Opposition leader Raila Odinga’s current political battle with President William Ruto mirrors his past duels with three other heads of state, with important historical lessons as the country’s focus remains firmly on the anticipated negotiations.
Some of the face-offs with the opposition leader were so fiery that incumbents opted to unleash brute force against him.
He was tortured, jailed and in some instances forced to flee from the country during the Kanu regime of Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, who was president from August 1978 to December 2002.
Interestingly, all his differences with presidents Moi, Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta ended in political rapprochement that took place when the three were in their final terms in office.
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Some of the circumstances for the deals were different but observers reckon that Mr Odinga has managed to create an environment of intense political pressure, forcing the previous administrations to strike deals with him.
Dr Ruto’s administration has since extended an olive branch to allow for bipartisan talks with the opposition Azimio La Umoja One Kenya Coalition.
But even before the talks can kick off, the two sides have started trading accusations and sharply disagreed on the format the negotiations should take.
Some of the previous administrations co-opted Mr Odinga into what were later perceived to be part of their plans to manage their succession.
Mr Moi and Mr Kenyatta unsuccessfully attempted to manage their political transitions by having Mr Odinga in their fold during their final years in office.
Some of the obstacles the current push for truce is facing have been linked to the hardliners in Dr Ruto’s camp, who feel they would be edged out should Mr Odinga have a deal with the new administration.
Dr Ruto also sees Mr Odinga as a potential challenger in his 2027 re-election bid and would not want to risk his chances by giving him a platform for relevance.
Commentators believe Dr Ruto also fears losing some of his allies who backed him should he entertain a deal with Mr Odinga.
“The Kanu-National Development Party (Mr Odinga’s party) merger deal in 2002 was initially part of Moi’s plans to change the constitution to allow him to run for another term. The deal was for Raila (Mr Odinga) to be a Prime Minister and Moi continuing as President,” says Prof Macharia Munene of the unlikely political deal where the cockerel (the Kanu symbol) was said to have swallowed the tractor (the NDP symbol).
“The problem was that the changes were not effected and President Moi saw no need of assisting Mr Odinga to ascend to power. Mr Odinga had also thought that by being Kanu secretary-General he would inherit the Kanu machinery to help him with the elections that were held later that year.”
Prof Munene observes that for the ceasefire to take place, it cannot be ruled out that there could be a condition — mostly spoken behind closed doors — that Mr Odinga backs Dr Ruto’s re-election.
This will even be more pragmatic should there be a feeling that Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua could fall out of favour before the next election — a proposition that does not seem likely at the moment in the Kenya Kwanza Alliance.
“President Ruto may look for a different person (with a strong political base) to support him and that person could be Raila,” he says.
Similar perceptions were there in the run up to the August 2022 elections. Allies of Dr Ruto believe that the decision by Mr Kenyatta to enter a truce with Mr Odinga in March 2018 was part of a larger scheme to block his then deputy president from getting into State House.
Mr Kenyatta had promised to back Dr Ruto for his presidential bid when they were campaigning for re-election in 2017 but opted to support Mr Odinga.
This followed a bitter fallout with his deputy after the famous March 2018 handshake.
Says Kimilili MP Didmus Barasa: “Uhuru supported Raila not because he liked him. He thought he was the only person that could have blocked Ruto from ascending to power. The handshake was not for Raila to benefit but to ensure Ruto did not become president.”
National Assembly Minority Leader, Opiyo Wandayi, says the circumstances for the agitation may be different but issues being advanced by Mr Odinga remain the same and are touching on good governance and well-being of the common person.
“No regime enters into talks with the opposition willingly. The conditions and circumstances force them to do so. It is not different with Kenya Kwanza government. Despite the chest-thumping, inwardly they know they cannot sustain the conflict therefore they are forced to negotiate,” says Mr Wandayi.
“On our part, we are willing to talk on condition that every card is put on top of the table. Unlike them, we are not limited with options to deal with the situation.”
But Mr Owen Baya, the Deputy Majority Leader in the National Assembly, told the Sunday Nation that Dr Ruto would not entertain Mr Odinga’s personal interests.
“In all these agitation that he started with President Moi, the country only ended up taking the interests of one person. We have made it clear that this time we are going to handle issues, not personal interests, and that is why the talks will be held in Parliament,” says Mr Baya.
Since President Moi’s administration, Mr Odinga’s influence has significantly grown, something that has made subsequent governments change tact in dealing with him.
It was only during President Moi’s time, under the dictatorial one-party rule, that he was arrested in the 1980s.
The subsequent administrations, including that of Mr Mwai Kibaki and Mr Kenyatta, did not consider the route even when Mr Odinga swore himself in as the people’s president in January 2018, an act that was largely considered treasonable by some in the government.
Some of Dr Ruto’s allies have in the height of the now suspended bi-weekly mass action asked police to arrest Mr Odinga.
Cooler heads in the ruling coalition, however, believe taking this route could exacerbate the current political standoff.
