Falling apart: Raila Odinga as a modern tragic hero

ODM Party leader Raila Odinga

ODM Party leader Raila Odinga during the launch of the book ‘Stronger Than Faith’ by Oduor Ong’wen at the National Museum of Kenya on October 5, 2022.

Photo credit: Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Odinga starts almost every presidential campaign with a real promise of victory and his supporters expected him to win in August 2022.
  • And with Baba as his beloved appellation, he seemed to have already won the presidency.
  • However, at the last moment, he lost in a stunning reversal of fortunes just like a tragic Greek hero.


“I am living on my farm…. I get up in the morning with the sun and go into a grove I am having cut down… Leaving the grove, I go to a spring, and thence to my aviary. I have a book in my pocket, either Dante or Petrarch, or one of the lesser poets, such as Tibullus, Ovid, and the like. I read of their tender passions and their loves, remember mine, enjoy myself a while in that sort of dreaming,” so wrote the now-famous Niccolò Machiavelli to his friend Francesco Vettori.

Machiavelli was describing what it was like to be in internal political exile.

He was then living on a farm after the fall of the Florentine Republican government that he had served as a senior officer.

“I am living on my farm,” he writes, probably longing for the seat of power.

Though that period turned fruitful because he then penned his greatest book, entitled The Prince, he probably didn’t see it that way then.

Today, Dante is Italy’s greatest poet and Machiavelli, Italy’s greatest writer of prose.

I thought of Machiavelli’s story with respect to former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

As he retreats to his house in the evenings, I wonder whether he thinks about another place more alluring and far more glamorous — State House — if only he could make it there!

And if he wishes he had a cooler, more dazzling job: the president — if only he could be that!

Swept in grief, Machiavelli would probably sit on his farm in exile — maybe in a corner with his hands between his chin — as he yearned for his former city and his lost powerful position — in view but just out of reach.

I wonder if Odinga, like Machiavelli, sits in his house — hunched in a corner in deep thought as he thinks about what could have been; wondering if his political gifts had finally deserted him.

He probably entered the presidential race this time the way one enters a grand love affair — with no exit plan.

He was ready, finally, for the presidency to sweep him in its arms but instead, it kept a cool distance and embraced someone else.

Therefore, he has left his dream of the presidency for now, probably the way a jilted lover leaves a relationship: with crestfallen charm, sad and more than a little broken.

His impeccable suit and tie for the great occasion of his swearing-in is probably still folded up in his house — all now seems like a dream — and afar off.

Odinga is legendary, controversial, and tragic. If Shakespeare were searching for a Kenyan tragic hero, he would probably settle on Odinga.

He is “Kenya’s best politician” in some quarters and damned as “a failure” in others. However, most people agree that he is a hero — even if a tragic one.

The epitome of Greek tragedy is the character Oedipus the King in the play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles.

Oedipus’ fortunes fall and, at the end of the play, the chorus laments how even a great man can be felled by fate — that inexplicable hand that seems to truncate the dreams of great men; no matter how hard they try.

Odinga starts almost every presidential campaign with a real promise of victory and his supporters expected him to win in August 2022.

Though he insists the election was stolen, the bottom line is that he is not Kenya’s fifth president now.

How did he lose with such a promise? With Tinga (bulldozer) as his nom de guerre (war name), among his supporters, he is usually like the head of a freewheeling band of commandos spoiling for a fight.

And with Baba as his beloved appellation, he seemed to have already won the presidency.

However, at the last moment, he lost in a stunning reversal of fortunes just like a tragic Greek hero.

One of Odinga’s most vocal supporters, Francis Atwoli, aptly described this stunning, last-minute reversal of fortunes: “I was confident that Odinga would defeat William Ruto in the presidential election. On election night, I slept knowing Odinga was ahead of Ruto”. That’s tragic. His father, Jaramogi, wanted to but didn’t manage to ascend to the presidency, so Odinga’s run was also hopefully to lift the “curse” of not being able to rise to the highest office in the land; like a two-for-one redemption deal for father and son. But Odinga came out empty again — with disastrous consequences for his ultimate destiny. He increasingly looks like a man running out of luck and time. However, no one can really write Odinga off or underestimate the king of comebacks.

He once crooned the song, Jamaica Farewell, with the lyrics that seem to address love lost, love found and love remembered: “Down the way/Where the nights are gay/And the sun shines daily on the mountaintop/I took a trip on a sailing ship/And when I reached Jamaica I made a stop/But I'm sad to say I'm on my way/ Won't be back for many a day/My heart is down...” Maybe he will be back. Or maybe not. Whatever. He is a Kenyan hero. Hopefully, a gentler air fans him as he nears the shore of retirement, fewer waves ruffle his sea and quiet reigns — deep and still — far away from the noise, gruffness and abruptness of Kenyan politics.

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