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Raila Odinga takes baby steps up Mt Kenya, but will he carry the rest of his sizeable voting bloc?

By Special Correspondent | Oct 3rd 2021 | 7 min read
ODM Leader Raila Odinga inner meeting with Mt.Kenya Leaders at Safari Park Hotel. [Emmanuel Wanson, Standard]

Raila Odinga’s admission into the hearts and minds of dominant segments of the Mt Kenya political and economic elite is a big riddle.

The tides of time and political fortunes have shifted so suddenly that they look set to completely redefine the ODM leader’s destiny and that of the country.

Far from being arch rivals with President Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya’s murky political arena, Raila and Uhuru are now bosom friends. They orbit from pillar to post, but reading from a common script, singing the same song.

The thawing in relations has been dizzying, riding on the energy of the sudden Nairobi mid-morning handshake of March 2018.

The one man had just recently sworn himself into the non-existent office of “the people’s president,” in the style of the French General Napoleon Bonaparte. The other one had renewed his tenure as the President of the Republic and Commander-in-Chief of the Kenya Defence Forces the previous November.

The country gasped, fearing for the worst. For, what had happened in Uhuru Park on January 30, 2018, bordered on high treason. Would the incumbent arrest his nemesis? Would he charge him with treason against the republic? Conversely, would “Napoleon” drag the country into “Napoleonic Wars”?

There was a great sigh of relief when neither happened. Kenyans woke up to the surprising news of rapprochement and witnessed on live national television the coming together of two sworn political competitors, pledging to work together, for the good of the country.

The details of what they agreed, and how they walked through the motions of agreement, nobody knows. What is known is that the handshake has gradually gone beyond the wrist and the elbow. It has blossomed into a full-blown embrace. The two leaders speak the same language. They go to the same places, do the same things, and attack common adversaries. They both look the other side whenever there are uncomfortable things that should not be seen, or spoken about. 

It is a true birth of a new relationship, with unlimited new possibilities for the protagonists and the regions of Mount Kenya and the Lake Victoria Basin, where they come from. Raila is now taking baby steps on how to climb the Mountain. Will he master the art to ascend to the highest political Lenana Point of Mt Kenya?

It is a tricky and even treacherous climb. Anything is possible, from ultimate conquest, to ultimate betrayal. When on a mission of such significance and magnitude, there are two things Raila cannot forget. First, is the grain of the history of those he is dealing with. But, the second one is that people also change.

From the grain of historic perspective, Raila will want to remember that he is dealing with a team that has previously betrayed those it travelled with, and whom it had every reason to be grateful to. 

President Kenyatta and Mt Kenya had every reason to be thankful to Deputy President William Ruto, for standing faithfully with Uhuru and leading his presidential campaign bid four times (in 2002, 2013, and twice in 2017). If Uhuru and a section of the Mountain have abandoned him, they can abandon anyone else in the middle of the political jungle.

Moreover, Raila has the “demons lesson” to learn from ANC leader Musalia Mudavadi’s experience. At a time when the nation had just heard that Uhuru and Ruto had settled for Mudavadi as their presidential candidate in 2013, there was a sudden tempest of change.

Demonic forces

Uhuru declaimed Mudavadi and the energies that had led to the announcement that he would be the candidate. It was all the work of demonic forces, Uhuru declared, with a degree of intemperance. Raila will do well to remember that if demons were at work in 2013, they could work again in 2021-2022. 

However, people also undergo genuine change of heart and transformation. Raila should not ignore the possibility that President Kenyatta has taken lessons from the school of life and has genuinely turned a new leaf. From using appalling descriptors for Raila in the past, the password today is “my brother, Raila Odinga.”

It is full of bonhomie, actuated by what looks like sincere body language. You just don’t throw this overboard, because of suspicions of potential betrayal, driven by sinister echoes from the past. From the same oral cavity that now says, “My brother, Raila Odinga,” came echoes of, “Ten years for me, ten for Ruto.” 

