Suppose former Prime Minister Raila Odinga takes a back seat, away from being the face of aggression against President William Ruto’s administration? Will this disarm the Kenya Kwanza brigade or will it weaken the opposition-led crusade that is heavily dependent on Mr Odinga’s stature and political constituency countrywide?
These are some of the burning issues responsible for growing concern and dilemma within the opposition ranks. Frustrated that their “noble agenda” to save poor Kenyans heaving under the weight of increased taxation and the high cost of life is being trivialised and politicised because of the Odinga factor, the Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya coalition is reportedly plotting a shift in its game plan.
The Odinga-led group plans to change its approach from an anti-Ruto crusade to a massive national movement of change aimed at bringing all players on board – including civil society, the clergy and even Dr Ruto’s supporters.
Deputy Minority Leader of the Senate, Enoch Wambua, who is privy to the ongoing plot to revamp and refocus Azimio’s campaign, says the new movement of change is a “partyless affair” and is for every Kenyan “who finds life unbearable”.
But National Assembly Minority Leader and Ugunja MP Opiyo Wandayi told Nation that he was not aware of such a strategy.
“There is nothing like that. It could be propaganda being peddled by our opponents,” Mr Wandayi said yesterday.
Azimio insiders also say the political architecture of the grouping must be retained. This, they argue, is for purposes of operating in a structured manner. “At the end of the day, Raila remains the captain of our team, and alongside his two former running-mates, Kalonzo Musyoka and Martha Karua, the side is good and raring to go.”
Still, there is a crop of politicians who feel the former Premier has stood with the ordinary Kenyans for far too long – a duty they regard as thankless because not all have rewarded him at the presidential ballot – and now want him to step back and let the electorate experience the consequences of their choice.
Those of this persuasion include Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) legislator Beatrice Elachi (Dagoretti North) and Kisii Senator Richard Onyonka, who opine that Mr Odinga should allow the Ruto administration a free hand to run “their government” the way they deem it fit so that they can take full responsibility for their actions and any related consequences.
The vocal senator has even suggested – sarcastically – that they should let the President increase taxes to 100 per cent if he so wishes. The import of Mr Onyonka’s argument is that the Azimio legislators are increasingly viewing their boss as an impediment of sorts who is denying them the opportunity to nail the political enemy – Dr Ruto.
In a way, they want the President handed enough rope to hang himself, but their team leader has a contrary approach.
While appreciating Mr Odinga’s steadfastness in standing with Kenyans, Ms Elachi argues that this approach will only place him in a very tough situation. She points out that, in the event that the Ruto administration forges ahead with this high taxation regime and breaks even after five years, Kenyans will accuse Mr Odinga of trying to stand in the way of the Kenya Kwanza government.
Ms Elachi’s and Mr Onyonka’s stand is shared by many within the Azimio fraternity, most of who are not as bold to openly speak their minds.
There is a growing sense in which the politicians are concerned that their leader is too proactive in his dealings and instead want him to take a back seat, more like former President and Jubilee party leader Uhuru Kenyatta has done.
Kenyatta’s hands-off approach is deemed by some as fairly safe and deceptive to political opponents. But those close to Mr Odinga say that is not his style. They point out that their boss is a hands-on leader who leads from the front.
“He is not the type of coach who prepares his team and sits back to monitor the game. Raila wants to stay on the touchline to give instructions to his team and egg them on,” observes a senior Orange party official, who requested not to be named for fear of openly contradicting his party boss.
Noting that Mr Odinga ordinarily does not shy away from controversy or adversity, the official explains the former PM’s “weakness” as being too attached to his supporters, who have stood by him over the decades in his political career.
“He will neither abandon them nor let them suffer at the hands of another leader. He feels obligated to defend his people by doing something to correct the prevailing situation, even if it means hammering out a deal with the powers that be.”
The National Assembly’s Leader of the Majority, Kimani Ichung’wah, is equally alive to this internal dilemma. According to Mr Ichung’wah, the former PM is an asset to Azimio because he is the only one who can galvanise the opposition, but a liability too because “undoubtedly age has caught up with him and his knack for making the right decisions at the right time has diminished”.
The Kikuyu MP seems to suggest that the Kenya Kwanza alliance would be happier dealing with Mr Odinga, 78 – whom Dr Ruto has lately described as an individual he has known for long and whose political ploys he understands only too well – than any new or unknown leadership order in the rival camp.
“His belief that Uhuru can still take him and Azimio to the proverbial Canaan after failing to deliver the win he had promised and assured him of is, to say the least, one of his major undoings,” says Mr Ichung’wah.
