Raila Odinga's message gets lost in the revenge attacks between State and its enemies

Azimio Leader Raila Odinga address his supporters in Kibra Nairobi on March 27, 2023. [Emmanuel Wanson, Standard]

Monday, the second day of Raila Odinga’s bi-weekly protests, was pivotal: It offered a clarity on the direction of the political battle between President William Ruto and Raila.

From now on, it seems, it will be an eye for an eye. Supporters of the ruling party, Kenya Kwanza, are apparently not ready to stand by and watch the opposition leader harass their leader. Of course, the country and ordinary citizens will bear the brunt of the consequences.

In the past, Raila had a monopoly of protests. But this is a new crop of political toughs – Ruto and his deputy Rigathi Gachagua. The Kenya Kwanza government also seems set to make the life of former President Uhuru Kenyatta difficult.

On Monday, mobs descended on Uhuru’s Northlands farm, burned structures, cut trees and made away with hundreds of livestock. Uhuru was caught in the war between Ruto and Raila, with government officials accusing the former Head of state of financing the opposition group’s protests.

On Sunday, a day before Raila's protests, Ruto flew to German. Raila remained confident. Outwardly exultant and determined in his push to bring the government to its knee, he relished the sight of the crowds that gathered around his car and appeared to be looking forward to more run-ins with the police.

The renascent Raila seems to be playing the long game with Ruto, a man he accuses of stealing his victory. His demands—to open the electoral commissioner’s servers, stop recruitment of new commissioners, and reduce the cost of living, especially maize, cooking oil and fuel—are backed by bi-weekly protests and boycotts.

To his chagrin, though, Ruto is still standing firm on his position that he fairly won the presidency and is sitting pretty in State House, even after more than six months of piling pressure on him.

Apart from the street skirmishes between the police and stone-throwing youth, shuttered businesses and blockaded roads, Raila’s two protests in Nairobi and in other parties of the country were a far cry from past bloody confrontations that made international headlines and helped heap pressure on the incumbent. Security forces showed a lot of restraint, a marked departure from the past when they used live bullets and mowed down protesters.

Raila's protests have so far been fugacious, disjointed and too scattered to be effective or pose a grave danger to Ruto. Denied access to the city center, Raila had to drive around the city and deliver spur-of-the-moment addresses to higgledy-piggledy crowds that appeared to get a kick out of the din than harbor any conviction to stand with him in the long run.

If the August election was a stiff contest over Kenyans’ votes, the post-election period is shaping up as a battle of wits—and, it seems, he who is in State House and has the machinery of government is likely to win. Raila’s anti-government message seems to have got lost in the revenge attacks between his supporters and adversaries.

A police water canon during the Azimio mass protests protesting against the high cost of living. [Denis Kibuchi, Standard]

Raila—who didn’t say what he would do next if his last-ditch endeavors fail—is facing huge headwinds. The man who defeated him is the new president. Already, Ruto has turned Raila’s support base, Kibra, into a contested zone. The government has won over the Nubi community after it dangled the carrot of title deeds.

For months, Raila has been chopping and changing his approaches until he eventually scouted up the bi-weekly demonstrations, which, if successful, could grant him relevance and possibly help him secure a slice of the government. This playbook has an eerie similarity to his tactics in 2008 when he wrested the country’s premiership from President Mwai Kibaki and earned his party half of the government.

Raila is not a man to give up without a fight. On December 7, during his first public attempt to challenge Ruto’s win, he failed to attract a huge crowd at Kamukunji grounds. On Monday, he was awash in protestors. Setbacks don't seem to scare Raila.

On March 20, a resurgent Raila, angry about Kenya Kwanza’s rejection of his demands, threw everything but the kitchen sink at a march that was to culminate in State House. But it turned anti-climactic and failed to upend the country’s political outlook in a manner that could bring about regime change or pressure the Ruto administration to yield to Raila's conditions.

The much-hyped march had, from the start, appeared to be bluster and may have even produced an unintended result and made the Ruto administration grow more hostile to any political deal with Raila.

"Raila is obviously still very disappointed by the election's result and trying to convey that,” Meron Elias, east and southern Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group, told The Standard. “Protesting is his democratic right, but I hope that his supporters remain peaceful and that the police also show restraint."

The bi-weekly demonstrations come at a critical time for Raila. He is grappling with internal discontent within his party, an open rebellion in his Nyanza and Western backyards, and grumbling in regions that buttressed his past presidential bids.

The Ruto administration has also been clipping Raila's wings by co-opting his supporters and stirring up chaos within his party, efforts that have succeeded in undermining Raila’s support base in the capital and compelled him to appeal to supporters in other regions to journey to Nairobi to join the demonstrations. The outreach by the president, who wants to end Raila’s political career, has already changed Raila's fortunes for the worse—an unthinkable success just a few years ago.

The old Raila wielded enormous influence that equaled that of a government, with a mere call from him for a demonstration keeping citizens and vehicles out of the capital's central business district. But the new Raila, whose effervescence was depleted by the August election loss and a cascade of missteps, now needs a Hail Mary pass for the tenant in State House to take him seriously. 

"Marching to the president’s office clearly presents Raila as a person who has gone contrary to his belief in democracy since the Supreme Court already validated the 2022 election, which clearly represents the people’s will,” Mercy Chepkirui, an independent political analyst, told the Standard.

Ms Chepkirui said the solution for the current political upheaval is not another handshake deal, but the establishment of an office for the opposition group in both houses of Parliament to play its role in scrutinising the performance of the government.

"I feel that the rule of law is at stake because, according to the Constitution, the sovereign power belongs to the people and in 2022, the people decided their president through an election which was legitimized by the Supreme Court,” Chepkirui said. "This means that the opposition leader doesn’t believe in the people and the judicial system."

