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Raila Odinga's misfired silver bullet and the many missteps that robbed him of outright win

Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.  [Samson Wire, Standard]

For the third time in three consecutive elections, his proverbial single silver bullet has misfired.

And for the fifth time, Raila Odinga has failed to become the President of Kenya, barring any new developments that could come from the Supreme Court, should he make good the promise to challenge William Ruto’s election as Kenya’s fifth president on 9 August.

Raila’s presidential hope has probably come to its final resting place, with a history of five defeats behind him.

In 2013, he persuaded his allies, Kalonzo Musyoka and Moses Wetang’ula, to allow him to be their joint candidate on the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (Cord) ticket. He argued that his advancing age was against his future candidacy. 

Kalonzo and Wetang’ula were assured that it was going to be Raila’s last go at Kenya’s highest office, having run and lost twice before, in 1997 and 2007. He promised to support either of them in subsequent elections. But he ran again in 2017 and now in 2022. He has used the same argument each time – the final bullet. And each time, it has not worked.

He has always put his loss to a stolen election. What went wrong this time, despite the confidence that has defined his Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya Alliance campaign, complete with support from the retiring president, Uhuru Kenyatta? It will be interesting to see what he takes to the Supreme Court, if he elects that path. 

National stature

On the surface, there are obvious geopolitical factors. But the drivers run deeper than that. First, was the loss of key allies, from Western Kenya – Wetang’ula (Ford-Kenya) and Musalia Mudavadi (ANC). The two regional giants decamped in January, to join the deputy president, now president-elect. They were for Ruto a welcome boon that strengthened his then badly needed national stature. It has paid off. 

Meanwhile, Raila replaced them with MPs Esseli Simiyu (Tongareni) and Wafula Wamunyinyi (Kandunyi); and Defence Cabinet Secretary, Eugene Wamalwa. The trio, and their DAP party did not keep this terrain intact for Raila, against expectations. This was despite repeated forays into the region, supported by Cotu Secretary General, Francis Atwoli. Three governors from the region, Wycliffe Oparanya (Kakamega), Wycliffe Wangamati (Bungoma) and Sospeter Ojamong (Busia), were also on the campaign bandwagon. 

Moses Wetang’ula (Ford-Kenya) and Musalia Mudavadi (ANC). [Eric Lungai, Standard]

At the same time, Raila did not make any significant inroads into new terrains, to replace what he lost in Western Kenya. Put differently, his main opponent, Ruto, chipped away at his traditional strongholds in Western Kenya, Kisii, at the Coast and in Nairobi, while keeping intact the territories that, together with President Uhuru, they dominated in the past two elections.

Raila’s expected forays into the Mt Kenya region, especially, did not bear much fruit. This was in spite of the effort being fronted by President Uhuru himself, with a battery of loyal MPs in tow.  Counted among them were Kanini Kega (Kieni), Ngunjiri Wambugu (Nyeri Town), Sabina Chege (Murang’a Woman Representative) and Jeremiah Kioni (Ndaragwa). Also on the same wagon were practically all governors from the Mt Kenya region, with the exception of Kahiga Mutahi (Nyeri) and Muthomi Njuki (Tharaka Nithi). 

Together with other leading figures, like former MPs Peter Kenneth and David Murathe, they got Raila to believe that the Mt Kenya region was his for the taking. The crowning event in the Raila race for the Mountain was the bringing on board of Ms Martha Karua as his running mate. Karua, a biting straight shooter, was expected to buttress the hunt in the Mountain, while also winning over women voters. 

It turns out that Karua, previously an ardent Raila critic,  brought little mileage to the ticket. There have been murmurs in Azimio that Kalonzo might, after all, have been the better bet. His Akamba Lower Eastern Kenya brought Azimio upwards of one million votes. It is difficult to quantify Karua’s contribution to this basket, beyond the knowledge that not even in her own home base of Gichugu, in Kirinyaga, did Raila beat Ruto in a single polling centre. If the running mate was expected to bring political capital to the joint ticket, it clearly failed. 

