The House of Jaramogi is in political trouble, nay turmoil. Perhaps. With no heir to succeed Raila Odinga and accomplish the quest for the presidency, it seems that the family, which is Kenya’s face of radical politics, is on the wane.
Raila will be 82 if he decides to run in the next general election – a tall order for an octogenarian. At that age, Mwai Kibaki had retired from politics while Daniel arap Moi was already four years into retirement, having left the scene in 2002, aged 78.
In Africa, only incumbents have run for the presidency and won beyond the age of 80: Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, the oldest President in the world at 90, and the late Robert Mugabe, who won the last race at 87.
This week, Raila hinted that he was not about to quit or name a political heir – a hint that he might face William Ruto in 2027. With age no longer on his side and Odingaism, the undying loyalty and obedience to the Odingas, declining, his chances at the poll get more complex. Raila inherited a complex fanatical machine from his father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga – the doyen of opposition politics in both Jomo Kenyatta and Moi regimes.
At only 25, Raila was under constant surveillance of the Special Branch. He had come to the public limelight in 1970 when he addressed a press conference at Nairobi’s Brunners Hotel, appealing for his father’s release from the Hola detention facility on humanitarian grounds.
After this, Raila and other family members were allowed to visit Jaramogi, and he described Hola as “a remote, desolate, burning hell-hole-on-earth”. Despite all that, he had been employed at the University of Nairobi as a junior staff member and later with the Kenya Bureau of Standards.
Like father, like son, Raila’s fate in his quest for the presidency appears to follow the footsteps of Jaramogi: A cul-de-sac. By the time Jaramogi died in 1994, his search for the presidency ended with some dismal performance. The memory of the age-old Jaramogi had faded among the voters. In 1992, Jaramogi got 944,197 votes against President Moi’s 1,962,866 and Kenneth Matiba’s 1,404,206. While Matiba’s voting block evaporated quickly, Raila has, over the years, retained some of his father’s blocks and mannerisms.
A social democrat trained in Eastern Europe, Raila’s failure to capture the presidency in 2022, when he had the backing of the incumbent, left him scarred. He looked desolate. His best chance was neutered by. Ruto’s populist “Hustler” campaign and a disorganised secretariat waiting for “deep state” miracles to cover its muddled campaign. Still, he managed to score 48.8 per cent of the vote compared to Ruto’s 50.5 per cent. The loss surprised his followers, who saw the 2022 election as his best chance.
Today, even part of Odinga’s Nyanza backyard – trapped by a patrimonial incumbent – has started plotting their post-Raila strategies, a signal that they no longer peg their politics around the persona of Raila. More so, they hope that Ruto will work with them to dismantle the last columns of Odingaism, which solidifies a significant voting block in the country around Raila. But who inherits that mantle?
As the symbolic head of Kenya’s opposition politics, Raila is revered and hated equally. He is the divisive and uniting factor – a duo tag he has carried all along. Like a colossus, he has straddled the Kenyan politics for three decades with a mixture of successes and failures. Raila has had a contentious political career and has served as the Prime Minister in the Grand Coalition Government with Kibaki.
He served as Minister of Energy from 2001 to 2002 and Roads, Public Works, and Housing from 2003 to 2005. But the presidency, the ultimate trophy he has hunted with zeal, has eluded him. To survive, Raila has always crafted face-saving strategies or negotiated his survival in the elite circles of Kenyan politics.
Thrice, he negotiated co-existence with Moi, Kibaki, and Kenyatta as part of his survival tactic by first merging his National Development Party (NDP) with the ruling party Kanu and then forming a coalition government with President Kibaki after the disputed 2007 presidential results triggered violence.
President Kenyatta also tamed Odinga’s radical politics with a ‘handshake’ that silenced his aggressive tactics. The Kenyatta handshake later became Raila’s waterloo, for he ironically carries the burden of the Jubilee fiasco – thanks to a political narrative that exonerates Ruto from blame, though he was the Deputy President. While Raila had told the Financial Times that he wouldn’t run again, much has changed ever since. He has forced Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza alliance into the negotiation table, a move that could set the stage for constitutional amendments and a referendum, which could be a mock test of the ruling coalition’s popularity. Ruto has similarly called for UDA party elections, which is usually a mark of political confidence.
