Hits and misses in Raila Odinga's political gambles

Raila Odinga being shielded by his security men at Ford Kenya elections which were marred by violence on 14/4/1996 [File, Standard]

History will judge the prudence of the gamble Raila Odinga took in his last-minute decision to boycott last week's repeat presidential election, giving Uhuru Kenyatta an easy ride to a possible second term in office.

Opinion has been divided over Raila’s decision, which many viewed as having been calculated to scuttle the repeat poll once it became apparent that his “irreducible minimum” demands on the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) were not going to be met.

Political pundits argue that Raila, possibly on the advise of his lawyers, relied on an opinion rendered by the Supreme Court in its 2013 election petition ruling, where the judges said in the event one candidate pulls out of a repeat election after a successful petition, then the electoral commission should cancel the poll and organise for a new election through a fresh nomination process.

Raila opportunistically made political capital from the opinion, even while legal minds differed over whether the judges' position was binding in law. Some argued that the court's view was what is referred to in legal circles as 'orbiter dictum' - a judge's expression of opinion that is not legally binding.

A ruling by High Court judge John Mativo, only a day after Raila’s public withdrawal from the October 26 race, ordering IEBC to include Ekuru Aukot in the repeat presidential election and declaring another opinion by the Supreme Court in the 2013 ruling as an 'orbiter dictum', dealt a blow to Raila’s possible plans to scuttle the process.

The IEBC relied on Mr Mativo's ruling to open the door to five other presidential candidates.

The dividends from this gamble appeared lost, at least in relation to stopping the repeat poll. But Raila, who has in his political career never shied away from placing such high-stake gambles, has weathered it all and even declared to his supporters that “there are many ways of skinning a cat”.

As he charts the way forward, the country – his supporters and opponents alike – will be watching to see if any further gambles pay dividends.

Similar moves in the past have returned mixed fortunes.

Raila's admitted involvement, however passive, in the failed August 1, 1982, coup has always returned to haunt his political bids, with his opponents taking every opportunity in every election to associate him with the bloodbath of the failed attempt to topple former President Daniel arap Moi's government. 

Political struggles

His involvement in the coup was detrimental as it led to his being tried for treason, a capital offence, which he says in his book, 'Raila Odinga: An enigma in Kenyan Politics', was abandoned after the State withdrew the charge despite a confession from one of the junior military men that he was involved in planning the coup.

In the political struggles of the early '90s, after the introduction of multi-party politics, Raila found himself waging a fight for the top position in Ford Kenya, which was then led by his father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. He lost to former Vice President Kijana Wamalwa (deceased) and Siaya Senator James Orengo in the acrimonious battles following Mr Oginga's death in 1994.

In his last fight in Ford Kenya, Raila lost the chairmanship of the party to Mr Wamalwa after a planned party election in Thika aborted. His gamble for party leadership failed after a court ruled that Wamalwa’s faction was rightfully in office, and dismissed the purported election by Raila’s faction that had enthroned him as party leader.

“Wamalwa was successful in court, which ruled that he should continue as the chairman, but instructed him to call fresh elections,” Raila says in his book.

Not short of ideas and immediately after the major split, Raila, buoyed by the political constituency he had inherited after his father's death, decamped from Ford Kenya and “bought” the National Development Party (NDP) from one Omondi Oludhe.

In the book, Raila admits to parting with Sh500,000 and his old Mercedes to take over the party, fearing the bureaucracy at the Registrar of Societies would not allow him to form a new party.

He would take yet another major gamble by resigning from Parliament to seek a fresh mandate through the new party, recapturing the Langata parliamentary seat in a low-key by-election in March 1997, only months to the General Election.

He then took the risk of merging NDP with Mr Moi’s party, Kanu, after the 1997 elections, unsettling the political structure in Kanu as he was given the powerful Secretary General position.

Many critics argued that the well-calculated move was meant to give him a head-start in the Moi succession race since the Head of State was serving his final term.

But this strategy also flopped as Moi overlooked him and other Kanu die-hards, including his long-serving vice president, George Saitoti, and rooted for Uhuru Kenyatta as his successor, declaring him the party’s candidate for the 2002 General Election.

Raila found another way out of a rather sticky situation. He led a mass walk-out from the independence party and formed the Rainbow Alliance. He teamed up with Democratic Party's Mwai Kibaki, Wamalwa and Charity Ngilu's Social Democratic Party to work out a merger. The three had already struck a deal of their own and formed the National Alliance Party of Kenya.

The joint opposition efforts led to the formation of the National Alliance Rainbow Coalition (Narc), whose euphoria swept the country ahead of the 2002 elections and led to the election of Mr Kibaki as the country's third president. Raila was credited with the unity of purpose that dethroned Kanu.

Draft constitution

His gambles would continue to repay when he led his camp in opposing the 2005 referendum of a draft constitution, defeating the process in an ugly break-up of Narc that also gave birth to his current political outfit, Orange Democratic Movement. The symbol used by those opposed to the draft constitution was an orange hence the party's name.

He took the battle to Kibaki, running against him in the hotly contested 2007 elections. Kibaki was declared winner, leading to bloodshed like never before witnessed in Kenya.

The formation of a grand coalition government, with him as Prime Minister and Kibaki as President, worked towards the realisation of a new Constitution in 2010, ending a 20-year clamour.

Although he unsuccessfully petitioned his 2013 loss to Uhuru, Raila trained his eyes on reforming IEBC, leading to the exit of the team that managed those polls.

He came second to Uhuru in the nullified August 8, 2017, elections and after a successful petition, came up with the raft of changes he wanted made before the October 26 repeat poll, which he boycotted. Only time will tell whether this latest gamble pays off.