Is this the end for Raila Odinga?

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ODM leader Raila Odinga.

With the confirmation by the Supreme Court of Deputy President William Ruto as Kenya's president-elect, it's five times unlucky for Azimio movement leader Mr Raila Odinga.

Mr Odinga, 77, is a grizzled veteran of the campaigns for democracy and human rights, with three stints as a political prisoner of the Moi regime under his belt.

He takes credit for the struggle that heralded the new era of a multi-party system and adoption of the new constitution, but with four unsuccessful presidential bids, this might have been his final attempt on a pursuit that started with his father, the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s first Vice President at independence and thereafter of the multi-party struggle in Kenya.

Mr Odinga, a veteran opposition leader and quintessential outsider and icon of protest politics, finds himself in the unusual position of establishment candidate.

He has secured the support of outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta who has dumped his own deputy of two terms, and hence finds himself defending the record of the Jubilee government and pledging continuity if elected.

Uhuru raila handshake 2018

President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) and opposition leader Raila Odinga shake hands on March 9, 2018 in Nairobi. The handshake ended the acrimony that followed the 2017 presidential election.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Mr Odinga’s campaign has also been busy raising the alarm on possible election shenanigans, but pointing the finger at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission rather than the government.

Early life

Mr Odinga did his early schooling at Kisumu Union Primary, then later Maranda High School for secondary education. Dropped out in 1962 and travelled to then East Germany where he was admitted at the Herder Institution. In 1965, Odinga was awarded a scholarship at the Technical School, Magdeburg, which is part of the philological faculty at the University of Leipzig in East Germany. He graduated with a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering in 1970.

He had his first stint in public service in 1974 when he was appointed Group Standards Manager at the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KeBS) and promoted to the position of Deputy Director in 1978 until 1982 when he was detained because of his political activity. He was placed under house arrest for 7 months by the regime of former President Daniel Moi.

He was later charged with treason, but was instead detained without trial for six years. During his time in detention, his mother died in 1984.

Mr Moi ordered his release on February 6, 1988, but he was re-arrested in September the same year and was once again detained. He was released on June 12, 1989, only to be incarcerated again on July 5, 1990, this time with Mr Kenneth Matiba and Mr Charles Rubia during the agitation for multi-party democracy. He was released on June 21, 1991, but fled the country for Norway the following November amid fears of another arrest.

Protest politics 

Protest politics have kept Mr Odinga relevant and impossible to ignore as champion of the angry and resentful poor and dispossessed through decades of struggle since launch of the multiparty campaign more than three decades ago, through four unsuccessful presidential campaigns and stints in government as Cabinet minister and one term as Prime Minister.

From his normal perch, it is Mr Odinga who should be complaining about the ‘Deep State’ and machinations to rig him out.

Langata Mp Raila Odinga (Ford Kenya)

Langata Mp Raila Odinga (Ford Kenya) speaks with an official of the electoral commission, Maurice Kashero, during a by-election in Kipipiri.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

It is Mr Odinga who should be the one whipping up resentment against the mighty and powerful; the ‘change’ candidate running on the platform of economic revolution intended to take the monopoly of wealth from the elite and redistribute resources to advantage of the poor.

Thirty years ago, Mr Odinga, then 47, was stalwart of the Young Turks; the activists, lawyers and intellectuals driving the multi-party campaign that had President Moi on the ropes.

Kijana Wamalwa (right), Raila Odinga (left) and former Kwanza MP George Kapten

Kijana Wamalwa (right), Raila Odinga (left) and former Kwanza MP George Kapten.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

At the first multiparty elections in 1992, Mr Odinga won the Lang’ata parliamentary seat in Nairobi on the Ford Kenya ticket, while Dr Ruto was busy navigating the murky world of infighting within YK ’92 and trying to catch President Moi’s eye.

 Lang'ata MP Raila Odinga (right) Molo MP Njenga Mungai (left) and Kiambu FORD Kenya chairman Nginyo Kariuki

In this undated photo, Lang'ata MP Raila Odinga (right) Molo MP Njenga Mungai (left) and Kiambu FORD Kenya chairman Nginyo Kariuki are seen at a rally in Kendu Bay, Homa Bay District. 

Photo credit: File | Carl Mandieka| Nation Media Group

Moi, courtesy of a split opposition featuring three major challengers—Kenneth Matiba of Ford Asili, Mwai Kibaki of DP and Raila Odinga of Ford Kenya—retained the presidency on a minority vote.

