When, on January 7, Raila Odinga celebrated his 78th birthday, there was no sign that the opposition leader was anything but buoyant.
Reclining on a single-seater sofa, high-spirited Raila was as fresh as a daisy. Clad in a white shirt, blue jeans, and a bucket cap, he, flashing a wisp of his enigmatic smile, gave the impression that he – at long last, at least outwardly - recovered from the August election loss and was bracing for another political life.
The adjustment to the new reality was in the air for quite some time.
Just days later, Raila had given his lieutenants the go-ahead to embrace President William Ruto during his tour to the Western regions, where the Head of State launched development projects and promised to initiate others that could cost billions of shillings.
Anyang’ Nyong’o, the Kisumu governor; James Orengo, the Siaya governor; Gladys Wanga, the Homa Bay governor; and Raila’s brother, Senator Oburu Odinga, were among elected and influential officials, on hand to welcome Ruto.
Then, came a new disclosure from a yet-to-be-identified whistleblower, who revealed new information that the Raila-led Azimio had won the presidential election with more than two million votes. To be precise: 8,170,353 votes, or 57.3 per cent, for Raila against Ruto’s 5,915,973 votes, or 41.66 per cent. (According to the electoral body, Ruto got 7,176,141 votes, or 50.49 per cent against Odinga’s 6,942,930 votes, or 48.85 per cent.)
Emboldened by the glad tidings, Raila made a 180-degree change and started to get off the dime and urged his supporters to resist the Ruto administration, which he called for its resignation because it was “illegitimate.” The revelation was like a cudgel that Raila could use to challenge Ruto and squeeze some political gains out of him.
Exuberant Azimio zealots could barely hide their joy.
“We will stop at nothing within the four corners of the Constitutional framework to reclaim our victory and you can take that to the bank,” Prof Makau Mutua, the spokesperson of Raila’s 2022 presidential campaign, said on Citizen TV Wednesday night, claiming that the Azimio victory was “stolen”.
The renewed politicking to wipe the slate clean has injected life into the anti-President Ruto bid by the opposition leaders - who just weeks ago appeared despaired of any comeback and resigned to their fate - but it is unlikely to overturn Ruto’s election win. His administration, in power for just six months, appears to have taken root in the country.
Raila’s rejection of Ruto’s victory would have had a better chance if he had fixed early on his poor messaging, initial missteps, lack of a Plan B and his lack of a sense of urgency.
Now, Raila and his team, who were dormant for five months and did little to follow up on their fiery utterances in August, have to grapple with an apathetic and exhausted public that barely has appetite for more election-related issues.
“They’re trying, trying,” said President Ruto sarcastically on Friday.
From the start, Raila, whose August loss was his fifth shot at the presidency, has been skating on thin ice. In fact, he didn’t only put his foot in his mouth during the election, but he appears to have been his worst enemy. After the court held Ruto’s victory, he issued his famous statement that respected the Supreme Court’s verdict - “although we vehemently disagree with their decision today.”
That poor messaging helped confuse Raila’s supporters who were looking for a clear plan on whether to totally reject the outcome and head to the streets or accept it grudgingly and move on.
This month, the Azimio officials have for days been publicising the upcoming major speech by their leader, Raila, who, they said, would give his supporters in particular and the nation at large a way forward.
When the D-Day came on January 23, the message was anticlimactic: There was no fresh information. No concrete action plan. No surprises. Just eight points that – more or less – repeated what Raila said on August 16, the day he rejected Ruto’s win announced a day earlier by the electoral commission.
“One, first, we, as Azimio, reject the 2022 election result totally. We cannot and we will not recognise the Kenya Kwanza regime and we consider the Kenya Kwanza government illegitimate,” Raila said. “Two, we don’t recognise William Ruto as the president of Kenya. We don’t recognise him, and we equally don’t recognise any officials in office with him.”
On August 16, Raila made similar declarations.
“We’re pursuing constitutional and lawful channels and processes to invalidate [Wafula] Chabukati’s illegal and unconstitutional pronouncement. We’re certain that justice will prevail,” Raila said.
