As Kenya Kwanza stalwarts derisively ask Azimio leaders to go back to the streets, and as the Azimio leader opens a war front with the US and the UK over their alleged silence in the wake of human rights abuses, this script has eerie echoes from the cold war era.
When he first emerged in July 1970, Raila Odinga, then 25 years old, had called a press conference in Nairobi, begging the Jomo Kenyatta government to release his father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, from detention.
From then on, Odinga gradually became a constant face in Kenyan politics — first as the political son of Jaramogi — and later as his own man.
For 53 years, Odinga has challenged all five post-independence governments, fought for the expansion of the democratic space, earned critics and admirers in equal measure, building a massive following in the country and an equally ‘‘Railaphobic’’ community.
As Kijana Wamalwa would later remark, democracy in Kenya is a census on Railamania and Railaphobia.
Politicians and voters alike have been making decisions based on either adoration or fear of the son of Jaramogi. How we got here is a matter of history – and the fear of the Odinga family has not been limited to Raila.
In 1991, Gitobu Imanyara’s Nairobi Law Monthly accused Kanu leaders of suffering from Oginga ‘‘Odinga-phobia hence their attempts to root all forms of dissent to Odinga. And without knowing nor intending it, our leaders have converted Jaramogi Oginga Odinga into a cause’’.
Only keen readers of Kenya’s history and analysts of emerging archives on the Odinga family would appreciate how far Western intelligence contributed to the phobia. However, as more files pop up from the archives, we might finally have an accurate picture.
Last year, the British released documents revealing that they had set up a Special Editorial Unit whose work was to engage in a smear campaign against Jaramogi.
Their concern was that Jaramogi might replace Kenyatta. The British diplomats feared that he posed a direct threat to British interests in Kenya — and the propaganda unit produced a document titled People's Front of East Africa, which praised Jaramogi as a “great revolutionary leader”.
For his part, Kenyatta was dismissed as “reactionary, fascist and dishonest”.
The document was then passed over to the Daily Telegraph, which ran a story with the headline: ‘Revolution document in Kenya’.
The Foreign Office sent 80 copies of the propaganda document to journalists, and the propaganda unit’s spokesman John Rayner was quoted saying that Kenyatta thought the document was the work of the Chinese, while Tom Mboya attributed it to Jaramogi, who claimed it was the work of the CIA. He was not far from the truth.
The Telegraph ran another story: ‘Kenya Facing the threat of Red Takeover’ in 1965 and an incensed Jaramogi deported the Nairobi correspondent, Richard Beeston, while a London-based correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph, Douglas Brown, was declared persona non grata in Kenya.
Information minister Achieng Oneko criticised the article as an intrigue “of the imperialist press trying to destroy the unity of Kenya”.
What they didn’t know was that this was the work of the British government and that a special propaganda unit had been tasked to carry out the dirty work and create fear around Jaramogi. Britain was not alone.
There is also a CIA document dated July 1964 titled ‘Leftist activity in Kenya’, which laid the foundation of Odinga-phobia in the country and in Washington.
In their analysis of Jaramogi, the CIA described him as a “shrewd political opportunist rather than a doctrinaire communist”.
They also claimed that he “established his powerbase largely through his astute dispensing of communist funds and scholarships supplied by both Moscow and Peking”.
How much they spread the fear of communism is not known, but that they had a 10-page report on Jaramogi shows how they wanted him to be perceived by the Americans.
They talked of how Jaramogi had sent some Kenyan students to communist countries where they “are receiving paramilitary training” and that “a group of five, selected by Odinga, reportedly returned in June (1964) from several months of such training in Bulgaria”.
“These trainees are said to have talked openly of leading the revolution in Kenya,” said the report.
If such a report had been shared with Kenyatta, it must have created bad blood between him and Jaramogi. However, whether Kenyatta knew he was being played or not is not known.
Interestingly, the CIA document did not mention that Tom Mboya, a CIA-supported politico, had also started a similar scholarship scheme and was training hundreds of students in US universities.