The Kenyan opposition’s failure to capture power, adds Thirdway Alliance party leader Dr Ekuru Aukot, is caused by its inability to unite, and the practice of politics of deceit and entitlement. The lawyer-turned-politician opines that the political space outside government is occupied by the “big boys” , who are fearful of emerging players and who will not allow newcomers room for manoeuvre.
The “big boys” in the current context include Mr Odinga, former Vice-President Musyoka and Narc-Kenya party leader Karua, all members of Azimio. Before they teamed up with Dr Ruto, Amani National Congress and Ford-Kenya party leaders Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetang’ula have similarly been perpetual presidential hopefuls and big political players in the opposition corner.
This lot, says Dr Aukot, is impenetrable and although he currently shares similar concerns about the high rate of taxation and cost of living, it is not easy to combine forces with Mr Odinga and his Azimio brigade. Also opposed to Dr Ruto’s leadership is Mr Reuben Kigame, a presidential hopeful in last year’s elections, who has been unleashing parallel attacks on the Kenya Kwanza administration.
That Mr Odinga’s Azimio has failed to harness this available but scattered support into a formidable countrywide force that cuts across political colours is a factor that has attracted criticism of the former PM’s style and approach. In fact, failure to maximise on this opportunity has instead exposed him to attacks from the rival Kenya Kwanza brigade, which views his push as a “one man” crusade.
Citing the Punguza Mizigo initiative – a Constitution of Kenya Amendment Bill, 2019 that sought to amend the Constitution of Kenya 2010 to reduce the burden and cost of governance borne by Kenyan taxpayers under Article 257 – Dr Aukot says the move promoted by his political party was curiously resisted by colleagues in the opposition.
Pundits attribute this to fear of being elbowed out politically or of rivals gaining political mileage.
But for political giants like Mr Odinga, who alongside his allies commands a huge following – nearly half the number of registered voters across the country – such fears should not hold. Dr Aukot believes that the promotion of a good idea should be embraced by all fighting for a common goal against the government.
Read: Tax row: Ruto allies warn Raila over 'economic sabotage'
“Truth be told, the big boys, Raila, Kalonzo and even Ruto, do not want free and independent thinkers around them. And this precisely explains Kenya’s biggest governance problem – that we have a compromised political class and an electorate that is largely ignorant, subservient and gullible,” says Dr Aukot.
But Mr Wambua brushes aside accusations of Azimio not being accommodative. People can use all manner of excuse to claim they are being excluded, he offers. He challenges those keen on Azimio’s current push to feel free and team up with them because “nobody will stop you”.
Singling out former Murang’a Governor Mwangi wa Iria as the latest entrant in the ongoing campaign, Mr Wambua says the politician is now enjoying a lot of public exposure, in the same way that the leader of Roots Party, Prof George Wajackoya, who vied for presidency in the last polls, is doing after teaming up with Azimio.
Azimio is reportedly in agreement over the need to cast its net wider in order to get more players on board and inject fresh thinking into developing a new strategy, but the Odinga factor remains a big headache. But players within the coalition are neither agreed on nor do they know how best to push the former Premier from the front bench.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that Mr Odinga is the most experienced political figure in the Azimio grouping, with the largest political party and largest following. “It is a major fix for others. We need a new face for our campaign, yet we cannot elbow him from the centre now because it could well backfire,” observes an MP from Mr Odinga’s rural county of Siaya.
In the assessment of the Kitui senator, who is also party treasurer, Azimio today speaks for a greater number of people who voted for Dr Ruto than those who voted for Mr Odinga in the presidential race. Mr Wambua attributes this factor to what he terms “a masterstroke hustler narrative strategy” that swept the board among the ordinary struggling population, “but who have since been abandoned by their post-poll hero”.
However, political analyst Mark Bichachi argues that Azimio’s biggest challenge is its dependence on Mr Odinga. Following last year’s poll debacle, he says, many people have lost interest in the former premier and his political strategy.
Form new alliances
“For the current push to be impactful, Azimio must begin to form new alliances, embrace a youthful vibe and leadership, and expand the movement beyond maandamano (mass action). In plotting civil disobedience, they should think of reaching out to businessmen and interesting them in the stakes at hand.”
Mr Bichachi is also of the opinion that Azimio should show Kenyans some freshness in its leadership, enough to attract countrywide support and move their focus away from the Ruto-Odinga ping-pong.
“Raila is a great leader, but unfortunately he is the sole point of focus in Azimio. And this is because he is too large for everyone within, yet not large enough to uproot Ruto from power,” Mr Bichachi concludes.
This story was first published in the Weekly Review