So near yet so far: Will Raila Odinga clinch the top job this time?

President Uhuru Kenyatta with ODM leader Raila Odinga at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre in Nairobi City County during the Jubilee Party's National Delegates Conference.

Except for the 1997 elections when he first vied for presidency – in what Raila Odinga describes as “a mere test drive” – the former Prime Minister and his supporters have always exuded confidence ahead of the polls. And this time around, Raila’s backers are even more confident he will emerge victorious in the August 9th contest.      

While confidence is generally a good thing, considering that it can motivate people into taking on the risks necessary for achieving their goals, however when it veers into overconfidence it can backfire. This has partly been Raila’s Achilles heel over the years and critics and supporters alike, are holding onto their breath to the polling day as they monitor possible slip ups from the 77-year-old politician.

“With President Uhuru Kenyatta supporting his bid, and majority of regional and political party leaders rushing to his side, the pot on Raila’s head appears to be safe and under tight grip. It remains to be seen, though, whether this time around he will cautiously and safely deliver the pot to the doorstep,” reacts Dr Henry Wabwire, a commentator on political affairs.

Claiming that Raila’s star is shining brightly this time, his deputy at ODM, Ali Hassan Joho, is convinced that this year the former PM will finally clinch the eluded top prize, which has eluded him four times. Symbolically equating Raila to a seedling, the Mombasa Governor says his supporters have over the years planted the Raila seed, weeded, watered and protected it against pests and trespassers, to ensure it gets the right amount of light and nutrients.

“Having been well nurtured into a tree, how do you give me a panga and expect me to cut this tree down? What kind of warped logic would that be?” poses Joho, arguing that it be politically foolish to abandon Raila at his hour of need, “just when he is about to win what he has worked so hard to achieve after four trials”.   

Since election to Parliament in 1992, as MP for Lang’ata, Raila how has undergone a major transformation – from a versatile and confrontational politician to a calmer and more accommodating and focused leader. But even more addling is how his level of acceptability has gradually grown over this period.

When he first sought the presidency in 1997 under the National Development Party (NDP), Raila largely got votes and won parliamentary seats from Nyanza region. This scenario has improved with time, in 2007, 2013 and 2017. And if he wins the Azimio ticket, he is likely to register better results than ever before from Mt Kenya region, which has largely shunned his candidature.

Psychologist Luke Okunya attributes this to the changing face of Raila on the political scene: “His new style of diversity and accommodation, as well as the need to portray himself as a reformed politician who is calmer and less combative has indeed won him friends within and outside the country”.

In the effort to project a national image, Dr Okunya also believe the former PM is trying to shake off the tag of over dependence on members of his Luo community. His campaign team has previously been dominated by strategists and managers from his community.   

Key faces

Raila’s former Chief of Staff at the PM’s Office, Caroli Omondi, and Eliud Owalo, led previous campaigns in 2007 and 2013. Today, Laikipia Governor Nderitu Muriithi serves as Chairman of Raila’s Presidential Campaign Board, and his campaign trail is dotted by politicians from across the country, key among them being Joho, and MPs, Kanini Kega (Kieni), Godfrey Osotsi (Nominated), Sabina Chege (Murang’a County), Gladys Wanga (Homabay County) and Narok Senator Ole Kina Ladama, among others.

Not so long ago, Nicholas Gumbo, who is eyeing the Governor’s seat in Siaya County, predicted a Raila presidency in a fashion that elicited excitement among his supporters as well as heightened debate and disapproval among his political rivals.

According to the former Rarieda MP, there is something very sinusoidal (continuous up and down wave) about the presidency Kenya, especially with regard to ascension into office: “Jomo Kenyatta became President in 1963 when he was in his 70s, then Daniel Moi took over while in his 50s and handed over to Mwai Kibaki, who in turn handed over to Uhuru Kenyatta,” said Gumbo suggesting that Raila, who is 77, is next on the line.

While Gumbo’s “prophesy” is neither scientific nor holds water, it is an external factor employed with the aim of boosting the confidence of ODM and Azimio adherents in their candidate.  

Real deal

But while at it, the Siaya gubernatorial aspirant calls on Raila’s supporters to specifically focus on the presidential seat – a view shared by Jubilee Party’s outgoing Secretary General, Raphael Tuju.

The latter, who will not be vying for any electoral seat, has opted to concentrate on drumming up the election of Raila as president, “because this is the real deal that we need and one that we (supporters in Nyanza region) have never clinched since independence”.  And pointing out that all his supporters countrywide are all united in ensuring that he wins the presidency, Gumbo regrets that certain individuals are busy advancing personal interests. Gumbo claims such individuals have previously undermined Raila’s bid and could the same this year “because they are only interested in securing their seats and would care less if Raila failed to capture the top seat.”

The situation is jumbled up even the more this time around. Raila is set to vie for presidency on the Azimio Movement’s ticket, meaning that his Orange party will come up under heavy internal competition from member parties, within his rural Nyanza region backyard and nationally.

Already there are jitters on the ground with ODM and member parties, Jubilee, Democratic Action Party of Kenya (DAP-K), Pamoja Africa Alliance (PAA), among many others jostling for political space, especially in western Kenya and coastal region. And owing to the proliferation of alternative parties in Nyanza, for instance,  ODM’s director of elections Junet Muhamed pointed out to aspirants last week that the Orange party was going “to treat other parties as enemies”.

Political heat

Junet’s sentiments are a reflection of the political heat within Azimio. It is also a pointer to the confusion within the Orange party, which is torn in between fronting a Raila candidature and safeguarding interests of ODM against being swallowed by the emerging Azimio gigantic outfit. Amidst the internal competition, Raila’s strategists may wish to reflect on the experience Mwai Kibaki ascended to the presidency in 2007 – albeit under controversial circumstances – with barely 40 MPs but went to govern with few hitches.

Says Dr Wabwire: “Having a strong party with a presence in all corners of the country is good for Raila. However doing so at the expense of focusing on the top prize is imprudent”.   

The anticipated formal entry of the One Kenya Alliance (OKA), which is allied to Wiper, Kanu, Narc-Kenya and United Democratic Party (UDP) party leaders, Kalonzo Musyoka, Gideon Moi, Martha Karua and Cyrus Jirongo, is expected to further complicate the equation within Azimio. It is expected that the OKA chiefs will place their demands on the table too, not to mention Uhuru whose image looms large in Raila’s campaign. According to Dr Wabwire, Raila’s smooth ride at the polls will largely depend on how he balances these conflicting interests and cutthroat competition among aspirants for various elective positions.     

Dr Wabwire partly attributes what he terms “Raila’s poor showing” at the poll to overconfidence and resultant complacency by his team of strategists, supporters and poll agents. The ODM leader’s bids in 2007, 2013 and 2017, have arguably been plagued by relatively lackluster poll management, chaotic party primaries, poor voter registration and turnouts, besides alleged lack of protection of votes cast.       

As Raila makes a fifth attempt to become Kenya’s fifth President, Junet points out that Raila’s team is determined to overcome the aforesaid and other shortcomings with a view to finally crowning Raila as Head of State.