Kenya: Raila Odinga – ‘I haven’t mellowed, I’m still the same person’

By Patrick Smith
Posted on Wednesday, 29 June 2022 12:36

Once rivals, now allies, President Uhuru Kenyatta (1st left) and presidential hopeful Raila Odinga (2nd left) on the podium together
Once rivals, now allies, President Uhuru Kenyatta (2nd left) and presidential hopeful Raila Odinga (3rd left) on the podium together. Tony Karumba / AFP

The presidential candidate and former prime minister Raila Odinga speaks with The Africa Report about Kenya’s past, present and future, ahead of the country’s general elections to be held on 9 August.

Raila Odinga is down with the people. At least, that is the claim that has propelled his political career. A frontrunner in Kenya’s presidential elections in August, in which his main contender is deputy president William Ruto (interviewed by The Africa Report here), Raila has nurtured his standing as the dissident-in-chief over five decades in politics.

Styling himself as the contender with the common touch, he has prided himself on his connections to the grassroots.

A populist, brandishing social-­democratic policies, Raila has identified with a tradition of leftist politics in East Africa. His daughter, who helps run his campaign, is named Winnie. He also has a son called Fidel. Raila’s pledges of free education, a national health service and a social-­security system are meant to mesh with his promises of sweeping institutional reform and more devolution to the counties and local governments.

He has mobilised millions of voters, mostly on the strength of his anti-establishment credentials. All of that is up in the air in his latest incarnation. In this election, he is the grand ally of outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta, son of founding president Jomo Kenyatta and an heir to one of the greatest fortunes in the land.

Establishment backing

Along with Kenyatta’s support, Raila has the backing of many of the 47 county governors and the corporate barons of Central Province, which has the biggest concentration of voters in the country. When asked if he has mellowed to win such establishment backing, Raila smiles: “I don’t think so, I’m still the same person. It’s probably the other way around – that they have changed and accepted me the way I am.”

If he is right, it was a speedy conversion. In the wake of the disputed elections in 2017, grassroots supporters of Raila and his then rival for the presidency, Kenyatta, looked ready to go to war. In Kenyatta’s entourage, there were those who labelled Raila as an insurrectionist, a dangerous radical who threatened social stability.

Four years on, many of those characters are helping to fund his campaign and rallying voters. So, was there a trade-off? “I’ve not changed. As you can see, I’m still critical of the negative things that are happening in the society, looking for better ways of dealing with issues,” he tells The Africa Report.

After five decades in politics, Raila’s style has changed little, according to those who have worked with him over the years. In the tradition of Tanzania’s independence-era president Julius Nyerere and Zambia’s founding president Kenneth Kaunda, Raila sees the point of politics as achieving systemic change.

Although he trained as a medical engineer in East Germany in the Soviet era, Raila has never espoused Marxism. Instead, he positions himself as a progressive social democrat. He is also a born-again Christian. Those two credentials cover a lot of ground in Kenya.

Added to them is the politician’s knack of getting on with – almost – everybody. In May, two parties in Raila’s Azimio La Umoja coalition – Maendeleo Chap Chap and Pamoja African Alliance – announced their plans to part ways with the candidate over his management of the alliance.

His rapprochement with Kenyatta looks real enough for now. “I think Uhuru has matured and has agreed that dialogue more than confrontation is a better way,” he says.

Less knowable are how many of Kenyatta’s allies and political foot soldiers may agree with Raila’s grand plans. That is a critical calculation for the election. Kenyatta’s base in Central and Nairobi provinces is divided. According to polls by the local research firm Tifa, younger and poorer voters favour Deputy President William Ruto over Raila in the Mount Kenya region which includes some seven million registered voters from areas such as Nyeri, Kiambu and Murang’a.

Tifa’s research in mid-May showed that Raila is the favourite to win the elections with 39% of voters supporting him, compared to 35% for Ruto. A month earlier, Ruto had been leading with 39% against 32% for Raila. And there was still a substantial number of undecided voters, non-responders and those who say they won’t vote for either candidate.

The polls in May followed Raila’s naming lawyer and former minister of justice Martha Karua as his running mate. Were their ticket to win in August, Karua would be the first woman in Kenya’s executive. Like Raila, she is a seasoned election campaigner. And she could also counter Ruto’s more robust style of debating.

