Winnie Odinga: The day Raila almost died

Winnie Odinga

Winnie Odinga, who has become one of her father’s, Azimio presidential candidate Raila Odinga's, confidant.

Photo credit: Pool

Azimio coalition leader Raila Odinga nearly slipped away from his family and political supporters in March last year, but was twice rescued from the hands of death just in the nick of time – his last born child, Winnie Odinga, has told the Sunday Nation, lifting the lid on one of the family’s most-guarded secrets in an emotional interview this week.

The scare at the veteran opposition leader’s Karen home as he was recovering from a Covid-19 attack came at a time Mr Odinga’s allies and supporters were looking forward to the launch of his fifth presidential bid.

The ODM leader had earlier been admitted to the Nairobi Hospital where, after undergoing several tests and observation, was eventually released to proceed home for self-quarantine in one of the rooms in his house.

In a statement to newsrooms at the time, his personal doctor, David Olunya, assured Kenyans that Mr Odinga was “responding well to the treatment he is receiving and remains upbeat”.

The ODM leader spent the following days in bed isolated and weak, according to his daughter. So serious was his condition that he had to skip a planned ceremony at State House to mark the third anniversary of the March 9, 2018 Handshake with President Uhuru Kenyatta.

And even after he pulled through from the death scare, Mr Odinga was weak as aptly observed by former Meru County Governor, Kiraitu Murungi, who in one of his newspaper articles in April last year wrote, “I watched with pity, a frail-Raila Odinga, who was being treated for a Covid-19 attack being literally dragged out of bed,” Mr Murungi observed with reference to a public event attended by Mr Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Then, the former premier was almost inaudible as he spoke.

It is while in his isolation room that Mr Odinga nearly passed away. With teary eyes, Winnie recalls how she walked into the room to find an oxygen mask had dropped off from her father’s face.

In panic and haste, she picked and fixed it back, quickly restoring the condition of the patient, who only seconds earlier lay helpless gasping for breath.

At another point, she stepped into the isolation room to find the father looking blank and motionless. His temperature had terribly shot and she quickly stashed paracetamol tablets into his mouth with a view to reduce his body temperature. Medical experts contend that this was yet another timely life-saving measure.

The thought of what would have happened to the political bigwig had she delayed – even by a couple of seconds – to access that room in both instances, sends shivers to Winnie. To date, she narrates this incident rather forlornly with head facing-down.

The 31-year-old last born of the opposition chief has opened up on this startling chapter of her life and much more, following our last week’s edition of the Weekly Review — an insert in the Sunday Nation — on her central role in her father’s presidential campaign and succession politics.

Winnie, who was not initially available for an interview before last week’s article, this time around reached out to this reporter stating she wanted to share “the truth” on allegations that she had usurped her father’s campaign.

The truth, she claims, is the fact that individuals have opted to target her and not the entire Azimio la Umoja One Kenya campaign team and leadership for any mishaps and missteps. But what pains Winnie most is the very thought by some that her father’s loss can be her gain: “This does not just sit well with my spirits,” she reacts.

In her instance, she maintains, there is a delicate balance she must keep of being an employee, daughter and nurse to Mr Odinga. When the father tested positive to Covid-19 and was quarantined, for instance, Winnie volunteered to assist the nurse assigned to him in monitoring his progress.

It is a decision that was not popular with other members of the family, considering the highly contagious nature of the deadly virus, but she insisted on taking the risk.

And so she alternated shifts with the nurse in attending to Mr Odinga, ensuring he was covered for 24 hours around the clock. She was accordingly taught – over the phone by Odinga’s doctor – how to administer an injection and medicine, which she did daily.

Except for Suna East MP, Junet Mohamed, and one of Mr Odinga’s bodyguards, who reportedly visited daily, even though they hardly got a chance to meet the former premier, the Karen home experienced a diminished turnover of guests during that period.

And when Mr Odinga was down, Winnie reportedly drove him around Karen area with the car windows open. And to cheer him up she occasionally played for him selected beats, including by artists from Germany, where the ODM leader schooled in university. Father would mumble the German song titles and daughter would make several trials by keying them into google, until the appropriate song popped up.

The numerous and wide range of services – official, personal and domestic – services that she offers her father, points to a special bond between the two that is difficult break.

While this is a heart-warming development, it appears a poisoned chalice, which places Winnie in a position of constant conflict and competition with other employees or political allies of his father.

