Now in his fourth term at the National Assembly, ODM chairman John Mbadi has been one of the great political assets that the opposition leader Raila Odinga has had since 2007.
His mobilisation and oratory skills have evolved into a politico not to be ignored in opposition quarters.
The nominated MP is among the key think tanks that have been instrumental in implementing the coalition’s strategy to push back against Kenya Kwanza’s political blitz.
The seasoned parliamentarian however has lately been seeing weakness on opposition benches and now believes that the fight to push President Ruto’s regime into a corner requires steel and proper organisation.
Mbadi believes that confusion and lack of proper communication in the Azimio fold contributed to its loss in the 2022 election. In an interview with The Standard, Mbadi explains what could have led to the crumble of the opposition during the debate and final voting on the Finance Bill, 2023 and why Azimio needs to do more to achieve its objective of effectively pushing back against President William Ruto’s political juggernaut.
Mbadi speaks to our writer from his backyard of Homa Bay at a time the opposition is taking stock of what it considers successes in the Saba Saba mass protests as it crafts more strategies to strengthen itself.
Question: Do you believe the new plans for mass protests will achieve the goals Azimio intends to achieve to push back against Kenya Kwanza?
Mbadi: You cannot stop people’s power. You can’t suppress people’s power. It will shift the goals.
Question: In the last protests, they ended after the coalition agreed to engage in the bi-partisan talks that have since collapsed. Do you think the coalition is still open to fresh talks?
Mbadi: We are Kenyans and we can’t rule out any talks. We are in the same society. Based on what happened last time, where our colleagues approached us for talks and thereafter we realised that they lacked commitment, and that trust and goodwill will be lacking going forward.
They will really have to convince us that there will be a need for more talks. Showing a lack of enthusiasm and commitment to the talks is a slap in our face. We may not be ready for further talks. But that does not mean that we are rigid people and that we don’t care about our society. What we saw was disappointing and I don’t think Kenya Kwanza is ready for any talks.
Question: Do you think Azimio has any chance of success to challenge any policies brought by Kenya Kwanza through parliament after the Finance Bill exposed a weakness in the coalition?
Mbadi: There are no weaknesses in the coalition. What we are seeing is bad manners from Kenya Kwanza who are getting into Azimio which has the majority of membership.
Kenya Kwanza has taken numbers from Azimio which would have helped hold the government to account. As it is today, it is really not easy to challenge Kenya Kwanza’s policies from Parliament until maybe some years when reality will dawn on some of these misguided members who probably due to lack of experience think there is something to gain from Kenya Kwanza. Parliament as it is today, sadly may not hold Kenya Kwanza accountable but the people of Kenya would.
Question: How would you rate the current opposition as compared to the past in terms of dedication and the urge to fight against the government through parliament?
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Mbadi: We have a good number of people in parliament who are actually dedicated, they are about 70 to 80 and are still committed to fighting for the course of wananchi. But a majority are either thinking that they are part of the government while others are easily being lured by fake promises.
In terms of rating, the current parliament is doing very badly. In the 11th Parliament, Jubilee had numbers but we maintained our numbers in CORD. Currently, almost the entire Jubilee brigade is now in bed with Kenya Kwanza. In ODM, we have almost 10 members rebelling with no cause. We are doing very badly in terms of maintaining our numbers, credibility and integrity.
Question: There are claims there are cracks in Azimio over the coalition’s leadership at the National Assembly. Is this true?
Mbadi: Minority Leadership in the National Assembly must do a little more. That does not mean there are cracks. Sometimes I see a lot of confusion on the floor which I think our leadership must correct going forward. We are dealing with a government and a president who requires a lot of tact, strategy and clear communication.
There was a position that members were not supposed to submit amendments to the Finance Bill. Later on, members of Azimio submitted amendments. Positions can change but it has to be communicated effectively and clearly to members. When we were voting on the Finance Bill on various clauses, members were at a loss whether to say yes or no. Those are things that the leadership needs to look into.
The Minority Leadership needs to do a little more in terms of being clear with communication with the members and being present all the time to whip members in the same direction. You can’t just whip members through SMSs. You need to be there physically. I have been a Minority Leader and I know.
You seriously need to be there. You are almost all the time present on the floor of the house to understand and see what is going on. That does not mean that there are cracks. Personally, I am not interested in leadership. I am confident and satisfied with where I am. I just want the Minority Leader to be a bit more organised, and strategic, communicate better, and be present and available to the members.
Question: How was your experience when you served as the Minority Leader in the last parliament?
Mbadi: I enjoyed the work of being a Minority Leader for the time I was there. My members had confidence in me. My colleagues expressed confidence in my leadership. We supported former President Uhuru Kenyatta’s policies but also criticised a lot of his policies.
For the first time in the history of Kenya, we returned the 2020/2021 budget back to Treasury when we felt that it was not responsive enough to the challenges of the moment (Covid-19). That was my initiative as a Minority Leader.
We succeeded in forcing the president not to put 16 per cent VAT on fuel products but eight per cent. I think we did a good job on the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI). I still believe that was a good thing for this country that we lost. It is an opportunity lost.
Question: Last year, you said that you will step down as party chairman, are you still keen on it?
Mbadi: I have since discussed with the party leader and agreed that I continue. We have a lot of wars to fight. One thing is that I can never abandon my leader when there is a political war to fight.
Question: There are talks from some quarters that Raila should now groom a successor. What is your take on this?
Mbadi: Successors always appear. Anyone who wants to succeed Raila must groom himself. You can’t wait for Raila to groom you. In the last elections, people tried to make Raila appear like he was Uhuru’s preferred successor. I have never seen any leader trying to groom a successor. Whoever wants to succeed Raila must prepare to groom himself. Raila groomed himself. Anyone who wants to play politics at whatever level must always fight for space.
Question: We have seen ODM lose several members while UDA is stepping up efforts to crack ODM’s bases, as the party chairman, does this concern you?
Mbadi: There is nothing surprising about it. Every time elections take place and you don’t acquire power, many people will run helter-skelter. Some get lured by promises of good things for their constituencies, money and business opportunities. The only thing which was surprising is that our core base Nyanza has lost some MPs to UDA. Surprisingly other areas that previous regimes used to raid are solid.
As time goes by, wananchi will pile pressure on them. In terms of our bases, we have engaged in high gear and many activities are going on. As a party, we are revamping. And as usual, we will definitely retain our support. As the party chairman, I am not worried because we have the ability to retain our members because the masses are with us. UDA is gaining the leaders but losing the masses. They could be gaining greedy, hungry and cheap leaders.
Question: What plans do you have to strengthen ODM?
Mbadi: ODM party is strong. But we are strengthening it further. This is the only party that has periodic meetings and we have started engaging the grassroots. ODM has started grass root mobilisation. The party leader is also involved in the wider Azimio politics. And we are talking about what hurts wananchi. We speak their language. We are already on with our programme.
Unlike UDA which is buying membership registration. They are making people suffer and moving around with State largesse buying a membership. All those members will walk out of UDA very soon.