Raila battles for plum AU post despite being on the fringes of government most of his life

Azimio leader Raila Odinga. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

If Raila Odinga wins the African Union Commission (AUC) chairmanship next year, he will become the first East African to hold that position.

Interestingly, he will be the first man coming straight from his country’s opposition, with his bid championed by the government he has been greatly critical of.

Mr Odinga’s candidacy has already suffered early highs and lows. It was a reprieve when it was decided, during the 22nd Extraordinary Session of the Executive Council of the AU, that the next candidate had to be from Eastern Africa, but a blow when other countries from East Africa hurriedly presented candidates for the same position.

Both Somalia and Djibouti will now battle Kenya for the position. Should Mr Odinga’s bid flop, Djibouti will be blamed by Kenya for the second time in eight years.

In 2017, alongside Uganda and Burundi, Djibouti was accused of failing to vote for Kenya’s Amina Mohammed in a battle that culminated in the victory of Chad’s Moussa Faki Mahamat after seven high-octane voting rounds.

If Mr Odinga becomes the AUC’s fifth chairperson, he will be the first who has mainly been on the fringes of government in his country. All that have occupied that position have come from the centre of government in their countries.

In his over four decades career in politics, Raila has been mainly in the opposition both as an outside crusader spending some of his time in detention and on the opposition benches in parliament serving as a strong critic of government. He has only realistically been in government for a collective term of not more than 9 years.

He first served in government as Minister for Energy in the Moi administration for 1 year between 2001 and 2002 following a deal between his National Development Party and then Kenya’s ruling behemoth- KANU. He then served the Kibaki NARC administration as Minister for roads between 2003 t0 2005, that was 3 years and then as Prime Minister in the Grand Coalition Government between 2008 and 2013.

A stint between 2018 and 2022 saw him work closely with President Uhuru Kenyatta after an unlikely handshake, which essentially half-kicked then-Deputy President William Ruto out of government and left him in a bitter cold war with his boss. 

It, therefore, follows that Raila has spent most of his over 40 years in politics outside of the center of government, a record that is opposite of other men and women who have held the AUC Chair job. 

The first man to occupy the AUC top seat in 2001 was Côte d’Ivoire’s Amara Essy. He served for just over 14 months in an acting capacity. Prior to assuming this position, Essy had been the Permanent Representative of Côte d’Ivoire to the United Nations, an Ivorian Ambassador to Argentina and Cuba, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mayor of Kouassi-Datékro, and Minister of State. 

Alpha Oumar Konaré, who took over the AUC chair’s position in 2003, had been the President of Mali for two five-year terms from 1992 to 2002. Gabon’s Jean Ping served as the Minister of State and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Cooperation and Francophonie in late strongman Omar Bongo government. He had also served as President of the United Nations General Assembly from 2004 to 2005. 

South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who was the first woman to hold that position, was previously South Africa’s minister for health, minister for home affairs and minister for foreign affairs in the Mandela, Mbeki and Jacob Zuma administrations. She is today Minister in the Presidency for Women, Youth and People with Disabilities in the Ramaphosa government. 

 Then came the current chairman Mr Faki Mahamat, a former Prime Minister of Chad.

“We have to remember that Raila was once the prime minister and that is a significant position. He is respected on the continent as a statesman. He has good political experience and will be able to conduct roles as any former head of state would,” says Timothy Onduru, who teaches history at Moi University.

Despite his many spells out of government, Mr Odinga is no administrative greenhorn. He served as the African Union High Representative for Infrastructure Development between October 2018 and February 2023. Within that period, he has inarguably made solid friends from across the continent, and early indicators showed great support for his candidacy from across the continent.

His two key competitors are coming from the heart of government in their countries.

Djibouti’s Mahmoud Ali Youssouf is the country’s Foreign Minister, while Fawzia Adam is Somalia’s former Foreign Affairs Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.

Dr Onduru says that Odinga comes from a position where he does not look like an outsider.

