Asked in a newspaper interview five years ago about what she does for a living, Winnie Odinga curtly replied, “I work for my father, I am his bodyguard”.
Brief as it was, the response was quite precise, as it answers a question that many are asking: how the last-born child of former Prime Minister Raila Odinga has been thrust into the centre of post-poll controversies and succession politics of the Odingas.
Over time, she has emerged as her father’s confidant – a close ally and operative who is trusted with first-hand information on Raila’s political moves, including high-profile underhand dealings.
The current arrangement, which has placed Winnie at the centre of Odinga’s political operations has, however, created a lot of disquiet, mainly because she has thrown certain individuals – who previously enjoyed direct access and influence on Odinga – off balance.
Her modus operandi rattled many during the campaigns for the August 9 elections. From alleged arrogance, the takeover of the billboards business, and hiring and firing campaign staff without formal communication, to denying senior politicians access to the presidential candidate, there have been many accusations levelled against her.
At some point, the International Business and Corporate Communications graduate from Philadelphia, US, is reported to have influenced who got an audience with her father.
A number of business leaders from Mt Kenya region, who largely supported the Azimio campaign, are said to have been “deeply irked” by her actions. Two ODM-allied governors from Nyanza and Western Kenya reportedly protested to Odinga.
“But her parents were her enablers and could not reprimand her. Instead they cheered her on for her efforts towards delivering the presidency,” said a politician from the Coast.
Another one from Mt Kenya protested about the use of reggae beats during the campaigns, saying they were getting into trouble with religious leaders, who were using it to portray Odinga as an anti-Christ crusader.
But being lovers of reggae music, the politician says, Winnie and her team of youthful campaigners ignored their protests.
Incidentally, most of those who shared their experiences with The Weekly Review did so in confidence. There can only be two reasons for this – that Winnie is either very powerful or they did not wish to politically antagonise the former PM by attacking his daughter.
Our two-week long spirited efforts to get Winnie’s side of the story proved unfruitful as she neither picked our calls nor responded to our text messages.
But Siaya Senator Dr Oburu Oginga absolves his niece from any blame, saying she was a poll employee just like all others who worked under the supervision of Ms Elizabeth Meyo, the CEO of the Odinga presidential campaign.
Oburu claims that Winnie is the target of a blame game because she is an Odinga, and that unlike the other members of staff, she enjoyed access to the candidate.
“Winnie was a loyal worker who did her very best and if my brother would have been declared winner, today we would be celebrating this very girl whom we are trying to vilify.”
Nonetheless, her actions have attracted both cheers and jeers from Kenyans.
Even before the Supreme Court made a final ruling on the petition filed by the Azimio coalition party, for instance, she quickly deleted a post in which she had asked party supporters to turn up for street protests.
Around the same time, there were dozens of tweets in her name flying around, engaging in bitter exchanges with supporters and opponents.
She later claimed her Twitter account had been hacked.
And in pointed tweets last weekend, Winnie posted her engagements after a church service in Kibra constituency, raising eyebrows about her next political move.
There have also been murmurs that the ODM party could nominate the 31-year-old to the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) to represent the youth.
So, does this imply that Winnie is the Odingas’ favoured one to inherit the power baton from Raila? Or is she just a rabble-rouser, unknowingly sabotaging the political cause of the Odingas?
Analysts believe Winnie is just doing her duty to safeguard her father’s interests.
To the father, she is a full-package aide who, besides handling his office paperwork, finances and social media, is practically the ODM party leader’s personal assistant.
And, coupled with private tasks of minding her father’s health – medication and diet while out in the field or on overseas trips – she has an unmatched combination of qualities that best suit Odinga’s needs.
Winnie’s confidential role came to the fore in 2018, when she accompanied her father, along with Suna East MP Junet Mohamed – another cozy ally – to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta at his Nairobi Harambee House for the Handshake deal on March 9.
On the eve of D-Day, the former Prime Minister had engagements with some of his close buddies, including then Siaya Senator James Orengo (now the governor), which stretched late into the night.