In fact, as early as last year, there were people who were uncomfortable with her presence in the Azimio campaign, and she opted out since she did not wish to be stumbling block to her father’s political success.

But the father would hear none of it: “I insisted on stepping aside but he declined, and the ping-pong went on and on. Meanwhile, he continued giving me assignments, including when we drove to an event and he would want a phrase or facts in his speech changed and I would quickly do so and print out a fresh copy for him. Since I could not decline helping him out, in the end I decided to stay on.”

According to Winnie, the Odingas are back as a family again.

Mr Odinga is “once more” her father whom she can freely talk to without others feeling that she is wasting precious campaign minutes or that she is blocking those who should be spending time with him “on more important issues”.

And there is finally space at her father’s Nairobi home in Karen – at the parking bay, in the living room and everywhere.

In a way, the contested poll outcome has a silver lining of sorts.

Below are excerpts of the interview with Winnie:

How was Mr Odinga’s recovery path back to political business after the Covid-19 attack?

Quite progressive. Although he got to his feet fast and hit the campaign trail, he was somewhat sloppy at office and paperwork.

We moved in fast to help in organising his itinerary and other tasks and at this, his staff, a huge group of volunteers, as well as ODM, Jubilee and Wiper party foot soldiers did an amazing job.

And how is the Odinga family coping with the turn of events?

The presidential poll was not just about our family. Millions of Kenyans staked their future on Baba (Mr Odinga) winning.

These people are disappointed, bitter, hurting, and living in disbelief, and Baba feels it. As a family feel their pain and sense of loss, it got me thinking of the Clintons (of America) and their shock loss to Trump in 2016.

Specifically, how are Mr and Mrs Odinga adjusting?

Baba remains strong, my mum (Mrs Odinga) too is strong and so is the entire family. We are focused as always on the battles that remain to be fought.

Where do we see Winnie in 2027?

Winnie will be supporting Baba and his team in whatever they decide to do. I am a child of the struggle.

So I am in this struggle for a Kenya that might be, for as long as I can manage. Participating in a political fight comes naturally to me because I was born right into it. So in 2027, Winnie will be in the struggle.

Are you contemplating taking a seat at the East African Legislative Assembly?

I hear some people have proposed my name for EALA, but I am not interested. And there is also no vacancy in Kibra. My interest is in supporting my father

Some have accused you of playing boss in the campaigns and in the process ruining your father’s chances of leading the country…

I was a mere worker and a supporter, just like the other millions of Kenyans. Yet again, elections are complex processes and ours was no exception. Two years later, America is still struggling to get to the bottom of what happened with their elections in 2020, without forgetting 2016. The UK took time to get to the bottom of the Brexit vote and the role of Cambridge Analytica.

Azimio, and not Winnie, is equally working to get to the bottom of what happened. In the meantime, I will let the accusations be and focus instead on the bigger picture – the future.

Are you as arrogant as claimed?

I am not sure. But what I know is that I am a pretty confident woman who is professionally sound. And I am aware that I have been branded arrogant because of being assertive.

You have also been accused of failing to deliver on your mandate…

There is a misconception out there that elections are a one-unit affair, but that is not the case. We have the campaigns, of which I was part of and which we delivered and the Election Day, that was executed by another team that comprised of outgoing Cabinet secretaries, principal secretaries and among other people. This is the team that handled poll logistics, including post-poll affairs at Bomas of Kenya.

In which case, are you suggesting you delivered?

We got into this race when the Deputy President (now President Dr Willian Ruto) was the runaway candidate.

We rebranded our candidate; worked on messaging and eventually thereby pushing his popularity numbers from 11 to 52 per cent at the point of going to ballot.

How were you able to shoulder all these tasks?

Most of the people around my dad (father) still saw me as a baby and refused to acknowledge that I am now a full grown up woman. It’s really an attitude problem.

Do you believe that Raila Odinga was played by former President Uhuru Kenyatta as has been claimed by some of Baba’s supporters?

I do not think so. The question, however, should be – at what point did he lose hold of the so-called system to Ruto?

Fine, then. So what is the answer?

I do not know.

Anyway, with the campaigns now over, what are you doing with yourself?

Ordinarily when people see you around your parents and in campaign rallies, they conclude you have nothing to offer other than shouting at rallies and, in my case, just following my father. Well, I went to school as well and I posses good credentials.

And after the polls, I have gone back to my communication firm, The BrickHouse Counsel, where we do social, political and corporate campaigns powered by accurate date. This is also the best place to absorb some of our able staff from the campaign secretariat.