Fifth-time unlucky? The peculiar problem of being Raila Odinga

Raila Odinga

Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition leader Raila Odinga.

Photo credit: Pool

His supporters expected that he would be elected Kenya’s fifth president. But, instead, Raila Odinga lost the race for the fifth time. And for the fifth time, too, the Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya presidential candidate in the ended General Election was the captain of a political vessel that delivered many of those around him to their desired destinations while leaving him in the wilderness.

Where he should exercise political power and call the shots, he must first reassert his authority as the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party leader in order for him to whip the elected leaders in line. Party discipline, as spelt out in the Political Parties Act (2011), and as amended in 2017, is his biggest weapon going forward. In a country where it is common for politicians to shift their loyalties once elected, Raila must brook no nonsense where party discipline counts, in order for him to remain relevant.

The Thirteenth Parliament is going to be a hung House. This means that the Azimio formation with 162 elected members has only a slight majority over Kenya Kwanza with 159. In principle, Azimio is going to be the Majority in the National Assembly and is expected to provide the Leader of the Majority, while Kenya Kwanza of the President-elect, William Ruto, will provide the Leader of the Minority and allied leaders in the assembly. It is an awkward situation in which the government will largely rely on support from the opposition in order for it to successfully conduct business in the House. This is where Raila’s hope that he can still exercise power resides. Azimio MPs must be rallied to unanimity on all issues.

It is, however, easier said than done. Members have previously been lured to support the government, through all kinds of inducements, and sometimes even arm-twisting. The Kanu regime under President Daniel arap Moi, especially, perfected this art and often had its way with ease in the then single chamber House. President Mwai Kibaki, for his part, lured Kanu and Ford People leaders to back his legislative agenda by absorbing some of them into his Cabinet, while also appointing their people to other positions in the public service. This cannot be ruled out under a Ruto government.

Raila’s dilemma is magnified by the fact that there is no guarantee of the coalition he represented in the ended election holding together beyond the next few months. Azimio is a potpourri of 20 or so political outfits that came together to support one presidential candidate.

Meanwhile, Ruto must also keep his side of the political divide intact, even as he seeks to win over new friends – the Wiper Democratic Party being especially a high value target. If Ruto, a willy political mobiliser, gets a significant number of parties to enter a post-election coalition with Kenya Kwanza, Raila is likely to face one long and cold political dark night.  As an indicator of things to come, Ruto has already reached out to a number of independent candidates, who attended the first Kamukunji (informal meeting) of Kenya Kwanza MPs-elect this week.

In the Senate, Kenya Kwanza has one more senator than Azimio. This places Raila in jeopardy, as he begins on a weak note.

For five times now, dependence on the numbers in Parliament has been Raila’s political blood life. This is a curious place to be in, for one of Kenya’s fabled political mobilisers. How does he keep ending up in this place of discomfort? In a post in social media, one of his ardent supporters, celebrity lawyer Donald Kipkorir, lamented: “What is hurting me and all genuine friends of Raila Odinga is there was an Azimio candidate for every seat of governor, senator, MP, woman reps and MCA, and they had agents to watch their votes and sign off their forms, yet (they) didn’t see the need to do the same for Baba (Raila).”

This statement is testament to how Raila has provided a bandwagon for others to ride on to glory land with little reciprocation at the ballot. He has had to bear with the burden of doing solo fights, only to be joined by what could easily pass as joyriders when it has become obvious that going against him will be politically costly. After the demise Jaramogi Oginga Odinga in 1994, Raila fought what were largely lonely fights to step into his father’s shoes as the undisputed political giant in Luo Nyanza.

Lwanda Magere

His compatriots looked on as his boys fought off those of Kisumu mayor Lawrence Akinyi Oile on one front, and a combined James Orengo and Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o on the other.

Oile represented the trenches, where the soul of the Luo people must be won literally on the battleground. From the mythical Lwanda Magere to Ramogi, the father of a slew of the Luo of Kenya, all the way to Raila, the Luo people understand that greatness does not just walk into the room. It is sought after and wrestled for on battlegrounds. That is why in politics as in football they will fight for their space. The political class of the day watched from a distance as Raila vanquished Oile and drove him out of the streets of Kisumu in weekly skirmishes between two groups of young men who called themselves, respectively, as the Talibans and the Baghdad Boys.

Meanwhile, in the war of the intelligentsia, he was engaged against Orengo and Nyong’o, both of whom had elected to initially back Michael Wamalwa Kijana for the Ford Kenya leadership. The contest for the pluralism democracy party ended with an isolated Raila resigning from Ford-K and Parliament. It was not until after a successful defence of his Langata Constituency seat that Luo Nyanza MPs resigned from Ford Kenya to join Raila in the National Development Party (NDP). With that, Raila began carrying politicians on his coattails to Parliament and to local councils in the 1997 General Election.

In 2002, his “Kibaki Tosha” clarion call rallied the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) to power.

They dislodged Kanu from 40 years of dominance. Yet, within only three months, fault lines began showing between Raila and President Kibaki, the foremost beneficiary of Raila’s political scheming that year. By 2007 the fallout was complete.

Raila remained in the trenches

Raila’s fortunes have since dimmed steadily. The reloaded ODM of 2013 and 2017 was only good enough to deliver other politicians to offices of their desire while Raila remained in the trenches. Some became governors, others senators and many more members of the National Assembly and County Assemblies.

It is instructive that from 2007, aspirants and candidates for various positions began carrying Raila’s image alongside theirs on campaign posters. On the face of it, the posters suggested that they were supporting his presidential bid. In reality, however, they were intended to make the statement that they had Raila’s support.

In the ended election, Raila’s image dramatically graced campaign materials of politicians who ran even as independent candidates. The notion of independence was intended for those who did not wish to associate themselves with any political party. Yet, such is the Raila magic that even as he called for a six-piece voting pattern for ODM candidates only, some of those he campaigned against still found it necessary to claim affinity with him.

Tragically, this magic has seemed to only serve the purpose of kiting others to the desired destinations. While they have not got anything of significance this far, both Kalonzo and Karua are beneficiaries of heightened political premium, because of how they were positioned in the Azimio campaign.

They can build on this capital, while Raila has only sorrow to show of the campaign effort, barring a sudden turn of fortune, perhaps as a factor of the proposed petition against Ruto’s election. This man Raila has given a lot to the political class around him while the loyalty he derives from this class has not equally delivered him where he desires to be. Such are the paradoxes of politics.

Dr Galava is a former managing editor with the ‘Nation’. [email protected].