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What BBI judgement portends for Raila's political future

By Oscar Obonyo | May 16th 2021
ODM leader Raila Odinga at the burial of Bonchari MP's burial at Itiero Kisii County on Feb 26, 2021.[Sammy Omingo,Standard]

Thursday’s High Court judgement on the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) may have been more scathing and hard-hitting on President Uhuru Kenyatta, but blame, mockery and ridicule have mostly been directed elsewhere: ODM leader Raila Odinga, a co-principal in the BBI drive.  

Social media forums have particularly been awash with caricatures of the former premier, portraying him as a casualty of a brutal physical battle, with a battered face.

Others have depicted him as a dejected loner whose reggae beat – Raila’s signature tune for BBI – had stopped.

But yesterday, a jovial Raila told The Sunday Standard that “nobody can stop reggae”. Pressed further to comment on the ruling, the former PM declined, promising to talk at length on the matter at a later date.

Raila was in Watamu Island in Kilifi County having lunch in the company of Jubilee party vice chair David Murathe, Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu)  secretary general, Francis Atwoli and governors Hassan Joho (Mombasa) and Amason Kingi (Kilifi).

When asked about the judgement, Murathe responded: "Watch this space."

In a statement released last evening to newsrooms, Raila said that he, like other supporters of the Bill, was disappointed by the judgement but called for respect for the court.

"Supporters of the Constitution Amendment Bill, including myself, have been disappointed by the High Court ruling. However, I urge restraint in the public commentary about the ruling. In particular, I want to urge that we refrain from personalised attacks on the court and its members. We  may disagree with the court but we must respect its ruling and its freedom to exercise its judgement as it understands the legal and constitutional matters before it," he said.

Raila said they would appeal the court's decision

"We will calmly and respectfully move to the Court of Appeal to present our case on why we think the High Court did not render the right verdict. We will do so with sobriety and respect for our judges and courts. Ultimately, our objective is to strengthen and not undermine the Judiciary," he said.

Over the last two years, the BBI has become synonymous with the former PM. So identical are the two that the National Assembly’s Minority Whip Junet Mohamed recently said that BBI was ODM’s baby. 

With this baby’s life now threatened, focus is rightly shifting towards Raila as to how he will manoeuvre past the legal and political thorns strewn his way and whether BBI is the rope with which Raila will politically hang himself.  

angry with Baba

That Raila is fully aware that his political life is hinged on the BBI is demonstrated by the fact that one hour into the reading of the  ruling, a team of lawyers allied to him which was monitoring the proceedings, started sharing and stringing messages and strategising on the way forward.

“As lawyers, we were able to easily discern the trend of the ruling and tell which way it was going before quickly getting our act together. And this demonstrates the great importance that Baba (Raila) attaches to this thing (BBI),” Paul Mwangi, the former PM’s lawyer and BBI’s joint secretary, told The Sunday Standard.

Nonetheless, former Cabinet minister Amukowa Anangwe said that "people are angry with Baba”. And he attributes the anger to Raila’s supporters, who are unhappy with his association with the president and the BBI product, which is “unfavourable to them”.  

“While nearly half the country points an accusing finger at Uhuru, Raila takes twice as much of the blame from supporters of the rival Jubilee party and his traditional political base. This is because they feel they were abandoned without caution when Raila teamed up with Uhuru in the 2018 Handshake deal and that the resultant product, particularly the allocation of the proposed 70 constituencies, appears to favour Uhuru’s political backyard more than it does Raila’s,” said Prof Anangwe.     

Nandi Senator Samson Cherargei separately claimed the former PM had been taken for a ride by his Handshake partner Uhuru, “for far too long”.

The vocal legislator said the Thursday ruling had accorded the former PM a “great opportunity to save face” over the “big mistake of handing Uhuru a huge chunk of the proposed 70 constituencies while remaining with a small share”.

This view is shared by lawyer Harun Ndubi: “I have this sneaky feeling that Uhuru may have played Raila, with a view to creating disfavour among his supporters and thereby weakening him politically. "How else does one explain the president’s lacklustre approach towards the BBI question, including the snail pace of its execution, which now risks flopping on account of timelines?” posed Ndubi.

Such a move, said the lawyer, would allow the president opportunity to field another candidate of choice, most probably from the One Kenya Alliance, which brings together party leaders Gideon Moi (Kanu), Moses Wetang'ula (Ford-Kenya), Kalonzo Musyoka (Wiper) and Musalia Mudavadi (Amani National Congress).

Having engaged politicians from Central Kenya in cut-throat political competition over the last 17 years against Uhuru and retired President Mwai Kibaki, Raila has had a chequered relationship with the region. And Ndubi believes this as one of the factors that may persuade Uhuru to arm-twist Raila and ask him to instead support a compromise candidate. 

Indeed, the apparent legal laxity of the government has raised eyebrows. Raila, similarly, has a strong team of respected lawyers, including Mwangi, Senate Minority leader James Orengo and MPs Otiende Amolo (Rarieda), Peter Kaluma (Homa Bay) and Millie Odhiambo (Suba North), and some have wondered  how the team let the anomalies pointed out by the judges, pass.  

But Mwangi exonerated Raila’s legal team from any blame: “Nowhere in their ruling do the judges find Mzee (Raila) culpable of making a wrong move. Mzee does not come up under censure for his actions or role in the BBI exercise.”

Describing Raila as “Kenya’s most seasoned politician”, Mwangi ruled out the possibility of the former premier being manipulated by his partner or sinking with the BBI: “He has learnt how to bend with the turns and take the blows and move on. And he has a team, whose members he has taught how to get back on their feet and keep walking after slipping or falling on the ground.”

There is no denying, nonetheless, that the BBI has put Raila in a spot. Having dominated Kenya’s political scene for nearly three decades and in some instances missed the presidency by a whisker, the 76-year old politician has spent the last two-and-a-half years campaigning intensely for the passage of BBI document in Parliament and at the referendum.

According to his lieutenants, passage of the document is a most befitting honour to the former PM. And as former Teso North MP, Arthur Odera, rightly points it, Raila stands to lose a lot, in terms of legacy, if the Thursday judgement is upheld.

“The amendments in the BBI Bill, particularly the increase in devolved funds, the time limit set for determination of corruption cases, gender balance in the legislature and inclusivity in the country’s leadership structure, are all part of what Raila has fought for years," said Odera, a commentator on political affairs.

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