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How Raila's big week offered fresh hope but raised fears for peace

ODM leader Raila Odinga with President Uhuru Kenyatta during ODM NDC 2022 at Kasarani Stadium. February 26, 2022. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

The die is cast. In the season of expulsions, acquisitions and mergers, ODM party leader Raila Odinga is in a good place. He is set to carry the Azimio la Umoja presidential banner in the August election, complete with President Uhuru Kenyatta’s endorsement.

Uhuru’s endorsement of Raila at his meeting with Mt. Kenya political leaders and regional business notables culminated in the multiple National Delegates Conferences(NDCs) this week, with the Biblical Joseph’s proverbial sun, moon and all the stars bowing before Raila’s megastar. The week’s events have taken the March 9, 2018 handshake to a new height.

What remains is the formal coming on board of the One Kenya Alliance of Kalonzo Musyoka (Wiper Party), Gideon Moi (Kanu), Martha Karua (Narc-Kenya) and Cyrus Jirongo’s UDP and it should be almost all systems go. 

Game plan

With Raila’s sheaf of corn remaining upright while the rest bow low before it, the searchlight now shifts to the Deputy President, Dr William Ruto, and his game plan in the face of the Azimio steamroller. The activities of last week marked one of the lowest points of the irreconcilable differences between Ruto and his boss amid a fresh effort to bury his political dreams once and for all.  

In his Sagana address, the President wished his deputy and some religious leaders eternal damnation in the furnaces of hell, because of Ruto’s alleged “donations of stolen money” to churches.

During the Jubilee and ODM NDCs, Uhuru signified his intention to leave office later this year. However, he did not signify his intent to vacate power and influence. Uhuru is set to carry on as the leader of a revamped Jubilee Party and as the patron of Azimio la Umoja although the details of the Azimio structure officially remain unclear. The indications point to an arrangement that will see the retired president remaining on the scene and exercising power in the next administration should Azimio ascend to power. Uhuru is, however, set to cede space for Raila as the face of the new Azimio power matrix.

Last week’s excitement was understandable for a juggernaut that is staring at the possibility of political power in the eye. Yet the need for tempering the rhetoric with restraint is difficult to overstate if the country is to avoid the path of 2007/08. The jamborees are in many ways reminiscent of the heightened dramas of that tragic season, between the Party of National Unity (PNU) on the one hand and ODM on the other. While the rapprochement between Uhuru’s Jubilee and Raila’s ODM has now been sealed, the rift between the Azimio Camp and the deputy president risks getting sharper. 

 Divided country

The imminent departure of President Uhuru from State House risks leaving behind a wounded, angry and divided country, on account of the war of words from both sides. It is a country that is broke and hungry, and whose lame-duck leadership can do little to correct the imbalance. The next administration faces the daunting task of restoring goodwill and the spirit of fellowship in a country that has been divided for the past 19 years.

Signs of disaffection began emerging in 2003 with claims of betrayal by the Raila-led Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) wing of the then brand new National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) Government. It peaked during the 2007/08 post-election havoc, and reached yet a new high with the ICC cases against six Kenyans, among them Uhuru and Ruto. 

It has been two decades of mistrust, ethnic suspicions and public eruptions of anger in Kenya’s topmost political class, even when the citizens have themselves signalled their desire to put the past behind them. The near fanatic support that Ruto seems to enjoy in the Mt. Kenya region is easily the clearest indication that the citizens want to move on. The leadership, however, has dragged the country back.

A new Constitution, promulgated in 2010, has failed to heal the wounds of mistrust at the top. Uhuru is now set to retire without restoring the 1963 dream of Project Kenya to stable health. As his lame-duck period sets in, he joins presidents Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki as yet another failed effort in the bid to build a united and prosperous Kenya. 

ODM leader Raila Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta during ODM NDC at Kasarani, Nairobi. February 26, 2022. [File, Standard]

The big irony of history will be that the mantra of national unity has been a constant refrain on the president’s lips. Yet, history is unlikely to interpret the effort as one that went beyond lip service. To his credit, however, Uhuru has bridged the gap of hostility between him and Raila and, by extension, the historical animosity between the Kenyattas and the Odingas.

By the same token, however, he opened up new hostilities with Ruto, setting the country on another collision course that has divided Kenya right through the middle. If not well managed, the angry exchanges between the two sides could place the country in a bad place once again. 

The angry expression of the President’s desire that his deputy should perish in eternal damnation defines the limits of bad blood between two. The bad blood is certainly set to outlive Uhuru’s tenure, as he has little time left to correct mistakes and mend fences.