What exactly the opposition wished to achieve through a march to State House was unclear. Raila provided little details beyond saying a few persons would have handed a letter containing his demands to the president’s office.

But before Raila’s supporters could reach the capital's center, security forces erected roadblocks to keep them at bay; far from State House and from trying to breach the perimeter of the country’s hallowed seat of power. 

Since earlier this month, armed security officers, including an anti-riot police unit, have been cordoning off roads leading to State House in Nairobi.

Kenyans from the clergy to politicians have been calling for dialogue, but the chance of a political deal is well-nigh impossible, at least under the current political climate in which Raila rejects Ruto's legitimacy, and Ruto treats Raila as a spent force.

In all previous political deals between former presidents and Raila, there was a feeling—even tangible evidence —that the son of Jaramogi had the power to call up hundreds of thousands of supporters in a matter of minutes to the streets of Nairobi, Kisumu and parts of the Western region. Indeed, former presidents sought legitimacy from Raila, whose popularity made him a political force that couldn’t be ignored.

But Raila's fortunes and the country’s political conditions have dramatically changed since 2018 when Raila disappointed many and reconciled with Uhuru, a rapport that planted the seeds of animosity between him and Ruto, whose position as deputy president was subordinated to some ministers and to Raila.

Given the unsavory record of the last handshake deal, there is an increasing consensus that going for a band-aid solution will only delay the real governance problem and store long-term problems for the incumbent.

The Azimio leader has publicly denied that he was seeking a political truce with Ruto, whom he called illegitimate. The Head of State has also ruled out meeting the opposition leader’s laundry list of demands. 

Moreover, Gachagua has come out strongly against any attempt to bring Raila in out of the cold. The deputy president at one time told the president to leave him to deal with Raila. 

"The medicine of this person is the son of Mau Mau (freedom fighters),” Gachagua said.

On March 16, he was blunter: “The time to (politically) finish off this person is now,” Gachagua said. In another speech recently in Tharaka Nithi, the deputy president said, “there will be no handshake affair” even if Raila protested against the government from the morning to the evening. Gachagua joked that even if Raila tried to enter State House through a backdoor to strike a deal with the president, he would stop him.

Inside Ruto's camp, the urge to ditch the softly-softly approach and take Raila head-on is growing, with the Head of State himself adopting a tougher stance.

“Enough is enough,” said Ruto. “You (Raila) can’t continue to blackmail the country.” On March 20 the president ominously said, "None of us is above the law."

National Assembly Speaker Moses Wetang'ula warned about possible casualties if Raila continued with his negative politicking.

“The destructive, violent political activities in the country are absolutely unhelpful, and those who embraced them will soon find that it's noisy and messy—and there will be the casualties,” said Wetang'ula on March 16. 

The political chaos is a result of miscalculations and a lack of political ingenuity by the antagonists that now almost everyone—and the country—is paying a price.

President Ruto and his team decided—perhaps because of a desire to foster national reconciliation—to pass up an early opportunity to launch an aggressive campaign to tame Raila and nip any attempt to stage anti-government crusades in the bud immediately after the Supreme Court confirmed Ruto's win on September 5.

The win scared officials of the former administration, who dove for cover for fear of being hunted down and prosecuted. 

Raila, who was informally a part of the ruling class, had also gone silent for weeks, amid a deliberate push by the ascendant team to wash the former administration’s dirty linen in public.

Police engage youths in running battles in Mathare 4A on March 27,2023 when the Azimio protests entered the second week over demands they want the government to meet. [Collins Kweyu,standard]

“The truth of the matter is that we have inherited a debilitated economy that is facing almost an economic shutdown,” said Gachagua during President Ruto’s inauguration on September 13, asking Kenyans to pray for the president to deliver his duties. 

That message of taking charge of a wrecked nation was barely followed by actions and awareness campaigns to inform the citizenry about the mess left behind by the previous administration. The new government now appears to have inadvertently taken ownership of the blunders of the previous administration. 

"The Ruto administration only shows its weakness when it decries the looting by former officials and yet does little to hold those officials to account," said Ms Chepkirui. 

Indeed, Kenya Kwanza did little to get its message across to Kenyans. For example, it has not talked up its success and exposed the rot left behind by the former administration in a manner that ordinary Kenyan could appreciate the enormity of the task it is handling.

The empty rhetoric by Kenya Kwanza mandarins and their griping about the looting and abuses committed by the former administration have only elicited disdain from the former ruler.

"There are two types of people. There are people who talk a lot about what they will do and do nothing, and those are many. But there are people who talk very little but do a lot and their deeds are seen," Uhuru said in a veiled dig at the Ruto administration. He delivered the remarks at the home of Education Minister George Magoha after visiting his family to condole over his death.

The thanksgiving event was a reunion of sorts for  officials of the previous government, displaying a sense of camaraderie and of being a politically endangered species. Uhuru happily shook hands with members of his Cabinet who have been out of sight since their favored candidate, Raila, lost the presidential election.

“We live in a country where people are so dishonest. They love lies. They behave as if there was nothing happening yesterday,” said former Interior minister Fred Matiang'i in another attack on the current administration.

Ruto, Gachagua and National Assembly Majority Leader Kimani Ichung'wah have disclosed a wanton looting that took place days before and after the election.

“The HANDSHAKE regime was a ROTTEN administration, stinking to the high heavens,” tweeted Ichung'wah on March 15. Ichung'wah recently told Parliament that two days after Kenyans cast their ballots "blatant looting of public resources” took place.  

"When the rest of the country was counting votes, there were people in the former regime who were counting billions,” he said.