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Too close yet too far: Raila Odinga's fifth loss, a dream deferred again

Azimio la Umoja presidential candidate Raila Odinga in the 2022 general election Raila Odinga. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Raila Odinga has missed out on being elected as Kenya’s fifth president on his fifth attempt at the presidency following a narrow loss to his closest rival and once political ally William Ruto.

Raila had set out to take over from President Uhuru Kenyatta, whom he contested against in the two previous elections before mending fences following a convergence of interests after the acrimonious election in 2017.

His fifth attempt at the presidency perhaps brings an end to his ambition in leading the country after a relentless campaign for the top job, condemning him once again to the opposition benches for the next five years. To the last hour, his core campaign team clutched on to hope that their man would nail it.

However, the results forms uploaded at Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) website and verified by officials at Bomas of Kenya national tallying centre were telling a different story. When commission chair Wafula Chebukati took to the podium, it was to puncture the balloon of expectations among Raila’s supporters.

Raila missed out on the presidency, having garnered 6,942,930 votes (48.85 per cent) compared to President- elect William Ruto’s 7,176,141 (50.49 per cent) votes.

“In Accordance with the Constitution and the law I, Wafula Chebukati, Chairperson if the IEBC hereby declare that Ruto William Samoei has been duly elected as the president of the republic of Kenya,” Chebukati said.

Now, with the election done and dusted, the ODM leader finds himself in a familiar territory, leading his troops once again to the opposition benches and missing out once again on bringing to life promises made to his supporters curated over decades of fanatical support.

As soon as the loss was declared, his supporters swarmed his campaign headquarters digesting the loss, having failed to withstand an abrasive onslaught from the now victorious coalition of Kenya Kwanza led by President- elect William Ruto.

President-elect William Samoei Ruto. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

The sombre mood at his campaign headquarters was replicated throughout his party strongholds and it is expected that his loss will also be translated to marginal representation at the wards, the constituencies as well as within the National Assembly.

For Raila, the attempt to get to State House has been a long and winding road that often kept him at arm’s length from the centre of power with supporters on more than one occasion believing that the presidency was stolen from their man even after months of frenzied countrywide campaigns. Yet again, he finds himself away from the power he has craved for, for decades.

Raila has always staged an electrifying campaign bid, losing under controversial circumstances in 2007. When he cast his vote on Tuesday, some of these memories undoubtedly were playing at the back of his mind.

In 2013 he unsuccessfully petitioned his loss but was successful in 2017. However, he boycotted the repeat poll directed by the Supreme Court claiming the electoral body had not complied with court directives enabling it to be a fair arbiter.

Presidential bid

Pundits and supporters alike believed Raila’s presidential bid this year was the most potent ever since his first attempt a quarter century ago.

“It is Baba’s (Raila) destined time and the stars have aligned perfectly. The obstacles hitherto placed on his path are falling away and it’s incredible to watch this happen,” Edwin Sifuna, the Secretary General of the former Prime Minister’s party, Orange Democratic Moment (ODM), recently told this writer. 

Sifuna, who has since bagged the Nairobi senatorial seat, singled out the entry of Narc-Kenya party leader, Martha Karua, who had “captured the country’s imagination” as a strong leader with great credentials, and who offered the most realistic opportunity of Kenya producing the first female Deputy President.

Narc-Kenya party leader, Martha Karua, with Raila Odinga during a past Azimio la Umoja rally. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

And describing Raila as “father of devolution”, Tony Gachoka who served as Head of Protocol in the Prime Minister’s Office, concurred. He observed that his former boss Raila has been consistent in his quest for democratic space, devolved and equitable distribution of national resources as well as defender of human rights.

Raila and Gachoka first met nearly three decades ago, when the latter was an editor of “Finance Magazine” – then a fearless publication of Njehu Gatabaki, former MP for Githunguri.

Indeed Raila’s political journey has not been a walk in the path. It has been one of long journey of painful sacrifices.  While, for instance, his father, Adonija Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, had access to good education in high-profile institutions – Maseno School, Alliance High School and Makerere University where he graduated with a diploma in Education – his children were not as lucky.     

Jaramogi, who, upon his return from Uganda was posted to Maseno School as a teacher, immediately got immersed in union affairs. Before long, he found the political bug irresistible, dumped the noble profession and teamed up with other national leaders including Jomo Kenyatta, who were drumming up support for the country’s independence.

The move signalled the beginning of the painful struggles for Jaramogi children’s pursuit for education. Jaramogi’s eldest child, Dr Oburu Oginga, was the first casualty after failing to secure admission in his dream school, Alliance. He had passed the Kenya Preliminary Examination, the equivalent of today’s Class Eight, with top grades of “A”, but school heads were reluctant to admit him.

Raila and the other children faced similar rejection with Sir Carrey Francis, the Principal of Alliance High School, telling Jaramogi that the school administration feared his children would turn out to be political agitators like their father “by poisoning the minds of other students”.  

Rejection of Jaramogi’s children in 1960, recounts Siaya Senator-elect Oburu, was apparently communicated to all principals of leading schools in the country. Noting the politics impediment, Jaramogi opted to take his children overseas for studies. With help from comrades on the continent, including Kwame Nkurumah of Ghana, Jaramogi who was then President of the Panafricanist Movement in Eastern Africa, managed to fly out his two sons, Oburu and Raila, to Russia and East Germany.

The airlift of Raila and his brother, coupled with the good news back home of Kenya’s independence and appointment of their father as Vice President a few months later in 1963, was a major source of joy for the Jaramogi sons.