But why? Raila’s biggest strength was also his biggest weakness. This was the quicksand in the support that he enjoyed from President Uhuru and other State luminaries, among them Cabinet secretaries. Raila, by default, became the face of incumbency. In the process, he bore the brunt of the cross of incumbency, no matter how much he attempted to pass the buck to the deputy president. 

He reeled off long catalogues of the failed promises by the Jubilee Government, and attempted to blame the failure on Ruto. In this, he was also trapped in the awkwardness of promising reform while also being careful not to attack President Uhuru. His efforts to substitute Ruto for Uhuru were not convincing. 

Cost of living

Kenya is smarting under a heavy cost of living. Two weeks to the election,  the government acknowledged the damage. It announced a reduction in the price of sifted maize flour by 50 per cent. The cushions have been removed after the poll. The monthly raises in the cost of petroleum products were also skipped for the first time in many months in July. Yet, these gestures do not seem to have helped. 

On the stumps, Raila has glowingly praised President Uhuru. He has promised to pick up where Uhuru leaves off and to drive the country in the same direction. A country with a hefty sovereign debt burden, just shy of Sh10 trillion, and paying for life through the nose, hates continuity. The Uhuru link has been a self-inflicted shot in the foot for Raila. His communication and messaging team failed to advise him to go easy on the handshake that brought amity between him and Uhuru. The notion that they were working together in government has been bad for him.

Besides, President Uhuru himself acknowledged every so often, in public, that they were in a partnership. The head of state hailed the partnership – saying it was far better than when he worked with his deputy in his first term. Their detractors seized the opportunity to brand the Raila campaign a state project. Uhuru was trying to impose a puppet regime on Kenyans, they claimed. 

And when the wealthy Mt Kenya Foundation (MKF) endorsed Raila, this was quickly spinned out of proportion. They were an oligarchy and captors of the Uhuru State, the narrative went. Raila was their joint project with the president, it was said.  A hungry electorate did not like the thought that, in a country where most people could hardly afford a square meal a day, this club was raising campaign funds for Raila, by paying as much as Sh 1 million a plate at a special funds raising dinner. The notion of such dinners is a complex construct for the ordinary voter. Styled out of proportion by adversaries, it did not do Raila much good. 

President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga during a luncheon at State House, Nairobi. [PSCU]

But it was perhaps the talk about the so-called deep state, the system and access to state resources that did the most harm. Raila’s elder brother, Dr Oburu Oginga, was the first off the block, talking of assured victory this time. ‘In the past we have won elections,’ he told mourners at a funeral in his Siaya home backyard in 2020, ‘However, we have usually lost because we did not have the deep state with us. This time we have the deep state. Nothing will come in our way. We are assured of victory.’

Random promises

Perhaps buoyed with this confidence,  Raila may not have campaigned as vigorously as he has been known to do in the past.

For its part, the campaign message was vague and weak. Perhaps because of the belief that the election was a walk in the park, the Azimio team lacked a clearly defined message. Beyond reeling off of random promises, it was difficult to see a cohesive and systematic thematic thrust. Ruto, for instance, had the globally well-articulated bottom-up development economic model as his pivot. 

The bottom-up narrative was an invitation to debate. Rather than deconstruct it and offer a more viable alternative, the Azimio team elected to parody the Ruto agenda.  Voters who may have wanted to hear reasoned arguments were disappointed. More disappointing was the decision by the Azimio candidate to skip the presidential debate at the Catholic University in Eastern Africa. 

Was Raila the victim of poor counsel and false confidence? Pollsters gave him high rankings, sometimes coming within narrow margins of the 60 percentage mark, while Ruto occasionally dropped below 40 per cent. Emboldened by these figures, the Azimio team exuded confidence about victory. Yet, to be fair to Azimio, both campaigns were triumphalist. They hyperbolically predicted victory by 6.00 am of the polling day. Could some voters in his support bases have stayed away, coddled into comfort by the thought that he would win anyway, even without their votes? For now, the election outcome shows that the pollsters missed the point, for whatever reason. 

Meanwhile, there is no evidence that Team Raila made efforts to convert into votes the crowds that thronged his public rallies across the country. Previous election losses should usually chasten repeat candidates on the fickleness of crowd euphoria, and remind them of the cautious need to ensure that crowds are railroaded to vote. Lawyer Donald Kipkorir lamented in social media that Raila had no agents in Rift Valley and in the Mt Kenya regions, the two most populous areas that sank him. 

