Kenya: Has Raila Odinga used up all his chances to become president?

By Jeff Otieno
Posted on Monday, 6 September 2021 12:18, updated on Wednesday, 29 June 2022 11:54

Raila Odinga, Kenya's former Prime Minister speaks during an interview with Reuters in Nairobi, Kenya on 18 February 2021. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Has Kenya’s Raila Odinga already used up all the luck he has ahead of a fifth go at next year’s presidential elections? After being abandoned by his closest allies, to a narrow chance at winning the hearts of the formidable Mount Kenya constituencies, is there any hope left for Raila?  

At a function in western Kenya late last year, Raila’s elder brother boasted that his sibling had finally found the formula to win the presidency in the 2022 general election.

Oburu Odinga alleged that his younger brother, an opposition leader and former prime minister, had won three presidential elections in the past but had been robbed of victory on all occasions.

“Why haven’t we gone to State House when we have won elections through votes,” Oburu told the crowd. “This is because there was something that we were missing and that something is called ‘system’,” he said in reference to government support.

The member of the East African Legislative Assembly castigated those dismissing the importance of the ‘system’ in elections saying they were missing the plot. “System is very important and now we are with President Uhuru Kenyatta who is holding the system …  system plus our votes which are always more than others, what else do we need?” said the octogenarian.

Samuel Atandi, a legislator allied to the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), echoed this sentiment saying the party is seeking power “and the route we are going to use is through President Uhuru Kenyatta. There should be no doubt about that.”

Some people said we cannot climb the mountain, but I have seen the way.

Though Raila has not officially announced his presidential bid, his actions and remarks have left no doubt in Kenyans’ minds that his name will be on the presidential ballot for the fifth time, which many believe will be his last chance given his advanced age of 76.

Though ODM sounds bullish this time round, behind closed doors, its leaders say Raila’s bid for the presidency will still not be a walk in the park, even with the support of ‘the system’.

Nasa collapse

First, Raila’s allies abandoned him, which led to the collapse of the National Supper Alliance (NASA) that the ODM leader used to vie for presidency in 2017.

His former coalition partners from the Ford Kenya, Wiper Party and Amani National Congress (ANC) parties accused him of trashing a memorandum of understanding in which he had promised to support one of his co-principals in the 2022 presidential election. Raila however insists that the agreement does not hold since the coalition did not win the presidential election.

The three parties have since joined hands with the Kenya African National Union (KANU) to form One Kenya Alliance (OKA); this is what they will use to face Raila and William Ruto, the deputy president, in next year’s elections.

Call for unity

The move has left some ODM members fearing that history might repeat itself.

In July, ODM legislator George Aladwa warned that chances that the former leaders of the NASA might defeat the deputy president will be slim if they do not unite.

“The leaders must unite to boost their chances of winning the presidency next year. Our party leader Raila Odinga and his colleagues Kalonzo Musyoka (Wiper Party leader) and Musalia Mudavadi (Amani National Congress Party leader) must work together,” says Aladwa.

During the same month, John Mbadi (ODM’s chairperson) urged Musyoka and Mudavadi to support Raila’s presidential bid. His colleague Elisha Odhiambo agrees. “I implore Kalonzo Musyoka and Musalia Mudavadi… if you take your brother to marry a girl and you realise the girl has gone to school abroad, when you hear the girl has come back you go back and take your brother so that he marries the girl.”

Both Musyoka and Mudavadi have not completely shut the door to supporting Raila; but they insist that the ODM leader must agree to support one of them.

“I welcome my big brother [Raila] Odinga who I have supported immensely in his political career for more than a decade. What I am saying is that there is no political debt but I want him to use his wisdom and join me as my running mate and move this country forward,” Musyoka said at a rally in the coastal town of Mombasa last month.

State House meeting

It is the reason why Kenyatta twice hosted the former NASA leaders (Raila Odinga, Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetangula) at State House Mombasa in August: to try and unite them ahead of the plebiscite. These efforts are yet to bear fruit.

Political analysts believe it will be difficult for Raila to win without the support of his former partners, given the inroads the deputy president has made in NASA strongholds – the coastal and western regions.

President [Kenyatta] told us in the past that [Raila] Odinga is the problem in Kenya. He should respect our right to support Ruto. Pushing Odinga in central Kenya is like selling a pig in Saudi Arabia. It is a hard sell.

“I think the challenge President Uhuru [Kenyatta] has is how to convince the others to support [Raila] Odinga. That will not be easy,” says Herman Manyora, a political analyst.

Barrack Muluka, a political consultant, concurs with Manyora’s statement and says agreeing on a flag bearer will not be easy. “They (former NASA leaders) do have serious challenges agreeing because Musalia and Kalonzo have certain local ethnic constituencies and these constituencies are the ones making the question of conceding to Raila Odinga difficult.”

He adds that their close allies have been piling pressure on them not to support Raila and according to him, this is attributable to selfish reasons because some of them want to ride on Musalia and Kalonzo’s coat-tails in next year’s election.

The decision by the OKA leaders to field a presidential candidate next year is expected to complicate Raila’s winning formula, since the move will eat into his votes in the lower eastern region – where Wiper Party is dominant – and in the western region where ANC has a big following.

Despite the announcement, ODM officials say Raila has no plans to join OKA, adding that such a move would be like a main river joining a tributary. “ODM is not joining OKA. We are building a big coalition that has never been seen with our traditional allies and non-traditional allies,” says Junet Mohammed, an ODM legislator who is also the party’s director of elections.

Edwin Sifuna, the party’s secretary general says: “We have given Baba (Raila Odinga) authority to talk to his friends in building a coalition, those who want to contribute are welcome but don’t exaggerate how much we need you.”

Central Kenya votes

Aware of the complications, Raila has turned his eyes on central Kenya, a region that has rejected him at the ballot four times. To win hearts and minds of the vote-rich region, the ODM leader has begun a charm offensive, holding regular meetings with political leaders, influential businessmen and youth groups.

He has since won over some legislators from the region who are allied to the ruling Jubilee party; and they have vowed to support his presidential bid. “Some people said we cannot climb the mountain, but I have seen the way,” says Raila, dismissing allegations that central Kenya is a hostile vote-hunting ground for ODM.

However, translating promises of support into votes will be a herculean task, given the ‘Raila phobia’ that exists in the region, due to negative propaganda against his candidacy.

The deputy president’s allies in the region have laughed off Raila’s charm offensive, saying the region is solidly behind Ruto. “President [Kenyatta] told us in the past that [Raila] Odinga is the problem in Kenya. He should respect our right to support Ruto. Pushing Odinga in central Kenya is like selling a pig in Saudi Arabia. It is a hard sell,” says Rigathi Gachagua, a Jubilee member of parliament and a staunch ally of the deputy president.

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