It is a delicate balancing act. Raila stands precariously on the scales of faith and hope, on the one hand, and reason and practical historical lessons, on the other. Whatever the case, he must soldier on. And he has made some significant inroads in the right direction.

The Mount Kenya Foundation (MKF) elite club seems to be warming up to him. The taste of that pudding will, of course, be in the electoral eating, as the country edges towards February 2022. MKF will have to put its money where its mouth is. But beyond that, the impact of this new found amity will depend hugely on whether MKF can carry along the ordinary voters. For, the elite club has only so many votes. The rest is up to persuading the people that the way to go is with Raila. 

Auxiliary to the elite club from the Mountain, the notion of both overt and covert acts by the entity called the deep state has also been floated, sometimes quite openly. The pronouncement by former head of the Public Service, and now Nyandarua Governor, Francis Kimemia, has been stark and unbridled. On national TV, Kimemia has told Kenyans that ultimately it is what the deep state wants that prevails.

It is a sinister, if somewhat unmeasured, statement by someone who has been in the innermost sanctums of power, given the violent controversies that the country has had around the credibility of past elections. As someone who markets himself as the paragon of democracy, Raila may want to reflect on the import of the growing notion that he now has the deep state as one of his tools next year. Team Raila will also want to remember that the deep state is gunpowder. When it is touched off, the blast rocks nations. The less it is seen and heard of, the better for everybody.

Apart from MKF and alleged affinity with the deep state, Raila has a growing following from elected leaders in the Mountain. He can take comfort in the practical knowledge that people who previously satanized him now want to kiss him. They want to be seen with him. They are doing political hymnals and deafening calls of the bugle in his favour, in their home base and beyond. They are a great asset to be nurtured and sustained. Yet, in the end, politics is a chancy affair. The ultimate outcome of this new-found love could be either great success for the partners, or a resounding fall for Raila and the MPs. It will depend on what the voters think about the emerging bromance. 

The elephant in the room, however, is where all this leaves the rest of the country. Can Raila climb the Mountain while also carrying along the rest of Kenya? In a polygamous African family, when too much love is showered upon the newly wed nubile lass, the older partners in the marriage will coalesce against the family patriarch and his new one. It is likely to be the same with Raila.

For a start, he must find a running mate from the Mountain, for his effort to gain lasting traction there. The spinoff is that the rest of Kenya will feel left out. Even the One Kenya Alliance (OKA), with which he has on-and-off political flirtations, will feel jilted. The least this club expects is a piece of the pie at the very top. Indeed, some even expect that Raila could cede the ticket to them. A running mate from the Mountain could sound the death knell in his troubled relationship with this club. And it would throw wide open the race to the House on the Hill, with potential for a re-run. 

For now, OKA seems to begrudgingly recognise that it must not stray too far from Raila, even as individual fan clubs in the OKA membership expect each one of Mudavadi, Kalonzo Musyoka, Gideon Moi and Moses Wetang’ula, to get to the wire on February 9, 2022. Can they afford to stay on with Raila, even when bypassed for the deputy president’s position?

Things were slightly promising when the Building Bridges Initiative reggae ruled the political airwaves. With reggae in the ICU, the future looks dicey, with few positions to share at the very top. There are no carrots to dangle, and no glue to hold. If OKA leaders stay on with Raila despite being bypassed for the second-in-command position, they will have tall mountains to climb in their own backyards, seeking to take along potentially disappointed voters. 

More lost in the unfolding maze is the third cycle that comprises retiring governors and the rest of Kenya’s political Nobility of the Robe. Even as they beat the drums and sing in support, they will be nervously casting glances, wondering whether Raila can see them, and what is in it for them. Keeping this flighty class in the camp will be quite a task. So, too, is the class of coat hanger-ons; those who have believed that if their ethnic kingpins run for State House, they could cling on the coattails to their desired destinations.

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