Back to the Uhuru factor, the contribution of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) to the debacle is likely to feature prominently in future efforts to understand what went wrong. Touted as the elixir for interethnic harmony, BBI nonetheless generated political controversy over a three-year period (2019 – 2022). Particularly troublesome was the effort to expand the Executive by creating the office of prime minister and two deputy presidents. Ruto spinned the BBI as a conspiracy to overload the taxpayer with Executive overheads, for selfish reasons. 

The more urgent need was to fix the economy and the welfare of the poor. The people whom Ruto called mama mboga bought the narrative. Raila walked into a self-made political death trap by telling the Kenyan voter that he would bring back BBI once elected to office. Put together with President Uhuru’s own declaration, two days to the polls, that he would remain at the centre of government, BBI poisoned the voter’s mind against Raila. 

Uhuru-fatigued electorate

Uhuru, in what can only be described as a political faux pas, addressed his Mt. Kenya base on vernacular radio and TV, intending to assure them that he would perpetuate himself, and therefore their supposed interests, through a Raila presidency. This was the last thing a Uhuru-fatigued electorate wanted to hear, in the Mt. Kenya region and beyond. He gave the wrong message to an electorate that wanted him to complete his tenure and leave. 

Equally significant was the Martha Karua factor. While Karua was intended to attract women and the Mt. Kenya voters, President Uhuru, in a slip of tongue, made it known that she was his choice of running mate for Raila. Kenya Kwanza tormented Azimio with the message that both Raila and Karua were a project. Uhuru intended to superintend over their government by remote control. His position in the Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya Alliance was seen as an affirmation that he would stay on and call the shots, should Raila become Kenya’s fifth president. 

President Uhuru Kenyatta. [PSCU, Standard]

Meanwhile, Uhuru embarked on a hostile campaign against Ruto, in which he amplified the theme of corruption. While many bought it, many more wondered why Uhuru made the declamations against a supposedly corrupt deputy, yet no action was taken, despite a clear legal infrastructure for such action being there. The corruption narrative was taken with a pinch of salt, particularly in broadcast media punditry. 

Pundits observed that the Uhuru regime had the benefit of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) Report, but it had failed to implement the recommendations. The TJRC, remains the richest repository of narratives on corruption and injustice in Kenya, since the colonial regime up to 2008. Next to it are the Report of the Ndungu Commission on Illegal and Irregular Allocation of Public Land and the Report of Bosire Commission of Inquiry into the Goldenberg Affair. That the Uhuru government had done nothing with these reports poked holes in the war against corruption. Its questioning by pundits had a backlash effect on Raila’s futuristic promises to fight corruption. 

Conflicting signals

Away from all this, Raila took a long time before making it clear that he would be a candidate in this election. Throughout the three years of the BBI campaign, he sent conflicting signals to his support base. It was not until early this year that he clearly pronounced himself on his candidacy, in the process slowing down his two deputies in the ODM Party, Oparanya and Hassan Joho, who had indicated towards the end of last year that they would seek their party’s presidential ticket. Ruto had meanwhile been on the campaign trail for four years.

Ruto’s mobilisation of the Mt Kenya community, in particular, buried Raila’s presidential dream. A rich platform of youthful MPs that could not be easily cowed did it for him. Their defiance against what they saw as a sinister project went down well with the electorate. For its part, the Mt Kenya electorate recalled all the negative things Uhuru had previously said about Raila and wondered what had changed. They also read betrayal in Uhuru’s migration from his dictum of ‘Ten years for me, and ten for Ruto.’ The thought that other tribes could not trust them pushed them to reject Raila. 

His team endeared him as the Fifth. They meant well. He would be Kenya’s fifth president. But it did not come to pass. Instead, he lost a presidential election for the fifth time. How he proceeds from here will be interesting to watch. His running mate, Karua, meanwhile sent a social media message that read, ‘It is not done, until it is done.’ Kenyans can only wait to see what that means. Meanwhile, a weary Raila support base will be wondering whether there could be one more secret silver bullet in his armoury.