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Edwin Sifuna: I have occasionally rubbed Raila the wrong way

ODM Secretary-General Edwin Sifuna. [Collins Kweyu, Standard]

March 1, this year, found this writer at Chungwa House in the office of ODM secretary general Edwin Sifuna, for a scheduled interview for this article. The interview was however rudely interrupted by live coverage of Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka, who demanded that Sifuna’s party boss, Mr Raila Odinga, drop his presidential bid in his (Mr Musyoka's) favour.

“Now, what is this again?” Mr Sifuna protested loudly as he slumped back in his leather-faced executive chair in frustration, before taking a deep breath. What followed was a long period of inertia, punctuated by a string of phone calls from inquisitive party members and officials, as well as journalists seeking reaction.  

Except for Mr Odinga’s elder brother, Dr Oburu Oginga, who walked in to drop application papers for the senatorial seat in Siaya County, and the Orange party’s Executive Director, Oduor Ong’wen, who appeared keen to discuss the Kalonzo development but quickly changed his mind upon noticing a “third party”, silence enveloped the office as Mr Sifuna watched TV shaking his head, and tapping his pen on the desk. 

And when it was over, he mumbled something to the effect of his party leader recovering “this-one-million-deficit” by doubling efforts in Mt Kenya region. And trying hard not to exhibit disappointment, a plastic smile formed on his quivering lips as he waved on for resumption of the interview.         

Clearly, all was not well as the environment was no longer suitable for a quality interview. And although he stretched on for a while, the only prudent thing was to postpone the exercise. The Kalonzo presser had dispirited the SG.

ODM leader Raila Odinga (left) with party secretary-general Edwin Sifuna, June 27, 2019. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Mr Sifuna’s dejection over Kalonzo’s accusation of Mr as a dishonest politician is understandable, considering the close ties he enjoys with the former prime minister. Apparently, anything that is injurious to Mr Odinga’s reputation or slows down his political goals hurts Mr Sifuna just as it does Mr Odinga. And his colleagues at Chungwa House know better, just how violent he can get verbally in defence of ‘Baba’ (Raila).

The relationship between the two – with an age difference of 38 – is indeed strange. Mr Sifuna recalls that at one point during an informal sitting with Mr Odinga and other senior politicians, discussion about the happenings of the 1982 attempted coup popped up and Mr Odinga casually asked him where he was in August of that year: “I told him I was six months old then and the whole room burst out laughing. He remarked amusingly how he never realised I was a child.”

Despite this fact, Mr Sifuna says his party boss has never given much thought to their age difference and focuses only on his abilities. The 39-year-old lawyer first met Mr Odinga when he was prime minister, courtesy of his classmate at the University of Nairobi, Silas Jakakimba who at the time was attached to the PM’s office. Jakakimba helped to secure the appointment with Mr Odinga and the two hit it off immediately, and have since remained inseparable.

Incidentally, Elgeyo-Marakwet Senator Kipchumba Murkomen, was part of the team of lawyers that met Mr Odinga alongside Sifuna and later worked closely with the then PM. Around 2009, Mr Odinga singled out Mr Murkomen – today one of his harshest political critics – to serve in a number of caucuses fronting for constitutional reforms.  

“My friend (Mr Murkomen) was appointed as one of Mr Odinga’s lawyers, with the aim of articulating select issues in the run-up to the 2010 constitutional referendum. This accorded him opportunity to appear on live television shows to explain the contents of the draft constitution. Ideally, this is how he became famous. Baba thrust Mr Murkomen into national limelight,” says Mr Sifuna.

Elgeyo Maarakwet Senator Kipchumba Murkomen. [Elvis Ogiona, Standard]

Mr Murkomen, who successfully vied for a Senate seat in the subsequent polls in 2013, was initially part of a registered entity called, “Attorneys for Raila”. The group offered to support Mr Odinga’s presidential campaign and years later after his unsuccessful bid, Mr Sifuna managed to chat with him and urged him to put the disappointment of the 2013 behind him and start working towards the 2017 poll.

Impressed by the young man’s courage and wisdom, Mr Odinga threw Mr Sifuna in the deep end by adding him to his think-tank team assembled by Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o, the then party SG: “I was greatly intimidated by the big names around the table because of my relatively inferior experience. I don't remember uttering a word until after five meetings, when I finally managed to pick up.”

