ODM leader 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 Ford Kenya, 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 Amollo 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 100 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 methodical 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 Odinga 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 vapourised into a non-extant being, in the style of the South Africa’s apartheid regime, to become what George Orwell calls in his Nineteen-Eighty-Four 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.
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 parliamentary seat in a choreographed by-election, Odinga 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 chair of the Cotton Lint and Seed Board, Odinga lavished Kenya’s second president with poisoned 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 colourful appellations of Baba, and adulate 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 Odinga. For the Kanu bigwigs swiftly expelled him from Kenya’s only political party then and barred him from an election that was his for the taking. William Odongo Omamo slipped into the seat with ease.
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. 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 Kenyatta, 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 Service. 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 was alluded to by retired Kenya Revenue Authority boss, Michael Waweru. In a newly published biography, Waweru laments Raila’s loss of opportunity to succeed 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 Accord and Reconciliation Act (2008) that paved 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 him.
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 nusu mkeka (half-a-carpet) outburst in Mombasa, when Raila railed against Kibaki’s provincial administration for what he called belittling him told it all.
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 ICC. 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 election cycles later. Raila’s gamble that he could appeal directly to the Rift Valley vote base flopped.
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. 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 afterwards. It is a streak that he must guard against in his fresh lease of political life under Azimio la Umoja and support from President Kenyatta 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 Otiende Amolo were besieged earlier in the year, following some reservations on the troubled Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) draft Bill. They have since been slowly sidelined from the mainstay of Raila’s activities.
Less heard of too, are the Kajwang brothers (TJ and Moses), Opiyo Wandayi (Ugunja), George Kaluma (Homa Bay Town) and Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o (Kisumu). Raila has also lost support from his former NASA co-principals. At the centre today are more platonically abdominal and duodenal individuals.
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.