Raila Odinga rallies a revolution

Raila Odinga

Raila Odinga

Photo credit: John Nyaga | Nation Media Group

Gem MP Elisha Odhiambo likens opposition chief Raila Odinga to a police officer who went loitering downtown Nairobi, along River Road, and was robbed of his cell phone by an unarmed young man who incapacitated him by gripping the old man’s neck tightly with his arm, an attack known as kupigwa ngeta in street parlance.

In the captivating imagery, the MP from Odinga’s rural county of Siaya then asks whether it serves any purpose for a police officer – armed with a gun and teargas – to report such an incident to the relevant authorities. Alternatively, he asks, “shouldn’t we just accept and move on, since we appear to have run out of luck”?

The tale, told by the second-term MP to his constituents at a public event last month, vividly captures the frustrations and dilemma of Odinga’s supporters in the face of nationwide mass action that he has called to protest his “stolen victory” in last year’s presidential poll, and the rising cost of living.

The former Prime Minister, who was largely tipped to pip his key challenger, then Deputy President William Ruto, to the top seat, was declared first runner-up in the race. Raila enjoyed momentous support countrywide ahead of the August polls, including the backing of the so-called Deep State, courtesy of President Uhuru Kenyatta, as well as financial support from wealthy friends and the Mt Kenya business community.

It is against this backdrop – of waning faith and fatigue among some of his supporters and heavy criticism from forces allied to the government – that the Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya Alliance leader spearheads what is billed by his backers as the final push against President Ruto’s administration from tomorrow, Monday, March 20. Despite being mocked by critics for refusing to accept poll defeats and engineering post-poll mayhem to seek the attention of sitting presidents and work out ‘handshake’ deals, Odinga is at it again. From tomorrow, he will be pushing for what he refers to as electoral and economic justice.

Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua leads the pack of those poking holes at Odinga’s reform credentials. He has lately claimed – repeatedly – that the Azimio leader’s ongoing rallies and planned march to State House, Nairobi, are blackmail for a forced symbolic handshake with President Ruto.

In a statement on Monday, Nandi Senator Samson Cherargei concurred, adding that this time round, “we will not allow the former PM anywhere near the President”. The DP and Senator from the ruling United Democratic Alliance (UDA) party are referring to previous instances in 1997, 2007 and 2017, when Odinga was declared loser in presidential elections but eventually reached out to incumbents Daniel arap Moi, Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta respectively to end political hostility “for the country’s sake”.

Now, however, Raila denies any plans of a “handshake” with Dr Ruto. He maintains that the push for mass action is driven by the desire to guard against erosion by the Ruto administration of democratic gains realised over the years. Owing to sustained post-poll agitation and presidential election petitions, there is no denying that Odinga’s activities have over the years contributed immensely to legal learning in the electioneering process, or jurisprudence as it is referred to within the legal profession. His lawyer, Mr Paul Mwangi, singles out the 2017 petition, which overturned a presidential poll outcome, as the most significant and profound legal landmark.

Before the historic ruling – the first in Africa – Mwangi says Kenyans, and particularly members of the legal fraternity, were accustomed to the notion that petitions relating to presidential polls were a mere formality, meaning that the electoral body could conduct

The exercise in the messiest and opaque manner possible yet once a winner was declared, that was final. The constitutional lawyer observes that the perception that declaration of a victor in presidential polls is final and that the winner can do whatever they wish, including bringing whomsoever they wish into government to the exclusion of the rest, needs to be addressed.

“We (Azimio) are bringing alive the powers of picketing as enshrined in our Constitution as a way of ensuring that this government and successive ones become sensitive to people’s needs and interests.” Mwangi argues that this is presently the only avenue available to the people after what he regards as failure by other arms of the government – the judiciary and legislature – to check the excesses of the President.

The establishment of the Supreme Court of Kenya in 2010 following the promulgation of a new Constitution was the product of a push for electoral justice by Odinga and other progressive forces. The Azimio leader’s interest in the apex court is understandable, considering that he declined to petition Mwai Kibaki’s controversial win in 2007 for lack of an independent senior court. Since its establishment, Odinga has been a constant figure in its administration of justice.

And over the years, the court has set precedence around poll matters with regards to “spoilt and rejected votes” in 2013, and nullification of elections in 2017 on account of “non-compliance to the Constitution with regards to electronic transmission methods as required by the law”.

And last year, the court bought into the argument advanced by petition lawyers that commissioners of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) must always act in consultation, and that the powers of the body reside in all the commissioners and not in the individual that is referred to as the Chairman.

The quest for electoral fairness has been on cards for years, peaking in 1992, when Kenya embraced the second phase of multi-partyism. At that time, a petition by Kenneth Matiba, the incumbent’s (Daniel arap Moi) main challenger, was dismissed on a technicality.

Consequently, an Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group arrangement was mooted in 1997 to improve poll management by including representatives of all parties in the then Electoral Commission of Kenya. This was further boosted by recommendations of a commission headed by former South African judge, Johann Kriegler, following the 2007/8 post-election.

 Even though he is credited for helping to improve the integrity of Kenya’s elections, Odinga’s failure to capture the top seat is partly believed to be the drive behind his endless push for reforms. It is a factor that his main rival in last year’s poll, Ruto, has repeatedly alluded to.

According to Ruto, electoral justice can only be done for Odinga if the opposition leader is declared the victor in a presidential poll. And, he hypothesizes, the “violent protests” called by Raila will continue until he is handed the win. Going by the chain of events every election year, it is difficult to wholly discount the UDA party leader’s assertions. The situation has not been helped either by Odinga’s personal – perceived or real – weaknesses.

His allies accuse him of allegedly sitting on his laurels once he was endorsed by President Uhuru Kenyatta. His failure to build on Kenyatta’s support and the influence of the incumbency has irked a good number of his supporters. Some even allege that the former premier underestimated the influence of his challenger and that he declined to employ “forceful and persuasive methods” to run away with the victory.

“This energy, time and money that we are exerting and using now in the countrywide rallies is what we could have spent then to kill off this game at Bomas of Kenya (IEBC’s national tallying centre). We are operating in reverse gear. It is silly, defeatist and a waste of time,” an agitated politician from Kisumu County, who requested anonymity for fear of political reprisal, confided in The Weekly Review.

And with Odinga exposed, questions have also been raised about the absence of his political contemporaries, Anyang Nyong’o and James Orengo, the governors of Kisumu and Siaya respectively, as well as his elder brother, Siaya senator Oburu Odinga, at his crucial hour of need.

“Why did they desert him by choosing to instead preoccupy themselves with personal political pursuits? Is there anything they know that we do not? Did they anticipate this flop by Raila? In such a tight, high-profile competition, who, other than an elder brother and agemates or political buddies, should one surround oneself with? Who else, other than the three, could openly look Raila in the eye and reprimand or advise him accordingly when he went wrong?” asks another senior ODM-allied politician from the Gusii region.

The Azimio leader’s running-mate in last year’s poll, Ms Martha Karua, insists, though, that Odinga’s mass action drive is not about redeeming his personal political career, but a move for the benefit of the ordinary Kenyan now choking under the high cost of living. It is about electoral and economic justice for all, she stresses.