Unknown to him, this is how Mr Sifuna’s phenomenal political journey kicked off, propelling him to the coveted position of being Secretary-General of a giant national party at the tender age of 35.  

But all has not been rosy for Mr Sifuna, confessing that he has occasionally suffered the wrath of party leader and some members owing to his actions. When the party lost Ugenya and Embakasi South parliamentary by-elections, for instance, “some people wanted my head”.

Born in Bungoma County, Mr Sifuna started his academic journey at Kitinda Primary School, before transferring to Kakamega Township Primary School where he sat the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education. He later joined Musingu High School in Kakamega County before enrolling at the University of Nairobi in 2001.

He married his university sweetheart, Didi, an accomplished lawyer and a foremost conservationist. Their five-year-old daughter often observes, in jest, “Mom protects animals while daddy protects ODM”.

ODM Secretary-General Edwin Sifuna with a section of ODM leaders at Chungwa House, Nairobi, January 20, 2021. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

 Below are excerpts of the interview:

At 35 and relatively inexperienced politically, just how did you secure the powerful position of SG in the Orange party?

Actually, my appointment came as a surprise to me too. There were no applications or invitations. I was attending court proceedings in Mombasa when I received a call that the National Governing Council had settled on me. I had been around the party serving in the technical committee and was one of the party lawyers. I guess the leadership appreciated my contribution and decided I could add value in the position of SG. I remain eternally grateful to Baba for entrusting me with this great responsibility. 

Your good relations with Mr Odinga notwithstanding, are there ugly moments where you have angered your boss and been reprimanded for the same?

(Thoughtfully, and then grinning.. )  Yes of course, I have made some mistakes and earned Baba’s wrath. Unfortunately, I can’t give you examples (laughing) because most of these engagements were private. The good thing about Jakom, though, is that he truly treats everyone with respect. When I was blamed for our loss in by-elections, for instance, it is Baba who told them losing is normal given their dynamics. He has also been my biggest defender in the party.

What are some of your greatest achievements over the past four years as SG?

 There is quite a bit, and I cannot possibly enumerate all within this space and time. But most importantly as SG, and with the help of colleagues at the Orange party, we have expanded greatly in terms of presence and organisation across the country. Today, we have offices across in all the counties except four. On the electoral front, we have performed exceptionally well in by-elections, winning most of them, except parliamentary seats in Msambweni and Ugenya. We failed to capture two new ones – Matungu and Embakasi South – but grabbed Bonchari constituency from People’s Democratic Party. An in all these polls, I was on the ground personally leading the campaigns for days on end.

SG, you happen to be as fiery as former legislator Lawrence Sifuna, a member of the so-called 'Seven Bearded Sisters' of the 1980s. Are you his son?

He is my paternal uncle. My father, Vincent Watenya Sifuna, comes after him. Lawrence has been a great influence on my life politically. He told me from the start that a great name is better than riches. The name he built has been a foundation of success for the rest of us who carry it.

Which brings me to the next question..  I gather you are eyeing a senatorial seat in the upcoming polls. Why in Nairobi?

Much as I hail from western Kenya, I am a resident of Nairobi and politics is a contact sport. I practice my politics here, I have a law firm here and I have built a huge network of friends in the capital city. 

But what has since changed, considering that last time you tried your lack in a parliamentary seat before switching to Nairobi at the eleventh hour?

You see, voters should be presented with all the available options so that they can pick the best. And so, I was persuaded by my people back home to present myself for election at the time. It is all in the spirit of providing the best legislative talent to the people, including where we come from, as opposed to confining these talents in Nairobi. 

 What makes you suitable for the Senate seat?

As already demonstrated at ODM, a national outfit with a huge following, I have done fairly well in executing my administrative assignments. I am now ready to utilise the same skills and enthusiasm to serve the residents of Nairobi. I have the capacity to deliver on the needs of our people in the city, a duty I will undertake with a lot of drive and humility.

But Nairobi voters have, in some cases, elected leaders on account of populism and tribalism….  

We, at ODM, are making a proposal that candidature for electoral seats this time around should be based on adherence to Chapter 6 of the Constitution, with specific focus to Article 75 which touches on integrity. By offering myself for election, I trust I meet the three basic requirements of integrity, competence and suitability.    

And finally, after a hard day’s work what do you do at your free-time?

I love to party. They don't call me “waziri wa sherehe” for nothing! I go out most times with my friends and just have a good time. Many Nairobians have encountered me on the club scene.