After the October 2017 repeat presidential election when all looked bleak and tension heightened across the country, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s “yangu kumi na ya Ruto kumi” (ten years for me 10 for Deputy President William Ruto) Jubilee Party succession declaration sounded like the end of the political career of opposition chief Raila Odinga.
It did not help matters that Mr Odinga had said it was his “last bullet” – his fourth and final stab at the presidency.
Yet as he has done before when he seemed cornered and critics had written him off, Mr Odinga – who controversially swore himself in as the People’s President in January 2018 – made a surprise move in March 2018 for his ‘handshake’ with President Kenyatta. It reshaped Kenya’s political landscape.
As the 77-year-old presents his nomination papers to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) as the Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition party candidate today, Mr Odinga and his supporters believe this is his best chance yet.
The “Young Turks” of Kenya’s Second Liberation have regrouped around him, he is backed by President Uhuru Kenyatta and enjoys certain backing by the establishment he could only dream of when he ran in 1997, 2007, 2013 and 2017.
Mr Odinga picked Ms Martha Karua as his running mate. She built her resume as a fearless leader and defender of human rights.
In Mr Odinga’s corner are Makueni Governor Kivutha Kibwana, who led the Citizens Coalition for Constitutional Change lobby that pushed for the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) electoral reforms of 1997, and former UNCTAD boss Mukhisa Kituyi. There are also governors Charity Ngilu (Kitui), Prof Anyang Nyong’o (Kisumu), Kiraitu Murungi (Meru) and Siaya Senator James Orengo.
“Not a single minister from President Mwai Kibaki’s first term is on the other side (Kenya Kwanza). We are all in Azimio. This is the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) wave again. I hope it will bring back the spirit of Narc,” former Agriculture Minister Kipruto Kirwa, who recently defected from UDA to Mr Odinga’s Azimio, says.
Courtesy of the rapport he enjoys with the President, he is now making inroads in Mt Kenya, a region that has never backed him.
Also Read: A letter to Martha Karua
The son of Kenya’s first vice president Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Mr Odinga’s political path and fortunes could have been significantly different had his father accepted to take over the leadership of Kenya at independence.
The British had offered Jaramogi the chance to lead Kenya but he turned down the offer and implored the colonialists to release Jomo Kenyatta from detention to take that role.
For Jaramogi, this was a dream deferred that he would attempt to achieve in the first multi-party elections of 1992 without success. He died two years later. Deferral of that dream in 1963 would also lead to decades of political turmoil for his family.
Not long after independence, Jaramogi fell out with Kenya’s founding President Jomo Kenyatta, leading to his being banished from the political scene for years. He was put under house arrest and barred from elective politics.
But as the Cold War neared its end, agitation for change in Kenya took root and Jaramogi became the force behind a group of emerging politicians, who came to be known as the “Young Turks”, in the opposition Ford Kenya.
These were educated people who wanted Moi to allow Kenyans enjoy more political, economic and social freedoms the Kanu regime had denied them.
The “Young Turks” consisted of Raila Odinga, James Orengo, Paul Muite, Nyong’o, Gitobu Imanyara, Njeru Kathangu, Kiraitu Murungi and others. They were backed by veterans like Martin Shikuku, Masinde Muliro and Ahmed Salim Bamahriz.
This group would threaten Moi’s stranglehold on power and prompt him to unleash violence, torture and brutality on the “dissidents”, who according to Moi, were being backed by foreigners.
In 1982, elements of the Kenya Air Force attempted to overthrow the government. It would mark the beginning of Mr Odinga’s years in detention without trial, torture and to exile.
On the attempted coup, Babafemi Badejo who authored Raila Odinga: An Enigma in Kenyan Politics, says: “Raila was to be the contact point with the military men in relaying views on important issues.”
Mr Odinga has never admitted playing an active role in the failed coup though his critics have used that to portray him as toxic and power hungry.
He was picked up from Oki Ooko Ombaka’s house where he was hiding on August 11, 1982, reportedly having been sold out by his driver. Ombaka has since died.
Mr Odinga was charged with treason but the State withdrew the charges when his friends in Europe raised funds and hired British lawyer Desmond da Silva to defend him. Though the charge was withdrawn, he remained in custody until 1986.