As Ruto cements his international links and reaches – with the backing of the US – Raila will have to protect his local networks from crumbling. With the economy in turmoil, corruption on the rise, and the cost of living rocketing, Raila has a chance to silence the Kenya Kwanza propaganda machine that uses the ‘handshake’ as the scapegoat for their policy failures. Whether the high taxation and high cost of living will play in his favour remains to be seen. But, certainly, Raila will not let such an opportunity go to waste. It is this mobilisation prowess that almost brought him to the apex of Kenya’s leadership, and as disillusionment with President Ruto continues to grow, Raila is the only personality with credible status to take him on by mobilising the disgruntled crowd.
Though he believes his presidential votes have always been stolen, political goofs have worked against him. After successfully leading the Kibaki campaign in 2001 – after the Narc candidate was demobilised by accident – Raila made an about-turn that became Kibaki’s waking nightmare and lost the credence he had created in the populous Mount Kenya region. Because of that, he cannot take credit for Kibaki’s success, for he almost ruined his presidency over demands on a power-sharing Memorandum of Understanding. This push for political power culminated in the post-election violence of 2007/8, forcing Kibaki to share power with him.
It happened that when the Electoral Commission declared Kibaki the winner of the 2007 presidential vote, Raila refused to concede defeat and called for “mass action”. Violence broke out in ODM strongholds, targeting perceived Party of National Unity (PNU) supporters. The violence spread to Nairobi, and before a deal was brokered, about 1,500 Kenyans had lost their lives, and nearly half a million people were displaced from their homes. Property to the value of billions of shillings was destroyed, and agricultural and other production activities stopped. Raila then agreed to mediate with Kibaki to end the violence under former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and his team of eminent persons, including former President Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania and Madam Graca Machel of South Africa. Pundits say that had Raila stuck with President Kibaki, chances were that he could have easily inherited the mantle.
Detained, jailed, exiled, and tortured over his democratic ideals, Raila and his family have borne the wrath of separate regimes. Like his father, Jaramogi, he had hoped to crown all the decades of struggle with the presidency that has eluded the family. For political scientists and historians, the watch is over what happens to Odingaism without an Odinga. Swedish political scientist, Dr Fredrick Roe Boe, who did a PhD studying Odingaism and its relationship to the “Luo narrative of decline”, regards “Odingaism (as) a special brand of political-isms that refers to the exceptional hold the Odingas, and especially Raila, over the Luo”. A Moi-time Kanu apologist and university scholar, Prof Henry Mwanzi, once argued that the family has controlled the community “mentally and psychologically as they seceded from Kenya and lived in a world of their own… (choosing) for them who to elect”.
Similarly, University of Wisconsin’s Prof Michael Schatzberg, in his book, Political Legitimacy in Middle Africa, argues that what distinguishes Odingaism from others is that “the authority is real; it is not crafted around a hawkish evocation of a carefully orchestrated personality cult”. To him, this is why the Odinga elite hardly question Odingaism.
Those who question are either ostracised or forced to toe the line – the way Prof Anyang Nyong’o’s and James Orengo’s bid to navigate the Nyanza politics outside Odinga’s party almost took them into political abyss. Today, Raila’s Orange Democratic Party has moved to expel MPs who have shifted their loyalty to President Ruto, a signal that MPs must adhere to Odingaism as the reference point.
With Kenya’s politics rotating around inter-ethnic mobilisation, Raila will have to work extra hard to convince his previous backers that he still has a chance. The political elite who survived by being close to the House of Jaramogi are piling pressure on him not to abandon the boat.
But Raila is now between a rock and a hard place. Like the Lolwe Road Services bus company that his father owned, Raila may have to admit that it is time to park his political vehicle. But will he?
[email protected], @johnkamau1