Revealed: Why Raila Odinga has a love-hate relationship with the Deep State

Raila Odinga when he addressed the media at KICC immediately after filing the election petition seeking to nullify the presidential election at the Supreme Court on August 22, 2022. [Kelly Ayodi, Standard]

In July 2020, Siaya Senator Oburu Oginga stirred the nation with remarks that his brother Raila Odinga had secured the support of the “system” in his quest to succeed retired President Uhuru Kenyatta, making the journey to State House half completed.

By system, he meant influential State functionaries who allegedly wielded the power to tilt the presidential election whichever way they pleased.

“Why haven’t we gone to State House when we have actually won the elections through votes?” Oburu would pose in a widely publicized video. “There is something which we were missing… called system.”

He was making reference to the 2007 and 2013 presidential elections, both of which Raila had unsuccessfully contested even as he would say he was cheated out of victory.

While the courts upheld Uhuru’s win in 2013, the late former President Mwai Kibaki’s victory in 2007 has always been contested, with former chairperson of the Electoral Commission of Kenya Samuel Kivuitu admitting that he did not know who won the election that an inquiry concluded had been massively rigged.

The rigging, according to Oburu, had been the work of the system, ever intent on keeping power. In his autobiography Stronger Than Faith: My Journey in the Quest for Justice in Repressive Kenya, Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) Executive Director Oduor Ong’wen writes that the ruling elite, those Oburu identified as comprising the system, were scared of a Raila presidency.

“Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party as well as various observer  teams have detailed how the (2007) vote was stolen. What has not been talked about is why Odinga had to be stopped at all costs from ascending to the presidency of the Republic of Kenya,” Mr Ong’wen writes.

The primary reason for their scare, Ong’wen implies, is that the elite were afraid of landing in jail for the corruption they had perpetrated during their tenures in office. In September 2007, Raila had stated he would not grant amnesty to former presidents and their families implicated in corruption and, by extension, many more who had used their proximity to power to accumulate ill-gotten wealth.

In some way, the ODM leader was promising to pursue those who would be linked with legitimising corruption, much in the same way as President William Ruto recently promised to set up an inquiry on ‘state capture’.

“Wielding power or proximity to it has been the main avenue for primitive accumulation in Kenya. All those who lay claim to being indigenous bourgeoisie in Kenya trace their wealth and status to State connections,” Ong’wen states.

That was not the only factor that scared the elite out of their wits. Raila’s personal history and his campaign messaging forced them to conspire against him.

Thrust to the limelight by the abortive 1982 coup that resulted in his nine-year detention without trial, Raila struggled to earn the trust of those who thought him to be too radical.

“Raila Odinga began charting a path for himself very early in life. As a student in the then East Germany, he took the initiative to establish an international office of the Kenya People’s Union (KPU), a left-leaning opposition party the effort that founded by progressive nationalists and headed by his father. He was later to be independently involved in a number of underground political initiatives, including the stillborn Kenya African Socialist Alliance made Moi rush a law to Parliament to make Kenya a de jure one-party state,” Ong’wen writes on.

Coupled with that was the fact that he represented in Parliament one of the world’s largest slums, Kibra, then a part of Lang’ata constituency. Raila would promise this constituency – the poor – that he would address economic and social inequalities.

In the August 9 election, Ruto campaigned on the hustlers’ platform, proclaiming himself the voice of the downtrodden, a strategy frowned upon by successive crops of elites.

“From the onset of the campaign, Odinga did not refer to himself as a candidate. He simply declared himself The People’s President,” the author observes. “Raila Odinga promised Kenyans that he would address the foregoing. He articulated it in the people’s language and they understood him.”

Then came Raila’s proclamation that he was a social democrat that had echoes from his father’s association with communism. During the cold war years, the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga aligned himself with the East, much to the consternation of western powers.

Raila’s links to some form of socialism was fodder for his opponents, who, according to Ong’wen, would attack the ODM leader of “trying to introduce communism through the back door.” Recently, Raila has said that western powers – which abhor communism and favour capitalism – conspired to rob him of victory in the election.

For the longest time, the ODM leader been seen to champion devolution, calling for the disbursement of more funds to county governments. Ten years into devolution, such calls have earned more voices. That was not the case 15 years ago, when Ong’wen believes Raila’s push for devolution was a weapon custom made to deny him the presidency.

“They (the ruling elite) demonised devolution of power as a recipe for dispossessing the Gikuyu people who had settled in the Rift Valley and elsewhere,” he says, arguing that it worked in denying the ODM leader votes from members of the Gikuyu community from rural areas who faced the worst of land dispossession by British colonialists.