Of Raila, Finance Bill and the abandoned protagonist

Azimio leader Raila Odinga

Azimio leader Raila Odinga.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Almost every protagonist in literature is lonely in a sense. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, there is Okonkwo surrounded by his large family yet lonely in his own way as the world grows dark around him.

In Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine, the love-struck Ekwueme, living in Nigeria in an unspecified mythical time, is isolated in his own island of desire and misery of unrequited love.

In Matigari by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, the character Matigari, is broken and forlorn. Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea depicts Santiago as a lonely, aged man in a journey to catch the largest fish of his whole life.

All these protagonists live in a world inside themselves — sometimes a dark fractious fable — caught in daily cares and struggles. Seemingly abandoned to fate, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga is like these protagonists — cutting the figure of a lone character — raising his face to the mutable, rapidly darkening Kenyan political landscape.

Mr Odinga is like Homer’s protagonist, Odysseus, reaching shore after a shipwreck, feeling sad, lonely and battered but also old and wise. He also reminds one of the title of Alex La Guma’s novel, In the Fog of the Season’s End, a novel painting a bleak and hopeless picture — like the sunset reflected in the colours of a dying evening’s sky — the dying of the brightness, truncated dreams and the end of promise. Mr Odinga’s attempts at the presidency have been thwarted for years and he now wanders into the dusk of the evening — his own kind of fog at the season’s end.

In literature, a protagonist is the main character of a story. And Mr Odinga neatly fits into that category in Kenyan politics. He has been the main character in the opposition after every successive regime.

His role as a leading character took another outsize position after the Finance Bill 2023 was signed into law by President Ruto. All eyes are now on Mr Odinga and on June 27, 2023, he announced a raft of measures to force the repealing of the contentious Finance Bill. He also called on Kenyans to embrace civil disobedience to deny the government tax revenue.

Mr Odinga has many similar characteristics with literature’s greatest protagonists. One of the traits a protagonist should possess is curiosity. A curious protagonist will immerse himself into a mystery, wanting to solve any puzzle and will embark on a journey looking for clues and finding out secrets.

In Kenyan politics, Mr Odinga has taken Kenyans into a journey of unravelling the inner mysteries of the governments he has opposed, revealing secrets and even alleged scandals.

Another trait of protagonists is self-preservation, meaning that they take calculated risks in order to fight another day. Mr Odinga has shown this trait many times, cutting deals with presidents he is opposing or sometimes pulling his supporters from the brink when he realises they are in a dangerous political cliff. The best example of self-preservation for Mr Odinga could be his “handshake” with former President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Another trait of protagonists that makes them popular is empathy. This means that they can understand, connect, and share the feelings of others. Mr Odinga is a master in this.

Though he is a man of means and power, he can connect with the poorest of the poor. He has a way with crowds so that at his best, he sweeps the audience in like a beat of music; and at his most poignant, one feels like the only person he is talking to as he directly addresses people’s problems.

Alternating menace with tenderness, he is a man of all seasons. After the Finance Bill 2023, he has been decrying high taxation and the associated high cost of living and this makes him the darling of the masses.

Another important trait is that the protagonist needs to be a leader to move the story forward. He has to take decisive action. Mr Odinga has been doing this for years. He keeps coming up one incarnation after another: as a sort of sombre political counterweight to four presidents.

His latest assignment is to mobilise Kenyans against the Finance Bill 2023 and he seems set to do that through street protests and other ways to pressure the government to lower the cost of living.

Most Kenyans are haunted by Mr Odinga. Would he have made a better president? We may or may never know the answer to this question but what is not in doubt is that Mr Odinga is a stellar protagonist, rivalling some of literature’s best. He may be down now and outnumbered, out-generalled, and outgunned but he is never outfought. He gives as much as he gets. What a protagonist!