Raila's quest for AU chair job a litmus test for Kenya and Ruto

Azimio leader Raila Odinga and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. [Emmanuel Wanson, Standard]

Opposition leader Raila Odinga’s quest for the African Union Commission (AUC) chair is set to redefine the Kenyan political landscape, as well as the country’s rating in the region and beyond, regardless of whether the bid succeeds or not.

The possibility of a successful bid has been taken as a matter of course. All emerging discourse in the country points to this.

Both in media punditry and in the political arena, the character and focus of conversations point to the understanding that Raila will replace Chad’s Moussa Faki Mahmat, whose four-year two-term tenure ends next year.

Yet many things must first be got right at home and beyond, before Raila could become the  AUC chair. For a start, the bid comes behind the backdrop of a failed 2017 Kenyan shot at the continentally influential, and globally prestigious, office.

Then, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee government positioned before the AU, his Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed as a candidate for the office. In a tightly fought race, Faki beat Amina with a three-vote margin. Twenty-eight States voted for Faki while 25 wanted Amina.

Missed Opportunity

Kenya must demonstrate some level of growth and development after the 2017 defeat. Defeats of this kind can be especially humiliating. For you get very close to the prize and yet remain a loser all the same. Nothing brings home better than the message that a miss is as good as a mile.

The need for Kenya’s leaders to place behind them this kind of humiliation in the continental arena defines the significance of Raila candidature. Of necessity, it must assume the face and character of an official Kenya government national effort.

While Raila is up to this moment Kenya’s de facto leader of the Opposition, he invariably enters the race as a Kenyan project. President William Ruto is, accordingly, expected to officially unveil Raila as Kenya’s candidate for the AUC topmost executive office.

While Raila has indicated in a recent press interview that he has not discussed this matter with Ruto, the indices suggest otherwise. Both the Kenya Kwanza Parliamentary Group and the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) have publicly stated that they endorse Raila’s bid. UDA Secretary-General Cleophas Malalah, while addressing the media after a meeting of the party last week, asked Kenyans “to pray for Mr Odinga’s success.”

Malala showered Raila in laudatory superlatives. Raila’s ODM party and the Azimio alliance have echoed the superlatives. The emerging posturing within this fraternity also assumes that their topmost leader is moving on. Groping and jostling for space has already begun. ODM’s two deputy party leaders and former governors, Wycliffe Oparanya (Kakamega) and Hassan Joho (Mombasa), are already sizing up each other for what could be a bruising succession duel.

Whatever the interests and promptings may be for the various parties endorsing Raila, the difficult part is just about to start. Those who gun for positions in international spaces usually arrive as insiders in their home regimes, as projects of their government. They come not just to draw salaries and to enjoy the perquisites but, more significantly, to prosecute their nations’ self-focused agendas.

Raila is arriving as a rank outsider. Not only does he belong to the political Opposition, it is also an Opposition whose relations with the regime have been at best caustic, and at worst disruptive and openly belligerent. Last year’s Azimio-led demos against the government were sometimes seen as bordering on insurgency and sabotage.

It was as if Raila and Azimio did not want to allow President Ruto even the remotest opportunity to get off the ground the Kenya Kwanza promissory agenda to the nation. They appeared determined to make Kenya Kwanza a stillborn regime that must fail from day one. This is the candidate they are presenting to Africa. They must demonstrate to the continent that they are not offloading into that arena some troublesome stumbling block.

Mercifully, the more virulent of the Azimio activities have since ceased. Although the two sides have continued to exchange lethal political brickbats, the worst of the blows have been tampered by the National Dialogue Committee process. The expectation is that something truly conciliatory could come out of it. The fundamentals of the hostilities between the two sides, however, remain alive. They could rear their ugly head to mess up a complicated AUC campaign effort. Up to the time of this writing, the Azimio bigwigs of Raila; his running mate in the 2022 presidential election race Martha Karua; and Wiper Democratic Party (WDP) leader Kalonzo Musyoka, had yet to declaratively recognise Ruto as president, and congratulate him on his election.

Without even bothering about such fundamental concerns like how well or poorly Ruto governs, Karua, in particular, has been sarcastic, cynical and harsh against just the fact that Ruto is the president. She frequently refers to the Ruto government as “serikali bandia,” which is to say a fraudulently installed government.

For the Ruto government to sponsor Raila for the AUC chair, the need to tidy up the place, by definitively resting the “serikali bandia” matter, speaks for itself. The time has come when Raila must step forward in public, to unequivocally call Ruto, “Mister President.” This is despite any hitherto undisclosed pact the two may have privately locked in. 

Kenya Kwanza’s endorsement of Raila, this far, suggests that President Ruto wishes Raila well in his pursuit for the AUC office. Whether he is driven by genuine empathy, or by some ulterior political expediency, President Ruto has domestic and regional assignments to sort out before the outcome of this candidacy can become truly promising. For a start, the president may want to put behind him the matter of the abortive Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

At every opportunity, President Ruto throws sharp barbs at his former boss, Uhuru Kenyatta, and Raila, over their March 2008 handshake and the spinoff that was BBI. Even when the occasion does not seem to justify it, the President will parody what he variously calls, “the Reggae Brothers, the BBI nonsense, the Handshake Brothers,” and the ilk.