He was again arrested in August 1988, spending 10 days at Nyayo House torture chambers. The government accused him of subversion. He was released on June 12, 1989. Mr Odinga would again become a guest of the state on July 5, 1990, two days before the Saba Saba rally that the government declined to permit, until June 1991.
After his release, he vowed not to return to prison. “I knew I was not prepared to go through detention again. Nor did I think it was necessary. It was only a matter of time before the establishment crumbled in the face of our unrelenting push for the restoration of the multiparty political system,” wrote Sarah Elderkin in Raila Odinga: The Flame of Freedom.
He fled to Uganda through Lake Victoria in a single-engine boat at night, and onward to Norway. Robert Njura, then 19, who steered the boat told the Sunday Nation in 2020 that Mr Odinga was dressed as a Legio Maria follower.
“He was alone. Fishermen do and believe in many things. What crossed my mind when I saw this stranger was that the boss had invited him to pray for us before the journey,” Mr Njura said.
Mr Odinga later met Mr Njura after the Sunday Nation story.
Mr Odinga returned from Norway in time for the multi-party elections of 1992, winning the Lang’ata parliamentary seat on a Ford Kenya ticket.
Following Jaramogi’s death in 1994, Mr Odinga and Kijana Wamalwa fought for the control of Ford Kenya. Wamalwa triumphed and Mr Odinga left the party and took over the National Development Party (NDP).
With NDP, he made his first stab at the presidency in 1997, emerging third after President Moi and Mwai Kibaki and with a respectable 21 MPs.
Initially, Mr Odinga, Mr Kibaki, Mr Wamalwa, Ms Ngilu and other opposition figures rejected the election results and accused President Moi of rigging.
With time, however, he started working with Kanu, leading to his appointment to the Cabinet. Kanu and NDP merged in 2002.
The merger turned out to be a bitter pill for Kanu as the 2002 elections approached.
Internal rebellion at President Moi’s choice of Uhuru Kenyatta as his successor led to defections, including by dyed-in-wool Kanu stalwarts George Saitoti, Kalonzo Musyoka, Moody Awori and Joseph Kamotho.
The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) became the new home for the Kanu rebels before they linked up with the National Alliance of Kenya to form Narc, a vehicle for the united opposition that swept Kibaki to State House in the 2002.
The Narc dream inspired hope among Kenyans. After decades of dictatorship and corruption, the starry-eyed Narc gave hope to millions, promising to revive the economy, implement free primary education and respect human rights.
However, there was infighting in Narc shortly after the formation of the government. By the time the country was going to a referendum in 2005 to vote on the proposed constitution, the division was big.
The LDP wing of Narc under Mr Odinga joined forces with Kanu – and were known as the “Orange” or “No” side – to defeat the draft constitution at the referendum and set the tone for the 2007 elections. The results of the plebiscite also gave birth to a political party – the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM).
Backed by Ruto, Joseph Nyagah, Najib Balala, Musalia Mudavadi, Ngilu and others under ODM banner, Mr Odinga mounted his second bid at the presidency.
The 2007 election will always be remembered for the violence that erupted as Kibaki and Odinga claimed victory.
After the intervention of the global community, mediation resulted in the formation of the Grand Coalition government in 2008 with Mr Kibaki as the President and Mr Odinga the PM.
Owing to the violence, there was an urgency to deliver a new constitution. The Constitution was promulgated in 2010.
Mr Odinga again contested the presidency in 2013 but lost to Mr Kenyatta with the win unsuccessfully challenged in court.
In 2017, Mr Kenyatta and Mr Odinga would face off again. The incumbent prevailed, but in a historic decision, the Supreme Court nullified the vote and ordered a fresh one in October. Mr Odinga boycotted it, leading to tension around the country until March 2018 when he struck a truce with Mr Kenyatta that became known as the “handshake”. Whether this was a betrayal of Mr Odinga’s base and credentials or political genius remains a subject of debate.
Critics have branded him a power-hungry man who often protests election outcomes. Dr Ruto has also accused him of sabotaging the Jubilee Party’s Big Four Agenda.
As he presents his nomination papers, Mr Odinga will be hoping that the dream his father deferred will eventually be realised.