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My encounters with Baba reveal he does not hold political grudges

Opinion
 Raila Odinga shakes hands with Mwai Kibaki as Kofi Annan and William Ruto (right) look on following the formation of a Coalition government in 2008. [File, Standard]

When he was Uasin-Gishu governor, Jackson Mandago, now the area senator, gave us a gem of wisdom: He advised that politics are best kept in the lungs where you can breathe it out but not in the heart where it can tragically block your arteries.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga appears to play his politics by the ‘Mandago Principle’. That comes out clearly as one travels down memory lane of Raila’s chequered political career.

At a personal level, I have had occasions to chat with Raila and each time he told me he never held political grudges. More importantly, he always was ready to ignore the past and amicably work together with those he previously disagreed with.

The circumstances of our first meeting told that truism about Baba’s style of politics. It was at the height of the 1992 election campaigns where for the first time there would be a presidential contest on the ballot in a multi-party setting.

In the previous elections under one-party rule, the incumbent president would have himself endorsed and ‘elected’ by party delegates. In reality, no presidential election was held.

In 1992, the incumbent President Daniel Moi, would square it off with three formidable candidates: Kenneth Matiba, Mwai Kibaki and Jaramogi Odinga. I was working in the Matiba campaign and our media operations were housed at an office off Ngong Road. Raila was leading the charge for his dad’s (Jaramogi) campaign. Their campaign office – they called it ‘command centre’ – was at Agip House in the city centre.

My boss had asked me to look for Raila and seek an interview with him regarding the role he and Matiba had played in the bitter campaign for a return to the multi-party system in the early 1990s.

Nothing personal

Working for Matiba, his dad’s main challenger in the 1992 election, I didn’t expect Raila to grant me an interview. To my surprise and that of my boss, when I telephoned him to request the interview, Raila readily agreed.

Moreover, he volunteered to come to our offices.  I expected Raila to be tense, guarded or even bitter during the interview in the offices of his dad’s main political rival. Never! It was vintage Raila cracking jokes and heartily laughing as we chatted over a cup of tea.

He told me that though he wanted his father to win the election, he would be comfortable even if it was Matiba or Kibaki who won. For him, all that was important was to get Kanu out of power and put in place the reforms required to put the country back on the rails. A win by the opposition was all that mattered to him not who would be the President.

Broken promise

It didn’t matter to Raila that Matiba had reneged on a gentleman’s agreement between him and Jaramogi that they jointly fight for the restoration of a multi-party system and that once it happened, Matiba would be Jaramogi’s running-mate in the ensuing election.

Jaramogi, according to the agreement, would only be a one-term president after which Matiba would take over. As it turned out, Jaramogi who was already in his 80s and failing in health wouldn’t have been around to complete even a single term as he died only two years after the 1992 election.

There is no doubt that a Jaramogi-Matiba joint ticket would have swept the board in 1992 and formed the government. Between then they garnered over 2.3 million votes (Over 1.4 million for Matiba and over 0.9 million for Jaramogi). The winning candidate, Kanu’s Moi, had slightly over 1.9 million votes.

But Raila wasn’t bitter that Matiba had trashed a gentleman’s agreement reached with Jaramogi which cost the opposition a clear victory. I knew it because I interviewed Raila at parliament two years later in 1994. He told me he held no grudge against Matiba. Instead, he blamed it on misguided advice given to Matiba by myopic aides who couldn’t see that a divided opposition wouldn’t beat the well-oiled Kanu juggernaut.

It wasn’t until a decade later, in the 2002 elections, that the disjointed opposition came back to its senses and mounted a joint front that resoundingly ousted Kanu from power.

Raila would again show his magnanimity and capacity not to nurse political grudges when he heartily endorsed and successfully campaigned for a Kibaki-Michael Wamalwa ticket in the 2002 election.

None of the two (Kibaki or Wamalwa) had ever been Raila’s comrade-in-the-trenches. When he was a frequent ‘guest’ at Kenyan prisons where he cumulatively spent about eight years in detention without trial, Kibaki and Wamalwa were comfortably in bed with his (Raila) political tormentors.

As Raila risked his limb crusading for a multi-party system, Kibaki had retreated to the comfort of his Othaya home where he mocked multi- party crusaders that thinking they could remove Kanu from power was like deceiving themselves they could fell a giant mugumo (fig) tree using a razor-blade!

Meanwhile, as Raila dug deeper in the trenches, Wamalwa was enjoying the perks as the leader of the Kanu parliamentary group where he applied his great oratorical skills to discredit the budding opposition. To him, the multi-party crusaders, Raila in the forefront, were “leeches and malcontents blind-folded but looking for a dark cat in a dark room”. Try that if you can!

But as far as Raila was concerned, Kibaki and Wamalwa previous record didn’t matter in 2002. He said they were “Tosha” as the joint presidential candidate and the running-mate. It didn’t matter that as fate would have it, in the countdown to the 2002 election, Kibaki and Wamalwa were hospitalised in London. An energised Raila went around the country with a message that though the ‘team captain’ and his ‘assistant’ were injured and in hospital, the match had to go on!

The opposition won and Raila was contented to serve as a cabinet minister as Kibaki and Wamalwa were sworn in as President and Vice President, respectively. Unfortunately, Wamalwa would die only eight months later. Many expected Raila to replace him as the No.2. Instead it is ‘Uncle’ Moody Awori who was appointed to replace Wamalwa.

Nusu-mkate

Come 2007/8 post-election turmoil, Raila once again proved he had a big heart when he agreed to sit down with his bitter adversary, President Kibaki, and clinch an accord that saved the country from the blink of a precipice.

The country had emerged from a presidential election where many believed victory was snatched from Raila. An independent inquiry headed by a retired South African judge concluded that the 2007 Kenyan presidential election was too messy that it was hard to tell who between Kibaki and Raila won or lost.

I was at the KICC presidential tallying centre on the evening the results were announced some people said they had reason to believe some monkey business took place during the final count. Some strange math took place to a point where even the referee, the electoral body chairman Samuel Kivuitu, hinted some “cooking of numbers” was taking place. He added that he too didn’t know who won or lost. What a strange referee that one!

In Kenya, closely contested polls have always been a powder keg waiting to be ignited. This one was lit to tragic consequences that left over 1,500 dead and more than 600,000 others displaced from their homes, not to mention property of unknown value that was destroyed.

The hardliners from both sides were in no mood to negotiate and sue for peace. In his memoirs, former Tanzania President Benjamin Mkapa spoke of difficulties the mediation team had in getting hotheads in the Kenya conflict to see eye-to-eye on anything. He singled out Martha Karua, from Kibaki's side, and William Ruto, on Raila’s side.

Seeing no hope from the mediation team, the chief mediator, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, directly and individually contacted Kibaki and Raila. Away from their hard-line advisers, Kibaki and Raila struck a deal that brought back sanity in the country.

Later, when in an interview I asked Raila why he agreed to reconcile with Kibaki against the wishes of his close advisers, he gave me the biblical analogy in the case adjudged by King Solomon where the real mother agreed to surrender her baby to the rival to save the baby’s life. That is Baba for you.

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