Poor approach

The Kenya government will look like a big band of jokers, present Raila to the African Union with one hand, while the other one paints him and President Uhuru in pejorative colours. The international community will not take seriously both the Kenyan president and his candidate. 

But what if President Ruto and Kenya Kwanza, in fact, do not seriously want Raila’s effort to succeed? Speculation has been rife that with Raila in Addis Ababa, Ruto will have easy time both in the interim as president and in the 2027 presidential election. The veracity of this perspective is moot. Regardless, there can be no gainsaying the face-value reality that Raila’s successful bid in Addis would be godsend for Ruto. He can market himself, and reap, in Raila’s political strongholds as a magnanimous leader and as the fence mender “who has helped Raila to secure a plum international job.”

Yet, if Raila should not make it, the President could still tell Kenyans that he tried to support him, but things did not work out. Indeed, could there be those who declare from rooftops their support for Raila, but privately do not mind setting him up for failure? Could they derive both political joy and mileage out of presenting Raila as a perennial election loser and a political failure? Regardless of their attitude, is this the image likely to emerge, should Raila not clinch the seat he has publicly declared his interest in? Such persons could arm themselves with this message in the 2027 elections, to neutralise Raila, by marketing him as damaged political ware.

But this AU assignment is not just about Raila. It is a national assignment. The continental community is unlikely to be interested in politicians setting up each other for failure in international forums. When AU member States see Raila’s name on the ballot paper, they will see the Kenyan candidate. His possible defeat, therefore, becomes the defeat of Kenya.

It will especially be a big blow to President Ruto, who has been styling himself as a latter-day Pan-Africanist. Ruto has been talking tough to the World Bank and to the Global North, on treating Africans as if they were the children of a lesser of god. His continental fortunes were especially on a high note during the Nairobi climate change summit last year, when he hosted a galaxy of Africa’s heads of State and sundry global notables and grandees in Nairobi.

Raila’s AUC chair candidacy places President Ruto’s Pan-Africanist profile on the ultimate weighing scales of diplomatic credibility. If Raila comes down with a thud, Ruto becomes a shareholder in the resounding fiasco, in the eyes of the international community. Notwithstanding their old differences and the possibility of future local duels, therefore, it is solidly in President Ruto’s interest that Raila gets this job, for a sustained credible image in the international arena.

Against a flailing economy, therefore, the Kenya Kwanza government must set aside the essential resources, and allied capacity, to campaign for Raila. Shuttle diplomats must cut across the continent, persuading other countries not only to support Raila, but where alternative candidates exist persuading them to step down in favour of Raila.

The entry point is the East African Community. Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who was present with Raila when he announced his interest in the AUC office, remarked on the need for the community to support Raila. It is instructive that two of the EAC countries did not support the Amina bid in 2017. Could some EAC members reject the Raila bid, this time around?

Hopefully the Kenya government will have attempted to audit its management of foreign relations and established where it has been getting it wrong? For Amina was also presented before the World Trade Organisation and lost. What makes Kenya lose in these forums? What doesn’t the country’s leadership get right? Is it about to happen again? Does Kenya step into the regional East African diplomatic arena with a snooty Man Mountain attitude? Does she disdainfully treat her regional siblings as if they were some insignificant Lilliputians, who could be crashed under the sole of the giant Kenyan boot?

These questions point to the need for the Ruto government to audit and cure Kenya’s performance in the region, not just because of the Raila candidacy but far and well beyond that. Raila is only the next litmus test. Kenya Kwanza has challenges in Uganda, on matters of trade – and which have seen Uganda take Kenya to court. Uganda feels inveigled in many matters beginning with the proposed extension of the Standard Gauge Railway, the Northern Corridor (LAPSET), the transborder fuel pipeline and conflicts in the handling of Uganda’s interest in oil transits through Kenya, among many other issues in trade, transport and communications.

Rwanda has its own beef with Kenya. The goof, not so long ago, by Roads Cabinet Secretary Kipchumba Murkomen on President Paul Kagame’s democratic credentials will now come back to haunt the Kenya Government. Murkomen’s gratuitous verbal assault against a friendly sister State was casually glossed over. There is a lessons galore here.

Tanzania, Sudan, and Somalia, each have grievances against Kenya. Occasions such as the present provide room to revisit and resolve outstanding issues for the common good. If not so, it is the opportunity to exacerbate them. The choices are that clear and simple.

The one thing that is not in doubt, however, is that the Raila candidacy is more than a personal crusade. He is not just carrying his own cross. Kenya’s regional and continental prestige is on the line. And in signalling support for Raila, the Ruto government has already carried its sacrifice past the crossroads. It must now go the whole hog, and it must go for broke. There will be no half-measures. Hopefully Raila himself cultivated some useful contacts during his tenure as AU Envoy for Infrastructure, to give him a headstart in this race. Hopefully, too, there will be no other candidate from East Africa to complicate the game.

-Dr Muluka is a strategic communications adviser