Raila’s defective tactics continued to doom his endeavours to defeat candidate Ruto during the election or delegitimise his presidency after the polls.
Raila is yet to put forth tangible evidence to convince the public that Ruto stole the election. All the public saw was Raila’s failure to convince the Supreme Court to void Ruto’s win. To many Kenyans, the court’s judgment has legally sealed the matter.
For Raila, though, it ain’t over till it’s over. With the new information from the whistleblower, it’s crystal clear, in his view, that the presidential election results were manipulated.
Raila’s reactive approaches have been playing into Ruto’s hands. Since August last year, Ruto has been ruthlessly tearing down the edifice of Raila’s party, Azimio, which is now as good as ruined.
On January 23, hours before Raila’s speech, prominent and staunch members of Jubilee, a constituent party of the Azimio coalition, were posing joyfully for a photo with a beaming Ruto, whose gutsy outreaches helped abort Raila’s first call for rallies late last year, with both Wiper and Kanu parties refusing to join them.
That Raila and his team, including Martha Karua, Kalonzo Musyoka and Jeremiah Kioni – are floundering in the dark, looking for an aha moment shows how opposition leaders have run out of novel ideas to galvanise their supporters and tackle Ruto.
In the post-election reality, the unwieldy 26-party Azimio is hardly fit for post-election purpose. Its chairman, former President Uhuru Kenyatta, is indisposed to openly come to his party’s aid at its hour of need. The hurt felt by Azimio’s close-knit leaders is not a universal one either.
Rank and file members have been jumping ship onto the ruling party’s backyard, where President Ruto has been taking them to his bosom. In his Cabinet appointments, Ruto has gone out of his way to mollify all regions with positions or promises.
Wittingly or not, Raila has ceded the momentum to Ruto early on, and it would be difficult for him now to regain the lost ground.
In August, Kenyans hung on the lips of Raila, eager to listen to his words. Some fanatics have been straining at the leash to act on any order by their leader, even if it was to resort to violent riots, but the opposition leader balked at that key moment.
“Let no one take the law into their own hands,” he urged his supporters on August 16.
The crucial lull gave Ruto the momentum he badly needed: He acted like a duly elected president and the world accepted him. And finally came the September 13 inauguration-cum-swearing-in ceremony, which was attended by none other than former President Uhuru Kenyatta, who doubles up as the chairman of Azimio. Case closed, it seemed.
After the inauguration, editorials calling for the country to move on and focus on its development have appeared in local newspapers. Some of Raila’s supporters started to cozy up to the new ruler, abandoning their leader. A vicious blame game, hand-wringing, self-deprecation and a sense that Raila was outsmarted has erupted among the opposition circles.
“We have to blame ourselves, within our house - that is where the problem started,” said lawmaker Babu Owino, a close ally of Raila, in a video posted on his YouTube channel.
“Quite a number of mishaps have happened. Again, we over-relied on our party leader [Uhuru] who’s busy,” Kioni, Jubilee Party’s secretary general, told SpiceFM.
Also, more information undermining Raila’s claim of rigging has emerged from the tribunal investigating the four electoral commissioners who allegedly wanted him president or pushed – according to other electoral commissioners – for a rerun.
Raila made no major announcement till January 23, and it would take a lot of persuasion to have his message accepted by a weary public.
Kenyans – already not idealists as far as elections are concerned and now weighed down inordinately by their own tribulations – are yet to fully buy Raila’s claim that is up to now on dit.
After all, the alleged theft of votes was not as brazen as the soft coup of 2007, when President Mwai Kibaki practically swore himself into office and the country plunged into violence. Since 2002, the country’s elections have not been peachy keen, and some Kenyans have grown tolerant of nifty tinkering of ballot papers to pad numbers.
“If Raila was defeated in quotes, we could still do something, honestly,” Owino, the lawmaker, said. “We had enough time. If Raila won, we could still protect his votes.”