Odinga reportedly did not open up to these members of his “kitchen cabinet” about his engagement the following day.
It was a jealously guarded secret, shared only with Winnie and Mohamed – albeit at the 11th hour.
A member of the Odinga family traces the close connection between the former Premier and his youngest daughter to the issue of trust.
Odinga has reportedly had reservations with the element of trust over the decades, having been betrayed before by close friends, political comrades and even aides.
When he and others led the Second Liberation struggle from the streets in the 1980s and 1990s, he was believably given away to security forces quite a number of times, partly leading to his political incarceration for a combined period of nine years.
The betrayal, according to our sources, stretched on to 2017, where individuals whom Odinga entrusted with campaign funds, including a fee to poll agents, allegedly fled with the cash. It is claimed some bought magnificent houses in the city.
And as if to justify his fears, one of the girls attached to Odinga’s wife, Mama Ida, as an aide, bolted out shortly after the August 9 polls only to proclaim her support for President William Ruto.
The girl, popularly known as “Terry Chocolat” within the Azimio/ODM circles, or simply Terry, was believed to be one of the spies from the rival camp who successfully penetrated the Odinga campaign.
“This is the girl who would pull chairs from the house for us and serve us with juice or bottles of mineral water during the campaign period whenever we paid Baba a visit at his Karen and Opoda Farm homes,” one of the ODM allied governors said.
Terry, who hails from Siaya, would later attribute her exit from the Odinga camp to the “arrogance of her daughter” and alleged negative attitude and mistreatment of those helping out in the campaign.
All in all, though, it is her public declaration for the love of the Rutos, which raised the antennae in the Odinga campaign team.
Based on this experience and earlier instances, the decision to settle on her own daughter as an aide and confidant is understandable.
Odinga is said to be very cautious with his dealings in recent times, and this explains why he trusts few.
A case in point is Mohamed, who serves as ODM’s director of elections, Secretary of Azimio la Umoja- One Kenya coalition party and National Assembly’s Minority Whip.
Beyond helping out on the political front, Winnie stands out as the heiress to the father’s throne – by circumstances and design.
Initially, her late brother Fidel, who was a reliable player in the father’s campaigns, was viewed as heir apparent.
Fidel’s death in January 2015, however, placed Rosemary – an eloquent public speaker – in the driver’s seat.
Odinga’s first-born daughter was already mobilising in Nairobi’s Kibra constituency and ready to vie for the seat when she suddenly fell ill.
Although she has recovered from partial blindness, Rosemary has since gone politically mute.
And Raila Jr, who would have been the obvious choice to fit in his namesake’s shoes, has chickened out.
Junior is reportedly disinterested in politics, preferring instead to engage in business. Already, he is playing an active role in taking care of some of the family’s business interests.
Named after the wife of South Africa’s iconic leader, Nelson Mandela, Winnie was clearly designed for political business.
But there are other youngsters in the larger family of the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s first Vice President, who are “teeming with political talent”.
Dr Oginga, the head of the family, holds that it is not in their capacity to identify a political successor.
He argues that a political leader emerges naturally from the soil just like a mushroom does, without being planted.
This, he explains, is precisely how his younger brother Raila rose without being handed a mantle by their father.
Besides Raila, Dr Oginga, Kisumu County Woman Rep Ruth Odinga, and Winnie, Elijah (Dr Oginga’s son) lead the pack of potential successors.
Elijah unsuccessfully vied for the Kisumu Central parliamentary seat, while his other brother, Jaoko, pulled out of the race for Lang’ata.
Among Jaramogi’s children, there is Omondi, who tried to vie for a civic seat in Kisumu in 2013 but was forced out of the race after aligning himself with the rival side of Kenyatta and Ruto.
There is also Emily, who is a nominated MCA in Kisumu and Pauline, who served as CEC for Health in Mombasa County, under former Governor Hassan Joho’s government.
Most of the other Raila step sisters and brothers are apparently not keen at politics.