Fighting the last war; Raila's strategy studied by competitors, its time for change

Azimio la Umoja leader Raila Odinga. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

As far as indispensable politicians go, Raila Odinga is right up there with the best of them.

His contributions to the betterment of Kenya as a champion of democratic ideals, a fierce advocate for constitutional reforms, and a visionary political structures developer are as innumerable as they are indisputable.

Like his father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga before him, Raila has more than earned his place in the pantheon of Kenya’s all-time greats. 

As indelibly captured in The Flame of Freedom, the autobiography he co-authored with long-term aide Sarah Elderkin, the former Prime Minister has over the years demonstrated quite considerable gifts as a mobilizer and strategist with Houdiniesque abilities for getting out of political tight spots.  

Given his pedigree and clear political acumen, it’s all the more baffling that he lately seems less surefooted, is picking unnecessary fights with erstwhile ideological allies and, in the remnants of Azimio la Umoja, appears to be leading a coalition of the unwilling that is spending precious political capital on bipartisan talks that, at best, are a classic example of Freudian displacement activity designed to project power and influence between election cycles and, at worst, are a naked attempt at a power-grab rooted in the refusal to accept that Azimio snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the 2022 presidential election.  

Playing to the gallery  

Ample evidence in the public domain points to the latter theory of the case. There is no denying the fact that Raila and, by extension, the Azimio coalition continue to be immune to the reality that the 2022 presidential race didn’t swing their way.  This was thrown into sharp relief by Raila’s uncharacteristically sharp rebuke of Meg Whitman, America’s Ambassador to Kenya, during his address at the recently concluded 8th Devolution Conference in Eldoret, Uasin Gishu County.  

“Tell the rogue ambassador, Kenya is neither the US nor is it a colony of the United States. Keep your mouth shut while you are here. Otherwise, we will call for your recall back to your country,” said Raila to mixed reactions at the Conference. 

The ambassador's crime? Saying “Kenya held what many analysts said was the freest, fairest, and most credible in Kenyan history.”  

“The elections were observed by international organisations and upheld by the Supreme Court and power was transferred ordinarily and peacefully at the time,” she added - a remark that was received with a standing ovation at the conference.  

History will note that Raila’s spat with the envoy betrays a curious ideological shift for a man who has always welcomed the intervention of foreign diplomats such as the original “Rogue ambassador” Smith Hempstone and his forays into domestic politics in the Moi era which helped to usher in democratic reforms. 

Raila could, of course, be playing to the gallery in the dust-up with the American Ambassador. An unfortunate characteristic of the algorithm-driven nature of modern politics with its news silos that insulate audiences from opposing points of view is it’s easier than ever to throw red meat at your political base. In this rationale, Whitman was the “catch of the day”. As they say, all politics is local. 

Azimio la Umoja leader Raila Odinga. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

The same logic applies to Whitman. She too has a political constituency. Locally, much attention has been paid to her credentials as a successful business executive at eBay and Hewlett-Packard. Less attention has been given to her politics yet they give us a revealing window into why she’s taken a firm line on last year’s presidential election being a settled matter. Despite being a lifelong Republican and even running on the party’s ticket in her unsuccessful stab at being the Governor of the state of California in 2010, she endorsed Joe Biden for President in 2020. 

Whitman distanced herself from her own party due to what she saw as Donald Trump's blatant disregard for constitutional norms such as accepting the results of a free and fair election. Her principled stance and support for Biden ultimately led to her nomination as the diplomat to Kenya. For Whitman, the issue of accepting election results is not just a political matter; it is a fundamental tenet of democracy.  

Whitman’s background and values have therefore shaped her into an advocate for the sanctity of free and fair elections, a stance that she carried with her into her diplomatic role. It wouldn’t stretch credulity to assume that, in her view, if Raila and company had evidence of outcome-determinative malpractice in last year’s presidential poll, they would have presented it to the Supreme Court which would have annulled the election like it did in 2017. 

Fighting the last war 

"Fighting the last war" is a strategic concept that refers to the act of preparing for or responding to a new situation or conflict by using tactics and strategies that were effective in a previous one. The approach is often criticized because it fails to adapt to the changing circumstances and dynamics of the current situation.  

The Japanese soldiers who persisted in combat long after World War II's end have become a poignant metaphor for the dangers of fighting the last war. These days the term is mostly used for entrenched political ideologies that refuse to accept the realities of the day.  The dedication of soldiers fighting a lost cause, while admirable, ultimately leads to naught.

Like these soldiers, such factions cling to outdated strategies, resisting change even when the battle has evolved.  This underscores the importance of adapting to shifting landscapes. Similarly, in politics, embracing contemporary contexts and discarding obsolete notions is vital for ensuring future victories. 

That Whitman’s relatively mundane appraisal of last year’s elections would stir such ire in Raila is proof positive of his Trumpesque divorce from reality and drift into a psychologically crippling election denialism that leaves Azimio fighting the last war instead of gathering its wits in preparation for the next fight.  

And “psychologically crippling” is the operative phrase here. It’s hard to inspire your supporters by reminding them constantly about how their victory was stolen - sans evidence - yet they had pinned their hopes of a better future on you. The sad tale of Robert Kioko’s (28) self-immolation in Mombasa recently is a visceral reminder of this. The man doused himself with petrol and set himself alight protesting Raila's stolen election. To quote the poet, “There's nothing like the sight of an amputated spirit. There's no prosthetic for that.”  

Yet, as history has shown us, Raila is at his most potent as a politician when he has a hopeful message to flog. This is the Raila of 2007, 2013 and 2017. Hope cultivates unity, transcends divides, and inspires people to believe in positive change. The leaders who wield it articulate compelling futures and foster trust and resilience in their supporters. 

While realism is crucial, hope instills determination to overcome obstacles. In an era of uncertainty, selling hope doesn't just win votes; it shapes destinies, propelling societies towards brighter horizons. Our history is replete with transformative movements ignited by hopeful rhetoric. Raila should know, he’s been at the helm of more than a few of them. It’s not too late to find that spark again.