Ruto and Raila both would have gained some ground if they had leveraged time. They played coy and there was no hint of the zero-sum brawl that is currently building up in the country.
As the winner, who knows Raila’s propensity to grumble, Ruto could have overturned everything on Day One, especially if he could have ideally done away with his predecessor’s Cabinet and top security officials. But he waited for so long that he even kept his former foe’s ministers until September 27, 2022, almost a month and a half since the declaration of his victory.
Ruto’s disrelish for hasty actions that could upset the apple cart in the early days of his rule offered Raila an opening he’s now trying to milk to the maximum.
On his part, Raila could have come up with a Plan B, just in case the victory didn’t go his way. Whether it’s because of the fear of the ICC sword that has been hanging over the country’s politicians since 2008 or poor strategy, the opposition leader seemed to have had no arrow in the quiver, filling the vacuum after the loss with silence, tepid statements and even exhortations to his foot soldiers in the Western regions to respect Ruto.
Raila’s fresh rejection of Ruto’s win could, therefore, be chiefly construed as the reaction of a man who’s undecided, unfocused and unclear on what he wanted in the first place. On January 23, Raila tried to sound like a pan-Africanist.
“Dear Kenyans, we know what we do in Kenya matters for Africa and the rest of the world,” he told his supporters.
“There will be no reason for citizens of any country to participate in elections only for them to be stolen by the major cartels in cahoots with their foreign companies and masters.
“When we sort out the mess here in Kenya, we will be on the track of helping Africa and much of the third world to sort out their elections and ensure no one gets to power through the backdoor as Ruto did,” Raila said.
“If it’s going to take the resilience of the people of Kenya to help Africa to sort out its elections, [and] problems, I am ready to lead that process.”
Raila Odinga indeed came back from South Africa reinvigorated after more than a week of sojourn there, but his message to the nation – not to recognise Ruto’s presidency -- was as namby-pamby as it was late.
The speech itself appeared uninspiring, as the opposition leader, whose campaign immensely benefited from the former administration’s support, signalled no intention to haul himself out of the hole of the handshake deal in 2018 that many, including some of his supporters, believe was a big hole their leader tumbled into.
Ideally, Raila could have, after the election loss, broken away from his former league, distilled real lessons from his failure, admitted his mistakes and rebranded himself to live to fight another day.
Instead, the opposition leader deepened his bond with the officials of the former administration, with the ruling party now saying that some corrupt former officials are bankrolling his new onslaught.
The staying power of Raila, already damaged by early missteps, is at a major risk. But Raila is also ace at getting what he wants.
In 2017, an angry former President Uhuru Kenyatta derided Raila as a “bully.”
“That is what the man is -- a bully,” Uhuru said of his erstwhile foe.
“I am not talking about a community. I am not talking about Luos. I am talking about a specific man by the name Raila Amolo Odinga, who doesn’t want peace for this nation, and that is not hate speech. I am describing a person,” Uhuru said.
About a year and a couple of months later, Raila was sworn in as the “People’s President,” an extraordinary feat that finally impelled Uhuru to make up with Raila and, in the process, alienated his then-deputy, Ruto.
Raila now has to strike an uneasy balance between his ejaculatory declaration that he doesn’t recognise Ruto as the Republic’s legitimate president and his desire to wrest privileges from Ruto, who has his hands on the levers of power.
Ruto - himself a fighter, surrounded by a clutch of tough-talking warriors - is in no mood to share power with Raila.
“Forget the handshake affair,” Ruto said in response to Raila’s statement that he doesn’t recognise his presidency, asking the opposition leader to change a “little” his decades-old tacit of needling presidents.
“You’re dreaming,” said Ruto amid applause. “… The government of Kenya is not going to be blackmailed to serve the interests of a few people. That will not happen. We’re going to serve the people of Kenya.” How strongly Ruto can stick to his vow would determine Raila’s fate: Whether Raila this time around has jumped in at the deep end or, as happened in the past, whether Ruto will yield.