Now, the curtain has been raised on what promises to be a hostile six-month campaign season, with the retiring president and his deputy leading the cast. Personalised and no-holds-barred criticisms are already becoming a part of the game, with the danger of sinking to the base.

The political rough waters ahead could define the Uhuru legacy more than anything else he has done these past nine years. For a start, it is difficult to find any parallels in history where a sitting head of State joined hands with the Opposition to fight against a deputy president. Nor is it easy to find a deputy who was so openly defiant of his boss and critical of his government.

 Spew anger

The normal thing to do is usually to disgracefully remove truant subordinates through relevant legal avenues, or for them to lead votes of no confidence in the man at the top. Ruto has proved a hard nut to crack, enjoying taunting a boss who seems unable to do anything, except lament and spew anger in public. 

Despite incessant allegations of financial impropriety and abuse of office against him, Ruto’s detractors – including the holder of the most powerful office in the land – have not commenced any legal action against him. No one has sought his removal from office or call him to justice through the courts. They have, instead, fed Kenyans with public displays of anger against an increasingly defiant deputy president. This anger with no action, despite there being several layers of legal instruments and avenues of removal. This, too, will also form a part of the Uhuru legacy. But it will also leave many wondering what Uhuru knew that paralysed him into an all lament and no action president. 

Uhuru’s final months in office are also characterised by a cocktail of other challenges that he can do little about. First, the country is broke, with a debt burden of Sh11.7 trillion, according to the Treasury. This is above 100 per cent of GDP. It is set to trouble future governments for a long time to come.

Put together with nuanced details, such as guaranteed public commitments, it could rise to about Sh13 trillion. According to his address in Sagana, Uhuru sees this as a Sh13 trillion national economy that he will hand over to the fifth president. His detractors, led by ANC party leader Musalia Mudavadi, however, see it as a yoke.

Moreover, the cost of living has risen considerably. As the president addressed his Mt Kenya compatriots in Sagana, Kenyans were busy complaining on social media about the cost of living, unemployment, insecurity and a cocktail of other grievances.  

Going forward, Raila will throughout the campaign season be the new face of these challenges, even as he pledges to sort them out, should he ascend to power in August. 

Uhuru has the difficult task of convincing Kenyans, including in his Mt Kenya backyard, that continuity of what his government has done is good for them. He faces rebellion from elected leaders and ordinary people alike. The mood is best expressed in the words of MP Kimani Ichung’wa, who has been telling the president; “Please finish your tenure and go.” Narc-Kenya leader Martha Karua expressed the same sentiment at her party’s NDC last week. 

Deputy President William Ruto speaks during the burial of Amb. Ken Osinde at Ngata, Nakuru County. December 23, 2021. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

For his part, Raila faces the twin challenge of defending and criticising the outgoing UhuRuto administration at once. He must attack some aspects of the government while praising others. Theft of public funds is one of his campaign agendas. Ruto and his team have also picked up the corruption and theft accusations, too. Accusations and counter-accusations on theft are beginning to fly from both the Azimio la Umoja and Kenya Kwanza sides. Everyone is calling everyone else a thief, leaving the public confused on who is telling the truth, or whether both sides are complicit in theft and grand corruption. 

The campaigns are also witnessing aspersions against independent institutions like the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and the Judiciary, religious institutions and anti-corruption authorities. The pointers boil down to a failure by the outgoing administration to allow the entities to fully function independently, thus opening them up to ridicule by both sides. For instance, a case against Murang’a County Woman MP before IEBC has taken on a negative political dimension, with Kenya Kwanza alleging that Azimio intends to steal the presidential election, while Azimio lawyers James Orengo and Otiende Amollo accuse IEBC of playing partisan politics with the case.

Similarly, a Supreme Court verdict on the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) is keenly awaited. The court will be pilloried and parodied, regardless of the verdict. 

Meanwhile, a divided Parliament is a key part of the Uhuru legacy. Even in these lame-duck days, Parliament is likely to be on standby to make any amendments to the law as electoral goals dictate. The Elections Act has recently been amended, with the possibility of more amendments in future, even in the dying minutes of the Uhuru presidency.  In all this, Kenyans’ eyes remain on Uhuru and his decision to support an Opposition candidate, and the emotion he has packed into the campaign effort.

His anger especially stands out, attracting back anger from his adversaries. Uhuru has placed himself in a difficult place. He has elected a game that he must play to win, or risk going out a bitter and disgraced loser.