“Only a fool can think of arresting Raila. All the tactics that Moi used cannot apply now because some of the laws that he exploited are not there. I am certain that the current talks have to continue because there is no option,” says Mr Herman Manyora, an analyst whose views often lean towards the opposition leader
“The Ruto administration must be aware now it cannot succeed in using brute force against Raila. Whatever name — whether handshake or bipartisan talks — it has to work for the interest of the country.”
As part of the “Young Turks” in the agitation for multiparty democracy, Mr Odinga led the likes of Paul Muite, Peter Anyang Nyong’o, Gitobu Imanyara, James Orengo, Njeru Kathangu and Kiraitu Murungi in threatening Moi’s stranglehold on power in the early 1990s.
This prompted Moi to unleash torture and brutality on his opponents before allowing multiparty democracy in 1991. Years earlier, President Moi’s use of force became apparent after the attempted 1982 coup that marked Mr Odinga’s years in detention.
Mr Moi’s regime would charge Mr Odinga with treason. The State later withdrew the charges but still kept him in custody.
He was re-arrested in August 1988, spending 10 days at Nyayo House torture chambers. 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.
“Moi was liberal until after the 1982 attempted coup. He opted to use force against his opponents. There were assassinations. At some point, he changed tact and resorted to buying out opponents as a way of dealing with his opponents,” says lawyer Danstan Omari.
Mr Omari says the rule of law and constitutionalism that came in with the Kibaki regime, which is undergirded by the 2010 constitution, has made it difficult for the subsequent administrations to unleash force in dealing with political opponents.
Citing Mr Kenyatta’s first term in office, Mr Omari says: “Uhuru perfected the use of DCI and the police in dealing with the opponents but he could not arrest Raila, who had become an ‘institution’— even when he swore himself in as the people’s president (in January 2018).”
“Right now Ruto is a captive of ‘war mongers’ (in reference to hardliners) who have refused to acknowledge the fact that you cannot arrest Raila and have the country in one piece.”
Similar views were shared by Nyando MP Jared Okello, who said hat it was easier to arrest Mr Odinga in the 1980 when he had not connected with the people.
“His agitations are on social justice that directly connect him with the people,” says Mr Okello.
But some of Dr Ruto allies want Mr Odinga held responsible should the country descend into chaos.
“I am urging police to arrest Raila Odinga for perennially putting Kenya on the edge with illegal and destructive protests. I want to tell you, without fear of contradiction, that nothing will happen to Kenya if Odinga is arrested,” National Assembly Majority Leader Kimani Ichung’wah said recently.
Mr Barasa says Mr Odinga has since lost influence and is not the same Raila that engaged the presidents Moi and Kibaki.
After years of fierce battle punctuated with arrests, torture and detention, Mr Odinga would later work with Moi after the 1997 elections.
The pact led to the merger of Kanu and NDP in 2002.
Internal rebellion would later erupt over Mr Moi’s choice of Mr Kenyatta, then a political lightweight, as his successor, triggering mass defections from the independence party.
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 starry-eyed political formation for the united opposition that swept Kibaki to State House in 2002.
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 split was big. President Kibaki lost in the referendum. And in response to the outcome, he dismissed Mr Odinga—who had led the rebellious ‘Orange’ side to victory during the referendum — and his allies from the Cabinet.
In the run up to the 2007 elections, backed by Ruto, Joseph Nyagah, Najib Balala, Musalia Mudavadi, Charity Ngilu and others under the ODM banner, Mr Odinga mounted his second bid at the presidency. The presidential election results were disputed, plunging the country into the worst political violence in its history .
Bundled out of office
The consequent mediation resulted in the formation of the Grand Coalition Government in 2008 with Mr Kibaki as the President and Mr Odinga the Prime minister through the National Accord.
This coalition of rivals gave rise to the term ‘nusu mkate’ (half a loaf) in reference to the division of positions between the two factions.
Mr Odinga again contested the presidency in 2013 but lost to Mr Kenyatta with the win unsuccessfully challenged in court. Mr Odinga would later engage the Jubilee administration in a weekly mass action in push for electoral reforms. The government responded to the protests with the use of police that lobbed teargas on top of using water cannons in dealing with the protests, just like in the current situation.
Mr Odinga succeeded in having the electoral commission led by Issack Hassan to be bundled out of office.
The team was replaced by the Wafula Chebukati group in preparation for the August 2017 polls.
Mr Odinga lost to Mr Kenyatta, but the results were nullified by the Supreme Court and a repeat election ordered. Mr Odinga boycotted the October 2017 repeat elections that Mr Kenyatta eventually won.
The decision to boycott the polls created a tense political environment, including regular protests with the attendant police brutality leading to deaths and injuries, and the mock swearing-in.
This forced the two leading political figures to enter into the famous March 2018 truce that shook the political landscape. But with Dr Ruto having rejected a repeat of the handshake, how will he handle Mr Odinga and the Azimio demands.