But on Jaramogi, the document said that “it has been estimated that at least 1,000 men in reasonably important positions in the government, civil service and trade unions owe personal allegiance to Odinga, who has either sent them to study in communist countries or supplied them with regular financial aid”.
But they also accepted one fact: "Odinga is the only Kenyan leader other than Kenyatta with a national popular following … the Kenyan ambassador to the UN and US (Burudi Nabwera) is an Odinga partisan, as is the minister of Information Achieng Oneko."
It described Oneko’s ministry as a playground of the Soviets and said that the state-controlled Kenya News Agency was using “Soviet-installed radio receivers and teleprinters flown in from USSR, while Kenyans trained in Czechoslovakia and USSR arrived to work in the agency. In June, the Czechoslovak News Agency representative in Nairobi was quietly appointed by Oneko as ‘informal’ adviser and editorial and training expert for KNA".
It goes on: ‘‘The editor of KNA, considered ‘politically reliable’ by Odinga and Oneko, lives in Pio Gama Pinto’s house, and Pinto’s wife is Oneko’s secretary. She has a reputation for losing letters, shifting appointments, and otherwise sabotaging – without his knowledge – Western efforts to get to Oneko."
The CIA painted Pinto as "an extreme left-wing" and as a "close associate of Odinga and Oneko and appears to be lurking in the background of KNA, as well as engaging in clandestine political activity on their behalf".
Six months after this CIA report, Pinto was assassinated.
For Jaramogi, the CIA painted the picture of a person who wanted to take over power and was determined to harass Kenyatta into retiring, or bring him down through constitutional means such as the defeat of the government on a substantive measure, or move him up through the creation of an East African federation.
Today, the phobia of Odinga – as engineered by both the CIA and British intelligence – is also cited when dismissing Raila Odinga.
However, Jaramogi was never seen as a victim of Western machinations but as the villain of communist politics.
His son, Raila Odinga, seems to have inherited part of that — and some Kenya Kwanza politicos have often remarked that his father harassed Kenyatta.
But like him or hate him, and in years to come, Raila will be a study in Kenyan politics — especially how he has shaped the body politic ever since he first burst onto the political scene. Some of the study would be to understand whether there is a linear pattern in his politics and to explain the contradictory moves he has made, and that includes his decision to work with President Moi's dictatorial regime.
While his supporters say that this move led to Kanu's downfall, the truth is that he was joining Kanu to strengthen it against the alternative politics of Mwai Kibaki, Charity Ngilu and Kijana Wamalwa. Had Moi backed his candidature instead of Uhuru Kenyatta’s, Odinga would have won the presidency on a Kanu ticket. It would have ended the Odinga phobia.
Now, after failing to clinch the presidency for the fifth time last year in a close race between him and William Ruto, the former Prime Minister has mobilised his supporters, through mass protests, to challenge the Kenya Kwanza administration, which has a yawning deficit in integrity and a severe shortage of honour.
But as Ruto strengthens his hold on the state, moves by Western diplomats are geared to protect their interests.
A week ago, Odinga took on US Ambassador Meg Whitman for suggesting that the last general election was free and fair.
‘‘I told her I didn’t know which country she was talking about. I didn't know which Kenya she was talking about,’ Odinga told a meeting.
He accused the diplomatic community of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Kenya.
‘‘We are so surprised to see these diplomats completely turning a blind eye to violations of fundamental human rights in Kenya in the name of development,’’ he said.
For the past one month, Odinga has pressured the Ruto presidency. He claims he was robbed of his victory and blames the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission for that loss.
He is also banking on the rising cost of living to frame his politics. So far, President Ruto's government has accepted that there are issues raised by Odinga that can be discussed.
But watching Odinga getting attacked by Kenya Kwanza hardliners — who have told him to go back to the streets — reminds me of how his father was told the same.
That Odinga inherited the phobia that was generated for his father — and that he makes the same mistakes that his father made — is quite interesting.
Meanwhile, some American brokers have been in Nairobi and spoken to Odinga and Ruto.
[email protected] @johnkamau1