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Sustaining Uhuru-Raila bromance after poll will be the ultimate test

By Special Correspondent | Dec 12th 2021 | 8 min read


The two political giants have closed ranks severally in the past only to drift apart. [File, Standard]

The Azimio la Umoja launch marked a hugely remarkable step in the chequered relationship between ODM leader Raila Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta, and their two families. It has been a long history of competition and cooperation between the two politicians and their families, marked in a variety of checkpoints with signposts of love and hate.

In the early stages of the making of the Kenyan nation, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga declared that there would be no independence for Kenya without Kenyatta. “Jomo Kenyatta is our leader and our second God,” Odinga declared in 1960, “there will be no Uhuru without Kenyatta.” 

Odinga petitioned the colonial authorities to release the elder Kenyatta from detention so that he could lead Kenya to independence. Even when it was suggested that Jaramogi could, himself, become prime minister and go on to release Kenyatta, he would have none of that.

There are those who have suggested that it was not an utterly altruistic concern, that Odinga in fact wanted to wrongfoot Tom Mboya, his compatriot from the Lake Victoria region, and who looked like a hot favourite for the role Odinga wanted Kenyatta to play. Whatever the case, Odinga’s desire carried the day. Mzee was released in 1961 and went on to lead the new nation through constitutional talks at Lancaster House, and on to Madaraka and Jamhuri. 

Ironically, this would mark a short-lived honeymoon between the two, for barely six years after independence, Kenyatta had sent Odinga to detention without trial and by that act alone dealt him a political blow that would leave him staggering for the rest of his life. The two had fallen off badly ideologically and could barely stand each other, as was demonstrated at the October 25, 1969 tragic opening of the New Nyanza Provincial General (Russia) Hospital, where the two traded attributive expletives in public, hours before Jaramogi’s arrest and detention. 

Raila remembers the happenings with sadness and pain. “With my father gone,” he recalls in the autobiography, The Flame of Freedom, “I was left with all his various dependents to consider. And I was going to do it mostly alone, for nearly all the people close to the family were, like Jaramogi, now in detention.”

At the youthful age of 24, he was ushered into the world of intrigue and hard politics that would in the proper order of time throw him into the ring with the most prominent and politically successful scion of the Kenyatta family, Uhuru Kenyatta. In faithfulness to the traditional relationship between their two families, Uhuru and Raila have known an unending love-hate relationship over the decades.

The latest tango of amity that came with the March 9, 2018 handshake at the end of a stormy electoral season, is only the latest in a long list of a troubled historical political romance. Hopefully, the hatchet is finally buried for good, after the twin launch of Azimio la Umoja and the Raila for President 2022 campaign that has the covert hand of Uhuru and the overt endorsement by business and political notables from his Mt Kenya backyard.

When Uhuru first showed his hand in politics, he was curiously cast on the same side with Raila, although not necessarily in the same camp. The Kanu regime was at the apogee of its hardline politics at the start of the 1990s, following the hugely flawed queue voting election of 1988. Agitation for liberalisation of the political space and call for civil liberties was in its element.

The government responded by tightening the screws of heavy-handed rule. Public gatherings were proscribed. Detention was done on a whim. And arbitrary taking away of life was part of the game. It was in this season that Foreign Affairs Minister, Dr Robert Ouko and the fiery Anglican Bishop of Eldoret Dr Alexander Muge were killed.

Enough was enough. Uhuru was counted among the sons of former leading political lights who called out the Kanu government for misrule. Together with Caesar Argwings-Kodhek, Francis Michuki, Peter Mboya and Alfred Gitonga, they issued a powerful press statement asking the government to allow Kenyans to enjoy their civil liberties and to discuss the political future of their country without fear. Kanu strongmen were quick on the uptake, led significantly by Agriculture minister Elijah Mwangale, a self-styled defender of the regime.

This should have solidified Raila and Uhuru on the same side of the political divide, but it did not. When the political space was eventually opened up to multiparty democracy in December 1991, Uhuru and his colleagues had disappeared from the political scene. He was next heard of in 1997, when he became Kiambu Kanu chair. He ran for the Gatundu South seat and lost to Moses Mwihia.

Meanwhile, Raila was already in the big league, running against President Moi, Mwai Kibaki and others in that year’s presidential race. While there was no direct engagement against each other, Uhuru and Raila were clearly on opposing sides, as Kanu was the party that everyone else considered themselves as running against. 

Political vicissitudes would go on to bring the two closer as the 2002 epochal elections beckoned. They came together briefly (2001), only to bitterly go their separate ways (2002), before coming together again to go away again (2005) to go away once more (2007) in the mother of all separations. They would remain in that terrain until the 2018 Handshake and the subsequent Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) unified them again. 

The 2001 fellowship was a factor of President Moi’s hand. With his retirement now imminent, Moi wanted to leave behind a strong Kanu, with Uhuru at its helm and as his successor. Meanwhile, Raila had seen the need to change tack in his engagement with Kanu. He recalls in his biography, “I decided to do the battle from within.” 