Mystery money

Ruto chose Rigathi Gachagua for his running mate, a businessman who has been organising big rallies for him in the Mount Kenya region. Gachagua is under investigation by the state’s Assets Recovery Agency after he was unable to explain the source of KSh200m ($1.7m) in his local bank accounts. He denies all wrongdoing.

Flanked by two of his closest allies, Raila has been on tour, explaining the ever-changing alignments of Kenyan politics to diplomats, think tankers and business-people surveying the country’s ballooning debts. On his right is Mombasa governor Hassan Ali Joho, a trusty mobiliser of activists on the Coast, which is key to Raila’s voter base. Senator James Orengo, the brain behind Raila’s many legal challenges to contest elections and win constitutional reforms, is to his left. His friendship with Raila goes back to the campaign for multi-party politics in the 1980s.

This animal that is springing up called social media. It’s very difficult to tame…Sometimes, I just don’t bother to read it […] it can be very depressing. It can cause quite a lot of agony and anger […] even incitement of people.

Orengo, like Raila, wants to see wholesale reform and depoliticisation of the judicial system. Their proposal to restructure the Judicial Service Commission is fiercely opposed by Ruto. “I agree totally that the judiciary should be independent, but the judiciary should also be censured when it’s contributing to the perpetuation of corruption […]. A corrupt judiciary is an impediment to investment,” argues Raila.

“How can the Judicial Services Commission alone be the one overseeing the judiciary?” he asks. Currently, according to Raila, the commission is packed with lawyers who outvote the independents on it when the conduct of a judge is under discussion. The outcome of this argument is intensely political, as the fate of several candidates may depend on how court proceedings against them for corruption pan out.

Personality politics

Beyond those immediate interests, it is difficult to define what the presidential and parliamentary elections on 9 August are about, beyond a personality battle between two veterans: Raila and Ruto. This time, personality politics may not be enough to counter the apathy that many younger voters exude.

In tech-savvy Kenya, much of the political fight plays out online, via platforms such as ‘Kenyans on Twitter’, and in many more arcane digital spaces. “This animal that is springing up called social media. It’s very difficult to tame,” laments Raila. “Sometimes, I just don’t bother to read it […] it can be very depressing. It can cause quite a lot of agony and anger […] even incitement of people.”

Despite concerns on all sides about the incendiary comments, sometimes ethnic slurs, on social media and on media in local languages, neither Raila nor Ruto have made much effort to rein it in. That has prompted worries that the strong loyalties that the two main candidates attract could make clashes more likely in the event of a disputed result.

“The best outcome would be for one candidate or another to win by a substantial margin […] that would reduce the scope for a risky dispute over the results,” says Charles Hornsby, author of the seminal book Kenya: A History Since Independence.

Raila is trying to fire up new voters as well as his loyalists with a reform plan that he promises will share more power between diverse communities and devolve finance and decision-making from the centre. All this should bolster transparency, insists Raila, if it is done right. “You don’t want to devolve corruption,” he points out.

Raila’s proposed reforms involve a minimum of 35% of state spending being devolved to the 47 county governments. But that is no guarantee of more accountability, given the track record of some of the governments. So he also argues for stronger powers to track the financial flows from the centre to the counties: “The national government in Nairobi will have the power to supervise the county governments to ensure the resources are spent for their intended purposes.”

All this could boost growth and investment at the grassroots – as long as the county governments do not use the extra funds to build up too much bureaucracy. This level of devolution may be necessary as a trigger to economic growth but will not guarantee it.

Dreams… or just jobs?

Both Raila and Ruto are making big promises and are short on details of how they will be implemented or paid for. Raila says that his first 100 days in office would include a major anti-corruption drive, the end of runaway inflation and a plan to help people live the ‘Kenyan dream’. Another flagship policy he is touting is the creation of a factory in each of Kenya’s 47 counties.

None of the economic policies on offer in the August presidential election look equal to the crosswinds that Kenya is facing in the wake of the pandemic-induced recession, with a mountain of public debt and rocketing food and fuel prices.

But the most pressing issue for both contenders – especially in East Africa’s strongest economy – is the spectre of joblessness and a dysfunctional labour market. Currently, youth unemployment is running at 37%, the highest level ever measured in the country.

This is an indictment of the government of which Ruto and Raila are both part: directly in Ruto’s case and indirectly in Raila’s. Yet neither of their campaigns has developed a clear strategy to tackle Kenya’s joblessness. Credibility on that score – more than personality politics – might just determine the outcome of the vote in August.

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