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Will rivalries in Nyanza make or break Raila’s presidential run?

ODM leader Raila Odinga speaks during Azimio la Umoja's convention at Kasarani Stadium, December 2021. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Even as other regions close ranks behind Raila Odinga’s Azimio La Umoja, there are fresh concerns that an explosion over party nominations in his rural Nyanza political backyard could slow down the former Prime Minister’s momentum.

Some of Raila’s key lieutenants, including Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) Chairman John Mbadi, Senate Minority Leader James Orengo, Homa Bay MP Gladys Wanga, Kisii Senator Sam Ongeri, Dagoretti North MP Simba Arati, former Nairobi governor Evans Kidero and former Cabinet Minister Dalmas Otieno, are presently consumed in cutthroat contests for governor seats in Homa Bay, Siaya, Kisii and Migori counties, which pundits observe could lock Mr Raila in endless fire-fighting at the expense of his national campaign.

Disturbed by the heated governorship contests in Nyanza, Kitutu Chache South MP Richard Onyonka wishes “the current scenario could be handled differently”. The MP, who stepped down as Ford-Kenya’s deputy party leader late last year to join the Orange party, fears that the ongoing friendly fires may hurt Raila’s presidential bid.  

“Instead of pulling together towards his election, individual candidates are fighting for their own space, and my honest thinking is that at some point, some amongst us may pull out or join rival parties or political formations,” says Mr Onyonka.

Jubilee Party’s Secretary-General, Raphael Tuju, shares the frustration. Tuju, who hails from the region, argues that aspirants are too engrossed in their own campaigns and are keener on riding on the Raila brand than helping the former PM to secure victory.   

“As a people of this region, we have won all the available seats including MCA, MP, Woman Rep, and Senator to Governor, except one – the Presidency. This is the big fish that all of us ought to focus on, and personally, I will not be seeking election for any seat. I will reserve my energies to deliver the big one that has eluded us since independence,” says Tuju.  

Besides Tuju, Defence CS Eugene Wamalwa has set aside his political ambitions to advance Raila’s campaigns through the Democratic Action Party (DAP-Kenya), of which he is the de facto leader.

Jubilee Secretary-General Raphael Tuju at Jubilee Headquarters, Nairobi, 2020. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Last week, Foreign Affairs CAS, Ababu Namwamba, similarly signaled shelving his ambitions to help coordinate Deputy President William Ruto’s campaigns in the western Kenya region. The former Budalang’i MP, who has since been appointed to manage International Relations in the Ruto campaign, had initially shown interest in the seat of Governor, Busia County. 

However, most politicians are not willing to sacrifice their careers for others and are accordingly engaged in vicious battles for electoral seats. Party nominations have, for instance, been a major headache for the Raila-led party over the years. If not handled justly and meticulously this time, they could result in political fallout in the region.

Through a series of meetings, Raila himself has repeatedly warned legislators from his rural backyard against engaging in squabbles that could undermine his presidential bid. On the eve of Christmas in 2011, for instance, Raila called MPs from his rural county of Siaya to a meeting at his Opoda Farm in Bondo Constituency where he expressed concern that the emerging rifts amongst local politicians could distract his 2013 presidential bid.  

According to former Rarieda MP Nicholas Gumbo who was in attendance, the consultative meeting aimed to calm anxiety over the new county seats created by the 2010 Constitution. At the centre of the friction were Raila’s own brother and Bondo MP, Dr Oburu Oginga, the then Ugenya MP James Orengo, and businessman William Oduol.

Gumbo recalls proposing Orengo as “most suited” for the governor’s position, a suggestion the seasoned politician reportedly declined on three grounds – that his priority was to campaign for Raila’s election as president, that he was more at ease as a lawmaker than an administrator and finally, that his law firm was based in Nairobi and he wished to continue with his legal practice as well.

“So what has since changed, that Jim (Orengo) now wants to come back home to vie for the governor’s seat? Has he eventually lost the enthusiasm to campaign for our presidential candidate?” poses Gumbo, who is also eyeing the Siaya governor seat.