Raila Odinga's father, Adonija Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. [File, Standard]

Unfortunately for the duo, the delight only lasted three years as Jaramogi differed with his boss, President Kenyatta, and resigned from government: “Although some have labelled us dynasty, Raila and I never experienced or enjoyed our father’s trappings of power as Vice President. We left the country when he was a mere political agitator on the continent and returned to find him out of power and in custody.”

Upon their return, Raila secured a job at the University of Nairobi, Mechanical Engineering Department, as lecturer in production technology, the theory of machines, material science and technical drawing. Despite being among the few holders of a PhD in the early 1970s, Dr Oburu was not as lucky. Because of his social science and economics background, he was regarded as “the dangerous one” as opposed Raila, who was dismissed as “the harmless one”, because of his engineering background.

“Further, as the older of the siblings, intelligence agents believed I was the one being groomed to take over my father’s mantle in politics. Oh, how wrong they were!” exclaims Dr Oburu in uncontrollable laughter.

Indeed, it did not take long before the political animal in Raila was awakened. A racist incident at the university in 1970 enraged Raila, forcing him to call out his colleagues for their unfair treatment of African students.

According to his autobiography, “The Flame of Freedom”, Raila was enraged by his mostly white and Asian colleagues to deny one of his students, who deserved to be awarded a First Class Degree, on account that he was African.

Despite being a new member of staff and this being his first meeting on the department’s academic board, an emotional Raila protested: “Mr Chairman, I beg your pardon. I’m new here - this is my first meeting - but this discussion sounds to me like a debate in the South African parliament,” he asserted. According to his autobiography, Raila’s intervention eventually paid off as the lecturers voted to reverse their initial recommendation.

Speaking in November last year, former Nyeri Senator Ephraim Maina, one of Raila’s former students, described the Azimio presidential candidate as a lecturer who was popular with the students, and defended their rights.

“Raila was my very lecturer in university. So anytime you refer to me as an engineer, know that I gained my knowledge from him. He is also an engineer like me and I have no doubt in his ability to lead this country,” he said during an event convened by Mt Kenya region leaders to endorse Raila’s presidential bid.

Former Nyeri Senator Ephraim Maina. [Mose Sammy, Standard]

But for his controversial stand and sustained scrutiny from intelligence officers, or Special Branch, as they were popularly known at the time, Raila opted out of teaching to a new job of director at Kenya Bureau of Standards (KBS). A few years down the line, however, Raila would become the establishment’s biggest headache, leading to his arrest and dismissal from KBS.

Soon Raila was a hunted man and his family members persecuted. His wife, Ida, would later be hounded out of her teaching job at Kenya High School. Raila, who was on permanent flight, would at some point get arrested and detained for nine years, over his political activities including alleged involvement in 1982 attempted coup against President Daniel arap Moi. But there were many individuals in academia and civil society who were pushing for political reforms, and Raila is just the face of that team. Most of those who fought alongside him in the trenches, including running mate Martha Karua, governors, Kiraitu Murungi (Meru), Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o (Kisumu), Charity Ngilu (Kitui), Siaya Governor-elect James Orengo, former UNCTAD Secretary General Dr Mukhisa Kituyi, lawyers Gitobu Imanyara and Pheroze Nowrojee, and Mombasa-based Islamic preacher, Sheikh Khalid Balala, are among those backing his presidential quest.  

Although these, and other so-called Young Turks, scattered to various political outfits upon the reintroduction of multi-party politics in 1992 by Moi, the Raila-Karua bid has evidently excited and re-united these political heroes of yesteryears.

Speaking in 2020 at the University of Nairobi during the launch of Prof Nyong’o’s anthology of short stories titled, Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy in Kenya?: Choices to Be Made, Kiraitu reflected on Raila’s long “journey to Canaan”, which he hoped would come to fruition this year.     

Kiraitu first met Raila, at Shimo La Tewa prison in Mombasa County where they consulted deeply and even quarreled over food. Kiraitu, then a young lawyer, had paid a visit to a new client, Raila, who had gone on a hunger strike for seven days. Raila, recalled Kiraitu, had become severely sick and looked so weak after seven days of not eating anything.

Kiraitu alerted his client that he may have been playing into Moi’s net: “If you continue doing this (hunger strike), you are soon going to die my friend,” Kiraitu warned Raila. “Don’t you think ‘Nyayo’ (Moi’s nickname) will be very happy to see you dead?” the young lawyer posed. That single threat did the magic.

“The former PM and I are no longer the boisterous young men of the 1990s who arrogantly and forcefully pushed for democratic change. Nonetheless, we and the rest of the Young Turks are available and remain the best bet for this country having seen it all and experienced the regimes of Jomo, Moi, Mwai Kibaki and now Uhuru Kenyatta,” said Kiraitu.

Gachoka, now a media consultant, was optimistic that Raila’s spirited efforts will pay off this time around: “I have covered politics for nearly three decades now and I can tell you, this time around things the gods are with him. And having finally endeared himself to the voter population of Mt Kenya region – even fifteen or twenty percent of the vote is enough to see him through.”

In his quest for the top job, though, Raila has stepped on toes of many, including of allies. Bungoma Senator Moses Wetangula, for instance, considers Raila unreliable, unappreciative and overconfident – factors which he claims have impacted negatively on his political career.

The Ford-Kenya party leader, who teamed up with Raila in the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (Cord) and National Super Alliance (Nasa) in 2013 and 2017, alleges that Raila is “politically arrogant”. Wetangula is particularly irked by the actions of former PM’s handlers and party officials, whom he accuses of having demeaned and disrespected him.  

Another factor that stands in his way is apparent complacency. Nyeri Town MP Wambugu Ngunjiri, who served as head of political affairs in Raila’s 2013 campaigns, points to major lapses including “total failure in protecting Baba’s vote”, especially in Mt Kenya region.