,” Raila lamented on November 25.

Raila vowed to topple Ruto’s system, urging Kenyans to stand up for their country “before it is too late.” He said that “the criminal justice system is collapsing” and that “the Judiciary has been captured.”

“We wish to remind Mr. Ruto that this country had a system like the one he is trying to reinvent. We fought that system. We brought down that system,” he said. “We will do so to the one he is inventing now. We will bring it down.”

Ruto shot back, saying: “Leaders must unite to address the challenges facing Kenyans such as the current famine and desist from issues that add no value to the lives of Kenyans.”

Ruto-inspired populism

How long the Ruto-inspired populism will last is uncertain, but citizens in several other countries, including Hungary and the Philippines, have exhibited a tendency to adore strong-willed populist leaders. The approval rating of President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines was 87 per cent when he left office last June after six-years in power. Viktor Orbán won Hungary’s premiership for the fourth consecutive term last April despite strong opposition by the European Union, of which his country is a member.

Nevertheless, Raila, the never-say-die politician, is unlikely to lose heart despite the strong headwinds he’s facing. Raila had been there before and succeeded in blazing a new path for himself, either through a power-sharing agreement with the incumbent or through notching up favorable favors from a president he believed purloined his victory. Currently, Raila seems to be bracing for a brawl with Ruto.

The danger is, the more he pushes his anti-Ruto agenda hard, the more he risks alienating the larger Kenyan public that appears to have accepted his inability to wrest the presidency and seemingly given up on him. The pushback against Ruto is also a form of brinkmanship: The agitation for relevance could give way to long-term irrelevance and political wildness.   

Raila’s decision to bet the farm on the fate of the electoral officials —  who have since been suspended by the president after Parliament endorsed the Justice and Legal Affairs Committee’s report recommending their removal — reeks of a poor strategy.

It is indicative of the opposition leader’s detachment from the public’s overriding concerns and of his weak sense of timing. On Tuesday, he rescheduled a rally to express support for the four electoral officials. Initially slated for Wednesday, when students are sitting their exams, it’s postponed until Dec. 7, just four days before Jamhuri Day and about two weeks before the festive mood of holidays sets in.

“Street demonstrations and street fights should not be part of the script of any responsible opposition,” Ruto said, “unless they want to be a dictatorial opposition, which I think they do not; that is where they want to go because it works for nobody; it doesn’t even work for them.”

The very campaign against the efforts to investigate the four commissioners is antipodal. In his push for natural justice, Raila came out as someone who is against the rule of law: He accepts the legitimacy of Parliament, while rejecting its authority exercised throughout its Justice and Legal Affairs Committee. 

On November 25, Raila exchanged tweets with Ruto over the four electoral commissioners, with President Ruto bluntly labeling Raila and his allies “lords of impunity, who destroyed oversight institutions” through “the handshake fraud.”

“New order is RULE of LAW not wishes of big men,” wrote Ruto.

Stumped by the tweet blow, Raila artlessly repeated Ruto’s words: “The rule of law must prevail.” Then added: “not your jungle laws that you want to institute so as to subjugate Kenyans to a conveyor belt system of elections come 2027.”

Raila’s fans would indeed have wished their man to be as foxy as Ruto instead of playing a threadbare card of victimhood. 

Of course, Raila is not out of his mind when he buttresses the cause of the four commissioners. His legacy as an opposition doyen is at stake. To remain relevant, he has to throw the kitchen sink at his anti-Ruto crusade.

And time is of the essence for Raila.  

Ruto, a master strategist, has already done enough damage to Raila when he at his inauguration appointed Uhuru as the country’s envoy to the Great Lakes and the Horn of Africa regions. 

The appointment was both timely and advantageous to Uhuru, who was in need of a cover that could protect him from the wrath of the man he so viciously fought against.

Ruto also provided Uhuru, whose regime was accused of the killing of Kenya Kwanza’s would-be IT staffers and many other Kenyans extra judicially — in addition to running down the economy – the immunity he badly needed.

Those favors put Uhuru in an unenviable position: He can’t publicly criticize his successor-turned-his new boss, nor can he afford to lend a hand to Raila, without falling afoul of Ruto. Uhuru can’t be a peacemaker abroad and troublemaker at home. 

In their first public appearance since the inauguration on September 13, Uhuru, the ever-jolly man, was chummy with Ruto. Uhuru seemed to be savouring his shuttle diplomacy and has visibly packed on extra pounds.

The fact is the friends Raila can depend on are thinning out. 

Raila could only bank on a diminishing number of die-hard loyalists and admirers, who still buy his advocacy for justice and development for marginalized regions. Even his ally, Kalonzo Musyoka — who’s known for his genial manner and waffling during charged moments — has little incentive to play a polarizing tune that could dent his image before his possible presidential bid in 2027. Jubilee and Kanu, parties within Azimio la Umoja One Kenya, have said that their supporters won’t participate in the mass rallies announced by Raila.

Moreover, Raila can’t fund a sustained onslaught on a sitting government that is hell-bent on ending his political career this year, or in its first term.

Still, Raila, always adroit at threading the needle between his personal pursuits and the public’s interest, can pull a rabbit out of the hat for the new administration and enmesh it in endless confrontations and running street battles.

A hare-brained mass rallies that outwardly amount to a death wish could well be the necessary pyre Raila needs to burn himself to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the August drubbing. While Ruto is busy chipping away at Raila’s influence across the country, Raila can focus on the ills of the new administration in a manner that is appealing to the public. He’s still a largely respected politician, but his grumbling is off-putting to many Kenyans. 

He has yet to create a message of “we-are-in-this-together.” Therein lies the rub.

Whether Raila can get new converts beyond Nyanza is far from assured. It’s, however, probable that if President Ruto doesn’t commit terrible miscalculations in his dealing with Raila, the enigma’s resurgent protests and search for relevance in Kenya’s new order will fizzle out earlier than expected. Ruto, who pulled a fast one on Uhuru, can leave Raila, still punch-drunk with the last election loss, in the dust.

Raila’s propensity for getting into bed with late Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta has sowed doubts in the minds of many of his supporters. Many of them were miffed by his decision to become an appeaser of Uhuru, which they vehemently opposed. Once duped, those supporters are cautious this time around.

Raila may have — in the eyes of some — saved the country from further violence and possible disintegration, but his bromance with Uhuru can easily be termed as the first step of a journey into oblivion.