The former MP, who finished second in the 2017 contest behind the incumbent, Cornel Rasanga, attributes the growing number of MPs’ shift to county jobs to disinterest in Raila’s quest for the top job “or misguided notion that he has won already”. Alternatively, Gumbo suggests that the legislators are trouping back home “in pursuit of the power associated with the top county job”.

But Mbadi, who is eyeing the Homa Bay governor’s seat, allays fears of  their party boss getting abandoned.

“There should be no panic over this because all that is required of us is a balancing act at the national and county level, and from experience, we have done this seamlessly,” Mbadi told The Standard.

The Minority Leader in the National Assembly says he came in and made his contribution “and now it is time to vacate the space for other upcoming politicians”. Besides, he argues that some of those politicians, like himself, have other skills, including governance and accounting, which the people can benefit from.   

National Assembly Minority Leader John Mbadi. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

How he will balance campaigning in eight constituencies, besides managing his duties at Chungwa House as ODM’s chairman as well as participating in Raila’s national campaigns remains to be seen.  

While the big names in Nyanza would have been expected to sail through with ease, they are facing hard times in the campaigns. Among those facing difficulties include politicians who were nurturing ambitions to succeed Raila or even lock him out of Nyanza politics ahead of this year’s elections.

The emerging tough contests have raised fears that the upcoming ODM primaries may be a life and death affair that could turn chaotic if not properly managed. In Homa Bay, Kidero announced his bid with pomp and colour accompanied by wealthy associates who worked with him in Nairobi.

Nonetheless, the contest for Homa Bay Governor’s seat has become an affair mainly between Wanga and Mbadi. In Siaya, Orengo was expected to ride on his relationship with Raila to sail through easily, but the senator is facing stiff opposition from Gumbo and former Police Spokesman Charles Owino. All are fighting for the ODM ticket, with Gumbo suggesting he could switch to an affiliate party of the Azimio Movement.

While Orengo is an ODM loyalist who sits in the Central Management Committee among other organs, the situation is different for Kidero, who has a somewhat lukewarm relationship with the party leader and is often linked – rightly or wrongly – to schemes to see Raila retire from politics.

Also caught up in this mix is Dalmas Otieno, who is running for Migori governor. Initially, Otieno was viewed as leaning towards Migori governor Okoth Obado, an ally of Deputy President William Ruto. The former minister is trying to find his footing back in ODM. The situation in Kisii is not any easier. While Raila’s fortunes have changed for the better in both Kisii and Nyamira counties, stiff competition has emerged for governor and other county positions. The entry of Simba Arati and Onyonka has upstaged what was seen as a Janet Ongera (Kisii County MP) and Prof Ongeri line up.

Both teams are pushing on with little indication that either will back down. On a positive note, though, Onyonka says the rush by politicians for the Orange ticket is a pointer to the fact that the party is popular in Gusiiland. Onyonka and Kisii Deputy Governor Joash Maangi, who has been allied to Ruto, are among the latest high-profile defectors to Raila’s camp.

Murang’a County MP, Sabina Chege, partly attributes the cutthroat competition in Raila’s backyard to past experience, where poll losers were condemned to political oblivion.   

“My counterparts in Nyanza only need to improve on their time management, so that they can focus both on local and national campaigns. Baba is a strong candidate, whom they should invest in because once he gets to State House, they will appreciate the fact that it is better to lose in a winning side than to win in a losing side,” says the MP, who is allied to Azimio la Umoja.

Rarieda MP Otiende Amolo following a committee session at Parliament Building, 2020. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Nonetheless, Rarieda MP Dr Otiende Amolo argues that the heated contests are a blessing in disguise: “The legislators from Nyanza are no longer crowding out counterparts from other regions in Raila’s meetings. The battles at home have let Raila be surrounded by other national leaders, and this is good for our party leader’s campaign.”

Otiende further argues that intense competition will serve as a cure to voter apathy, courtesy of aggressive voter mobilisation by various aspirants beginning with the acquisition of identity cards, voter registration and “get-out-to-vote” campaign.

ODM leadership has stated that the party will give priority to consensus over primaries ahead of the 2022 polls, adding that direct tickets in the nomination of candidates could help cure cutthroat contests.