“The fact that the Kenyan government is supporting him will be seen as goodwill and he would not conflict with strongmen; there is a lot of diplomatic lobbying and this shows that he is fronted by the government,” he says.

Dr Onduru says that Odinga’s political experience means he will not easily run into political conflict. “The seat is more ceremonial without much political leverage so there is little potential for conflict.”

Odinga himself believes that he has international experience.

“Serving as the AU High Representative for Infrastructure gave me the advantage of learning about each African country. I believe by working together, we can emancipate Africa,” he said when he announced his candidacy.

Mr Odinga’s profile is also likely to impact Kenya’s image. As chairman of the AUC, it will matter little whether he came from the government or not.

“The personality of the chair matters and would affect relations with member states. If he is forceful, the way he is in Kenyan politics, there might be reactions of resistance,” says Macharia Munene, a professor of history and international relations.  

If he wins the seat, Mr Odinga will be the chief executive officer, legal representative of the AU, and the Commission’s chief accounting officer. He will be directly responsible to the Executive Council for the discharge of his duties. He will be eligible for two four-year terms. A two-thirds majority of Member States are eligible to vote.  

His functions include assuming overall responsibility for the Commission’s administration and finances, undertaking measures aimed at promoting and popularising the AU’s objectives and enhancing its performance, and facilitating the functioning, decision-making and reporting of all AU organ meetings, while ensuring conformity and harmony with agreed AU policies, strategies, programmes and projects.

The chairperson is also tasked with consulting and coordinating with Member States’ governments, other institutions and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) on the AU’s activities, and carrying out the AU’s diplomatic representations, preparing, with the Permanent Representatives Committee (PRC), the AU budget and strategic planning documents, and acting as a depository for all AU and OAU treaties and legal instruments.

He shall appoint and manage Commission staff, chair all Commission meetings and deliberations, prepare the annual report on the AU and its organs’ activities, and submit reports requested by the Assembly, Executive Council, PRC, committees and any other organs.

But despite Raila’s chances at the continental office, Prof Munene says the former Prime Minister’s eyes will remain fixated on the presidential seat, which he has unsuccessfully sought five times.

“His ambition is to be president of Kenya, not chairman of a high-flying continental organ. There is more power in being president than being chairman (of AUC),” he says. “Those counting on Raila not being around (in the presidential race, especially 2027) should go back to the political drawing board.”

Mr Odinga will not be active in local politics and if he were to see his term to conclusion, he would not run in the 2027 General Election.

Even if he gets the job, Prof Munene says, Mr Odinga will continue being a force in Kenyan politics “in part because it is in his DNA”.

Many continue to speculate who could replace Mr Odinga as the Luo kingpin should he shun local politics altogether. And even if he were to continue, a long-term succession plan is necessary. He would be 84 at the end of his first term at the AUC.

Dr Onduru feels that even with his potential departure, Raila’s influence will be greatly felt in Kenya’s politics. It is uncertain, at this point, who would replace him.

“If Raila left, someone would emerge in ODM to replace him. And Raila would significantly support him. Remember that before him, there was Jaramogi (Oginga Odinga, Raila’s father), who wanted Wamalwa (Kijana) and Orengo (James) to succeed him. But Raila emerged as the strongest figure in Luo politics,” Dr Onduru says.

Kenya has continued to lobby for Mr Odinga in probably one of the most united efforts the country has seen in recent times.

Prime Cabinet Secretary and Foreign Affairs and Diaspora CS Musalia Mudavadi has been leading this push, with prominent campaigns during the inter-ministerial conference of the AU meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, earlier in the year.

And the government has been clear it is supporting a man with whom it has constantly clashed.

“Facilitating the candidature of qualified Kenyans to regional and international organizations is one of the mandates of the Foreign Office. We are on standby to support this quest of a well-deserving Kenyan,” said Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Korir Sing’oei, earlier in the year.