Raila, boy from Bondo who became a political enigma

Raila Odinga

Mr Raila Odinga (left) hands over his biography to Prof Ngugi wa Thiong'o in Nairobi on June 2,2015.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

 In Dholuo, when a story ends, the story teller says, thu tinda. It means the story has come to an end. Or let matters rest here. There is no promise of the story continuing until the next story-telling session. But any good listener to stories or any good storyteller would know that a good story does not have an ending. There is just a pause. Why? Because the storyteller is tired, has no time or has run out of words to spin the yarn or the listeners are tired or disinterested. A good story renews itself endlessly. It recreates itself, like the whirlpool, blowing and moving on to new places. This has been and is the story of Raila Amolo Odinga.

Every time some analyst or political competitor baptizes Raila Amolo Odinga a spent force or politically irrelevant, Raila reemerges with a new story to tell about himself and his dreams. Raila himself is not really a great storyteller. But his stories are really compelling. Reading his autobiography and biography create very vivid pictures of the man in flesh right there on the printed page. How is this so? Because Raila’s stories are so cleverly told that they hardly show him as a hero. His stories are really the stories of others with him right in the midst, playing more or less the role of a significant support cast.

One needs to read or reread The Flame of Freedom ([with Sarah Elderkin] Mountain Top Publishers, 2013) and Raila Odinga: An Enigma in Kenyan Politics by Babafemi A. Badejo (Yintab Books, 2006) to get a clearer preview of the Raila story of today. This is a story whose plot, language, style and moral lesson(s) have been shaped by local, regional and international contexts and moments that he has experienced.

Study in Germany

Think about it. Raila left Kenya to go study in Germany when he was barely a teenager. He had just finished primary schooling when he travelled to Berlin to register for high school and later college studies. This early adventure, at a time when the world was transforming so fast, with Europe just coming out of the Second World War and Africa decolonizing, though primarily an academic sojourn in a country that was divided, presented Raila with a most global and multicultural opportunity that very few of his peers would ever have had.

Raila’s training in political organisation is a big part of the plot of his narrative that very few Kenyans are aware of. The commonly known tale is that Raila learnt his politics at the feet of his father. Indeed, as the second born son of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Raila must have seen his father meet politicians; he must have listened in to their conversations; he must have learned about the key issues that politicians bothered about; he definitely got to know how ‘to do’ politics, in some sense. But growing under a disciplinarian father, a man who believed in the importance of education first, Raila didn’t have the time and opportunity to engage in any politics at the time.

He would, however, become politically active in East Germany when he was a student. When in high school and at college, Raila would naturally be drawn into global politics. The 1950s and 1960s were years of global solidarity, especially between countries that had been colonies in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

If you wonder how Raila has the habit of forming parties and coalitions from time to time, then you have to go back to Magdeburg College of Advanced Technology (University of Magdeburg) to find him in a one-man African Students Association, according to his biographer. He would later join Kenyan Students’ Association, whose members were Kenyan students in Germany. Thereafter he would join and be a leader in the Federation of Kenyan Students in Eastern Europe.

It shouldn’t be surprising that when Kenya People’s Union was formed in Kenya in 1966, Raila opened a liaison office in Germany and later became the Secretary of the party in Europe.

Therefore, by the time Raila returned to Kenya and joined the University of Nairobi to teach in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, he had already established the plot of his politics. This is why he would speak up at a departmental meeting questioning an apparently injudicious decision to not award an African student a first class degree simply because he was African.

Close relationship

 His was politics from the margins, not necessarily in the mainstream. This is why although he is ever counted among the professors who influenced students’ politics at the University of Nairobi, he retains a very close relationship with the teaching fraternity and students at the university.

What emerges in the Raila story is his deep association with others in pursuit of his dreams. Even his fiercest critics tend to describe him as astute and good natured. How does this character emerge in the bigger story? Reading his biography and autobiography shows that Raila’s political life has always involved making connections from across the divides of political affiliation, religion, ethnicity, class, gender, age, among other characteristics. From the days of KPU, in which he wasn’t particularly active member to National Development Party (NDP), Ford-Kenya, LDP, ODM, to the latest political coalition, Azimio la Umoja, Raila seems to always masterfully cobble together a team representative of all Kenyan communities and interests. To date, even when his team hasn’t won power in the past, Raila somehow emerges from the loss as though it was just one of the many incomplete dramas in his life.

The proverbial nine lives of the cat only partially describe Raila’s political life, considering the personal, familial and political challenges and tragedies that he has faced. There isn’t a Kenyan politician today who has been removed from his family for years, suffered family misfortunes, endured two detentions, been harassed by state actors, formed and lost political party associations, lost elections, been abandoned by friends and colleagues, yet reemerged to pursue another political dream. In a span of 20 years, Raila has been a key player in or led four major political formations: the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC); the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD); National Super Alliance; and Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Alliance.

His description of CORD in The Flame of Freedom captures the spirit that has animated Raila in forming or belonging to these alliances: “The new alliance (CORD) was a symbolic one. It brought together parties that had emerged over the years in the ferment for change, and it was also symbolic in demonstrating the possibility of overcoming the barriers that had historically been used to divide us by those running the corrupt and unjust systems that have held sway for decades in this country.”

The Flame of Freedom is a 992 tome. Yet it doesn’t tell the story of Raila’s life as the leading light of CORD; there isn’t the story of NASA; Raila’s time and work as the African Union High Representative for Infrastructure Development; the famed Handshake with Uhuru Kenyatta; his short time ‘away’ from the politics of opposition in Kenya; his reemergence as a leading candidate in a new political alliance, all form subplots of the unending narrative of Raila Amolo Odinga, the boy from Bondo who became a political enigma in Kenya as described by Badejo in An Enigma in Kenyan Politics.

Reading Raila conventionally can be disappointing. Many think, believe or even argue that he is communist. Is he? Isn’t this the man who was running his father’s businesses when Jaramogi had been jailed? Is he a political extremist? Well, hasn’t Raila always made political turns that have confounded his opponents and annoyed his followers? Is he a political animal, always tuned into politics and nothing else? Supporters of the Arsenal Football Club in England in Kenya will tell you that he is one of them, long suffering in waiting for the premier league championship. His family describes Raila as a loving father and husband and a fierce defender of their interests. His friends and those who know him well claim that he forgives too easily and rewards his previous enemies even at the expense of his loyalists.

Raila’s is a story that is so closely tied to Kenya’s postcolonial life since the 1980s that we can only wait for its next, unpredictable, version.

An Enigma in Kenyan Politics and The Flame of Freedom are available in local bookstores.

The writer teaches literature and performing arts at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]