First presidential run

Raila Odinga

Raila Odinga addresses supporters at Moi International Sports Centre Kasarani on August 6, 2022 during their last campaign rally before elections.

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat I Nation Media Group

Come the 1997 election, and Dr Ruto handily won the Eldoret North seat. Mr Odinga also retained the Lang’ata seat, but on the NDP ticket after having ditched Ford Kenya midstream on losing a power struggle to Kijana Wamalwa following the death of Jaramogi in 1994.

Mr Odinga had also stood for president, but again in a crowded opposition field that included Kibaki (DP), Wamalwa (Ford-K) and Charity Ngilu (SPD).

As the others protested Moi’s victory, Mr Odinga changed tack and started a policy of cooperation with the long-serving incumbent seeing out his final term under multiparty constitution.

The cooperation resulted in the eventual swallowing of NDP by Kanu, with Mr Odinga emerging as secretary-general of the ‘Independence’ party that had ruled Kenya since 1963.

The merger was also part of Moi’s succession plan as he served out his final term under the multiparty constitution, bringing in a crop of youthful leaders to replace his old guard.

Fallout with Moi, Kibaki

In 2002, Mr Odinga fell out with Mr Moi after he endorsed Mr Uhuru Kenyatta as his successor. Mr Odinga and other Kanu members, including Kalonzo Musyoka, the late George Saitoti and the late Joseph Kamotho, opposed this step arguing that the then 38-year-old Mr Kenyatta was politically inexperienced and lacked the leadership qualities required to govern.

They joined the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which later teamed up with Mr Mwai Kibaki’s National Alliance Party of Kenya (Nak), a coalition of several other parties, to form the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) that eventually defeated Mr Kenyatta in the 2002 poll.

He later fell out with Mr Kibaki and contested the presidential election in 2007 that was marred by Kenya's deadliest post-poll violence. At the poll, it was straight fight between Kibaki and Mr Odinga, the former retaining his seat on a disputed election that led to widespread violence.

Raila Kibaki peace deal

President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga stand next to each other before signing a grand coalition deal at Harambee House witnessed by the chief mediator, Kofi Annan, in 2008.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

He was named Prime Minister in the subsequent grand coalition that was formed after the peace talks mediated by late former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Anan. Mr Kenyatta and Mr Mudavadi came in deputy premiers for respective sides of the grand coalition, while Dr Ruto came in as Agriculture minister on the ODM slate.

But within a short time, relations between Mr Odinga and Dr Ruto plummeted. From the word go, Dr Ruto had resented that Mr Mudavadi had been named Deputy PM ahead of him, while he felt he had contributed more to the Odinga campaign.

First, Mr Odinga provoked Dr Ruto by backing ejection of settlers in the Mau forest. Then he accused him of corruption in the Ministry of Agriculture and announced his suspension, which was countermanded by President Kibaki.

The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was intervention of International Criminal Court into the 2007 post-election violence.

When ICC Prosecutor Luis Ocampo released his list of suspects, Mr Odinga initially defended Dr Ruto, saying he was a victim rather than a perpetrator.

Ocampo with Raila and Kibaki

ICC chief prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo addresses the media after meeting Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki (right) and Prime Minister Raila Odinga (left) in Kenya's capital Nairobi in November 05, 2009.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

However, he finally came to support the ICC cases against Dr Ruto and Mr Kenyatta, who were netted as the leading ‘commanders’ on either side of the 2007 divide.

The ICC trials were a seminal moment in Kenyan history. Mr Odinga might have calculated that his path to the presidency would be easier with two key foes out of the way, but everything rebounded when Mr Kenyatta and Dr Ruto reunited to not only fight the charges jointly, but exploit the cases to craft a powerful new political movement ahead of the 2013 elections.

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CORD Principals Raila Odinga (second left), Kalonzo Musyoka (third left) and Moses Wetangula (left) with other coalition leaders at Uhuru Park on January 30, 2013 when they launched countrywide campaign trail.

2013, 2017 elections

Their Jubilee coalition won the 2013 polls, and Mr Odinga was out of luck for the third time.

Jubilee won again in 2017 and it was fourth time unlucky.

But then came the famous handshake the following year, that eventually led to President Kenyatta switching support to Mr Odinga and ditching Dr Ruto.

The rest, as they say, is history.