Orange Democratic Movement leader Raila Odinga has shifted gears, setting his party on the path of active political mobilisation.
From declaring that he had not given up on the presidential race and attempting to dissociate himself with failings of Jubilee government, a new Raila has been born in 2021.
Yesterday, he backed off government rhetoric by voicing support for the striking health workers who he had, weeks ago, implored to go back to work before their grievances were addressed by the national and county governments.
In a statement, he called on both levels of government to engage in a dialogue and ‘urgently bring to an end this ill-advised and ill-timed stand off, and a possible strike.’
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This was an about-turn from an earlier statement he made at the height of the doctors’ strike.
“All I want to do is to appeal to our doctors to be more understanding. We are in a crisis at the moment, people are dying, ordinary Kenyans are also dying of this Covid-19. We are also in a hard situation as far as the economy is concerned.
“This is not the time to hold the government to ransom. The doctors themselves took an oath to protect life, how then do you justify downing your tolls when people are dying?” Raila told striking doctors a month ago.
Shackled by the deal
The statement, and a silence from the usually fiery politician led to feelings that the de facto leader of Opposition has been somewhat shackled by the deal he entered into with President Uhuru Kenyatta on March 9, 2018.
The deal has since seen him veer more to the side of government than to playing the Opposition leader role he has grown accustomed to.
For Raila the man, the deal between him and the president might have cemented his legacy as a statesman.
But for the politician, the Handshake came with what many pundits say could be a poisoned chalice packaged as the Building Bridges Initiative.
“The BBI put Raila in a very awkward position. He has over the past few months found it very difficult to go against government-speak and directives,” political analyst Edward Kisiangani says.
“This has made him look less like the politician that generations of Kenyans have grown up knowing.”
The ODM leader has rubbished these claims, insisting he still the same man he was. The same man agitating for a better life for Kenyans, for better constitutional reforms and hoping for a better life for every Kenyan.
“I have not changed. I have never changed. I am as consistent as I have ever been,” Raila said in a wide-ranging exclusive interview with this writer from his Capitol Hill office in early October.
The reality on the ground though, is somewhat different from the idealism which he has held onto post-Handshake.
The country’s ever-fluid political scene seems to be moving away from him. Public sentiment has been slowly growing against the Building Bridges Initiative, a pet project for him, Kenyatta and their allies.
A letter dated December 30, 2020 to President Kenyatta by Senate Majority Whip Irungu Kang’ata insinuated that BBI could run into problems in Mt Kenya region, the president’s backyard, and that its support was far from guaranteed.
Permanently on the edge
In the letter, Kang’ata, also a vocal supporter of the BBI, claimed that based on his observations, only two out of 10 people in Central Kenya support the initiative.
Although the senator apologised for leaking the letter to the media, Kisiangani reads more into it.
“In politics nothing happens by accident. Kang’ata’s letter to Kenyatta was carefully planned and carefully released to media outlets. Does Raila get it or he will as usual dismiss Kang’ata,” he says.
Perceived anti-BBI sentiments, fueled by a collapsing economy, a bungled school year and the coronavirus pandemic may have forced the veteran politician to get back to the default settings of being pro-people. His first act being siding with medical practitioners.
“Last Thursday, the country heaved a collective sigh of relief when health workers called off their strike after a return-to-work agreement signed by the Ministry of Health and the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union. The talks also included the Salaries and Remuneration Commission and a representative of the Council of Governors,” Raila said in the statement.
“It is therefore shocking that hardly a week later, clinical officers are threatening to down their tools because the very same issues covered in the return-to-work formula are not being implemented.”
Raila said that clinical officers provide patient care where specialised treatment is not required and that the threat of a strike comes just after the country fully re-opened schools and as the world carefully watches developments around Covid-19.
“This is therefore a time we need all our health workers on duty or on standby, not on strike or being tossed around between the two levels of government,” Raila said.
“Kenyans must not be kept permanently on the edge and worried over matters that can be sorted out without much drama through intergovernmental discussions that the public need not know about.”
But the tone for Wednesday messaging from Capitol Hill had already been set.
Last Sunday in Mombasa, Raila indicated that he could be on the ballot in 2022 after months of brushing off questions on his political future with a standard answer that he and Kenyatta were concentrating on building bridges around the country.
For the two, he has been saying, the greater good was always bigger than personal ambition.
“It is a tactical retreat before I advance. I have not surrendered, we are advancing and we are certain that we are going to succeed,” Raila told Muslim clerics and scholars in Mombasa.
The retreat has perhaps taken its toll on the politician. While he sat back to ‘sift the grain from the mill’ as he told his Mombasa audience, his political rivals have been making a run for the same mill he says he is protecting.
As he sifted the chaff from the grain, his political party, once the unquestioned Opposition voice, lost a parliamentary seat to an independent candidate. His calls for war on corruption have been watered down by the failure of his own party to impeach a governor on corruption charges.
While speaking up for the rights of the clinicians may seem innocuous, the impending showdown between the different levels of government and the clinical officers may present a way for the former PM.
In the post-Handshake era, his challenge remains the same: to agitate for people’s rights but still strike the right balance with his new-found romance with the State.
Even if he manages to do this, there might be a cost element.
Is Raila Odinga willing to let go of the populist democrat tag that has been the wind under his wings, according to him and his supporters, to winning more than one presidential election during a career spanning decades for the greater good as envisioned by the BBI?