Raila, accordingly, elected to cooperate with Kanu, capitalising on the fact that Kanu had the slim majority of four MPs over the joint opposition. In June 2001, the die was cast. Kanu’s nominated MP, Mark Too was asked to resign from Parliament. Uhuru was nominated to replace him and appointed to Cabinet. At the same time, Raila’s cooperation bore fruit and together with another National Development Party (NDP) MP, Adhu Awiti, he was appointed to Cabinet. Another MP, Orwa Ojode, was made assistant minister. Raila and Uhuru found each other in the same government.

The following year was remarkable for solidifying the proximity, before it fell apart the same year. In March, NDP and Kanu merged. This time around Uhuru and Raila were not just in the same government, they became officials of the same party. Uhuru became one of the two national chairs of Kanu while Raila became Secretary-General. Yet beneath the veneer, Raila was ill at ease. He has written of Uhuru’s elevation as follows, “The young Kenyatta was not known for his political expertise. He had stood for election in his father’s old Gatundu Constituency in 1997, losing miserably to the little-known Moses Mwihia and thereafter reportedly deciding to leave politics altogether.”

So why did Uhuru get back into the fray? Raila opined in his biography, “Moi had other plans. Several of his close confidants, presumably wary of my growing influence, clearly wanted to ensure I was stopped in my tracks – and they decided Uhuru was the man to do it. The would-be politician’s main sponsors were William Ruto, Moi’s close friend and aide Joshua Kulei, Hosea Kiplagat and Moi’s son Gideon.”

It was always a matter of time before the fallout. And it came in September of 2002, when Moi announced that Uhuru was his choice for State House. Raila put the choice of Uhuru to land and vowed to fight the choice. He explained in his autobiography, “The Moi family (and to a lesser extent the Kibaki family) also have wide-ranging and extensive land and business holdings. Naturally, the rather opaque nature of many of these acquisitions needed protection. Moi, looking ahead to the future of his family once he retired, no doubt saw his elevation and subsequent control of Uhuru Kenyatta as vital if they were all to protect everything they owned.”

Raila thwarted the proposed Uhuru presidency when he decamped with a mass of colleagues from Kanu and went on to join and endorse Kibaki for president. Barely three months later, Raila was back in the government while Uhuru became the leader of Official Opposition, having lost the election to Kibaki and his National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) battalion. Yet within weeks of the new government, it became clear that all was not well. There were internal quarrels over an alleged betrayed memorandum of understanding, and others about the need to reform the Constitution.

By June 2004, the fallout was so bad that Kibaki began chipping away at the powers of office that he had allocated to Raila and his ex-Kanu colleagues in the Narc government. To crown it all, Kibaki invaded Kanu and appointed a number of ministers from Uhuru’s party while ignoring him. He also brought on board Ford People’s Simeon Nyachae with his team. Put together with the clamour for a new Constitution, there were enough reasons for Uhuru and Raila to close ranks against Kibaki.

In the 2005 constitutional referendum, Kanu, complete with the backing of retired President Moi worked with Raila to defeat the Wako Draft. They morphed their team into the Orange Democratic (ODM) and proposed to sponsor a single candidate against Kibaki in the 2007 election. Yet, Uhuru was soaking in pressure from his Mt Kenya home base. The electorate was unhappy that he was working against a president who was an indigene of the Mountain. In the interest of self-political preservation, Uhuru dumped Raila and ODM. He joined Kibaki and supported him for President in 2007.

The violence that marred the elections drove Uhuru and Raila even further still. In the subsequent indictment of Uhuru and Ruto before the ICC, Ruto abandoned Raila and joined Uhuru in a virulent campaign against Raila and ODM. They accused Raila of fearing to face them in a free and fair election and, instead, using a foreign court to defeat the will of the people.

They embarked on anti-ICC prayer rallies across the country. The meetings turned out to be early campaigns for the next general election. They put Raila under unprecedented siege. They only stopped when Raila issued a rare strongly worded press statement in which he accused the ICC of giving political latitude and room for further ethnic incitement to people he said should have been in jail for some of the worst crimes against humanity.

In the subsequent two elections, however, Uhuru and Ruto defeated Raila and his two coalitions of Cord (2013) and Nasa (2017). The relations between the two camps got particularly polarised by the 2017 presidential election that Nasa claimed to have been stolen, even after boycotting a repeat poll following nullification of round one by the Supreme Court. Raila swore himself extra-legally as “the people’s president” and took political temperatures several bars higher. The country heaved a huge sigh of relief when the two came together in a rare handshake moment that opened the door to thawed relations that have led to Azimio la Umoja. 

Hopefully, the two will stay together for the rest of the times, beginning now. Yet it is also true that there are no permanent friendships or enmities in politics. Only interests matter. Hopefully, then, the two leaders will continue to share common interests and hung together into the future. The election in the offing will be the first test of endurance. Living well with the outcome, whatever it will be will, however, be the ultimate test. 

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