Will it be fifth time lucky or unlucky for Raila Odinga?

Kenya's Azimio La Umoja Party (One Kenya Coalition Party) presidential candidate Raila Odinga

Kenya's Azimio La Umoja Party (One Kenya Coalition Party) presidential candidate Raila Odinga delivers a speech during the rally on the final day of campaigning at the Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi on August 6, 2022, 

Photo credit: Tony Karumba | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Credit goes to Ruto for conducting one of the most energetic presidential campaigns ever seen in this country.
  • The Raila campaign’s central plank was the vow to wage a scorched-earth war against corruption.
  • UDA’s position was that reliving the history of past glories of pro-democracy struggles was irrelevant and pointless.

A fortnight ago I was having a family-related chat on the phone with my rural-based aunt when, out of the blue, she pronounced she would be voting for “Baba na Mama”.

I was stunned. She’s 82 and an activist of sorts amongst women in the village, yet for as long as I can remember, she has fiercely opposed Raila Odinga’s politics.

Now she was throwing in her lot with him while praising his persona as “ripe to lead”. 

I don’t suppose the monopolisation of power by only two communities since Independence was among the reasons for my aunt’s decision.

However, what the initial election returns show to be Raila’s strong showing across non-Gema and non-Kalenjin regions suggests this was an important consideration in this election. 

Indeed, the Central Kenya-Rift Valley political duopoly where the two have been exchanging power themselves like a volleyball is not healthy for nation-building.

I think it’s safe to say that if Raila is confirmed as the August 9 election winner, this duopoly will have been broken up for good. 

Looking back, I don’t think a Raila victory would be easily achievable if it wasn’t for the 2018 Handshake.

Indeed the conciliation with Raila may turn out to be the centrepiece of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s legacy. It sought to end the decades-old polarisation between the Kikuyu and the Luo and open up a new era of national inclusivity.

It was an act of great courage on Uhuru’s part for which, unfortunately, he paid a heavy political price.

While in Nyanza they warmly embraced the Handshake, the majority of Uhuru’s community in central Kenya did not.

Strange mindset 

There’s a strange mindset in Mt Kenya that cries out for deconstruction. Voters there don’t vote to secure their interests per se.

They vote in emotional waves to “punish” somebody. In the just-concluded election, the target for punishment was Uhuru and anybody associated with his Jubilee Party.

Reason? The Handshake and Uhuru’s determination to push Raila as his successor.

That mentality of anger brought consequences that are full of bittersweet ironies.

First, the Mountain could end up in the Opposition by voting United Democratic Alliance (UDA), if things don’t go the Kenya Kwanza Alliance way.

Oddest of all, the high voter apathy in the Mt Kenya region (due to a mix of reasons) could also throw the election in Raila’s favour.

By refusing to vote in their numbers, they could easily have handed victory to the Azimio la Umoja candidate by default. 

The convergence of the Mt Kenya rejectionists and Deputy President William Ruto started with their common demonisation of the Handshake.

Styling himself as the insurgent “outsider”, the DP is, in fact, a beneficiary of the status quo political order the Handshake wanted to reconfigure.

He framed his anti-Handshake crusade as a contest between ordinary “hustlers” and “dynasties”, the latter typified by Uhuru and Raila.

The dynasties wanted to hang onto their inherited power and privileges; the hustlers wanted this power distributed down and democratised – so read the Ruto script.

The ‘hoi polloi’ lapped up the message with gusto. The “hustler movement”, which soon morphed into the UDA party, had a manifesto ready detailing some “bottom-up” economic mumbo jumbo about supposedly prioritising ‘Mama mboga’ over ‘state capture’ capitalists. It was a clear call to class war. 

There were incongruities galore. Raila a dynast? Somebody who spent nine years in detention for fighting the Moi dictatorship?

Ruto as a hustler? Somebody who was a creation of that dictatorship through the YK’92 outfit, prospered in it, before linking up with Raila in the 2008 ‘Nusu Mkate’ government and thereafter with Uhuru in the Jubilee administration? It was a nice try on the class thing, though.

Still, the mobilising force in Kenyan politics remains tribe, not class.

About manifestos, they don’t win elections, however beautifully written. Voters hardly read them. Even the politicians they are written for rarely do.

Instead, voters look out for other benchmarks, like character. It’s not just a matter of reducing an election to a mere set of economic data. 

Raila understood that. Sure, his 2022 campaign lacked the fire of his previous battles.

This was a 77-year-old man trying to keep up with the frenetic pace of his much younger competitor. Raila had changed in other ways too.

The old firebrand of the Second Liberation had mellowed so much that he had become a veritable partner of Uhuru’s in government.

They called each other brothers. This confused many of Raila’s long-suffering foot soldiers.

Yet the diehards insisted he remained the authentic champion of the powerless. Indeed, as a time-tested political brand, he still stands out. 

Pro-democracy struggles 

UDA’s position was that reliving the history of past glories of pro-democracy struggles was irrelevant and pointless. Their focus, they said, was on the future. 

No, Raila replied: to know who will make a good leader, you must look at his past. 

The Raila campaign’s central plank was the vow to wage a scorched-earth war against corruption.

If he becomes President, he intends to appoint his running mate Martha Karua as his general in this war. He has described her as “a complete army to fight corruption”.

Graft is UDA’s Achilles heel. Ruto’s public profile in relation to sleaze is an old story. “Nani mwizi?” (Who is the thief?) Raila would ask rhetorically during Azimio rallies.

The crowd’s roaring answer would always be the same. At the height of the campaigning, a High Court conviction of Ruto’s running mate Rigathi Gachagua for embezzling Sh200 million in government funds was acutely embarrassing for UDA.

Credit goes to Ruto for conducting one of the most energetic presidential campaigns ever seen in this country.

He was everywhere doing multiple rallies across different counties in a single day.

At the time of writing, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission had not officially declared a president-elect.

Can Ruto miss the prize, after all, that non-stop campaigning of four years? 

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