Kenya: Raila Odinga, fifth time unlucky

By Son Gatitu
Posted on Tuesday, 6 September 2022 09:09

Raila Odinga, African Union (AU) High Representative for Infrastructure Development in Africa
Raila Odinga, Kenya's former Prime Minister and the African Union (AU) High Representative for Infrastructure Development in Africa, February 18, 2021. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

For 25 years, it has been sweat and toil for Kenya’s top opposition leader Raila Odinga as he sought to be president, coming so close - four of those times - but missing it by a whisker. The man who turns 80 in just over two years is running out of time: His political base is shaken and now confused about what is next. For a politician who has always bounced back in some form, is this the final blow? We detail the catalogue of errors that plagued his campaign.

On the morning of 9 August, Odinga proceeded to the Kibera Primary School, which has been his polling station for more than two decades. He was in the company of his wife Ida and a multitude of supporters. The crowd was in a celebratory mood. As soon as he cast his vote, they left, never mind that they may not have voted for their favourite politician.

“The voters have done their work, what is remaining is for [the] IEBC to give us the true state of the voters,” Ida told the media. “The process is quick and we finished within no time, [I am] excited and hopeful.”

Fast forward to 14 August: The Odingas were at a church in Karen, Nairobi. By that time, speculation was rife that he could have lost the election to Ruto. Private media houses had stopped relaying data from their independent tallying rooms, causing further speculation.

I think being on the side of the handshake […] put us on the wrong side of the stick with the populace

“The election process was peaceful,” Odinga said. “We hope that peace will prevail even after the election… I want to be an instrument of peace that unites the country.”

The following day, IEBC Chairman Wafula Chebukati declared Ruto the president-elect.

What happened to a pompous run staged by two of the most famous political families in Kenya’s independence history? What happened to the perceived influence within the government structure that left Odinga nearly two points below Ruto who had been fought by his boss President Kenyatta?

The BBI baggage

For more than three years, Odinga enjoyed a political truce with Kenyatta, often deflecting questions on whether he was going to run for the presidency. “I don’t want to talk about 2022,” Odinga said in a TV interview in August 2020. In the years that followed, the failed ‘Building Bridges Initiative’ (BBI) appeared to dent the Kenyatta-Odinga image. “I think being on the side of the handshake […] put us on the wrong side of the stick with the populace,” says Anthony Oluoch, an MP from Odinga’s ODM party.

Kenyatta became so unpopular among his political base in the Mt. Kenya region and Odinga appeared to carry the burden of affiliation, which Ruto emphasised during his campaigns. “Do you want people [who want] to amend the constitution or people who are willing to deal with our economic challenges?” Ruto said in reference to the BBI, which was nullified by Kenya’s superior courts – in succession – between May 2021 and March 2022.

“What I deduce from the reduction of our support base consistently is the success with which [Ruto] has managed to play doublespeak,” Oluoch says. “On one hand taking advantage of what the government has [successfully] done for the people and on the other distancing himself from some of the negative things like the economy.”

Choice of running mate

Backed by the state machinery, the business elite from the Mt. Kenya region and several veteran politicians – most of whom had been involved in the liberation politics of the 1990s – Odinga announced his presidential bid in December 2021.

“I have been in the trenches with comrade Raila Odinga in the second liberation and the fight for the constitution of Kenya,” Martha Karua said in March 2022, two months before she was picked as running mate.

Karua’s entry into Odinga’s ticket was met with excitement, especially from the older voters, but as it turns out now, this wasn’t enough to push Odinga over the top. Repeated opinion polls showed Karua added no significant impact to Odinga’s campaign, a factor that was similar to Ruto’s running mate Rigathi Gachagua. “This is about candidate Raila Odinga versus candidate William Ruto,” Tom Wolf, a lead researcher at TIFA Research said in July.

The choice of Karua had, for several weeks, infuriated Odinga’s longtime political ally Kalonzo Musyoka, who had even threatened to stage an independent run. He was so persistent that he only dropped his bid on 2 June, just three days before the Odinga-Karua ticket was cleared by the IEBC.

All this time, Ruto had been campaigning in Ukambani – Kalonzo’s political base. Even though Musyoka still managed to rally his troops to vote for his Wiper party (in local elections) and Odinga, Ruto secured over 24% of the vote in Machakos, Kitui and Makueni counties, way higher than any other ‘outsider’ candidate over the last 15 years. Odinga got just over 74%, a decline from 2017 when he secured 84% against Kenyatta’s less than 15%. In absolute terms, from the three Ukambani counties, Odinga secured 769,424 (in 2022) compared to 968,437 votes (in 2017), while Ruto got 250,070 votes in 2022 against Kenyatta’s 174,669 in 2017.

Turnout drawbacks

The 2022 general election registered a record low voter turnout last seen before 2007 (69%). In 2017, the turnout was at 78% and 85% in 2013. This year, only 64.7% of voters turned out to vote.

Some of Odinga’s strongholds suffered worse turnout while in some, Ruto made more severe inroads that reduced Odinga’s historical margin.

In Ukambani (Machakos, Kitui, Makueni), for instance, the turnout dropped from 77% in 2017 to just over 61%. This effectively reduced Odinga’s margin in absolute numbers, compounded by the reduced margin of dominance.

You all agree that Baba [Odinga] is the path to the future. Unfortunately, most of you just say it […], but on the day of voting you have other engagements

Most candidates who end up winning the presidency have always had a head start from their backyards. Historically, Odinga has had Nyanza and Western Kenya on his side, while Ruto started off with his North Rift home turf followed by the Mt. Kenya region where he politically disinherited Kenyatta.

In 2017, Kenyatta marshalled 83% of voter turnout from Central Kenya (Kiambu, Murang’a, Nyeri, Nyandarua and Kirinyaga), securing up to 98% of the vote from some of the counties.

For Odinga though, his most-important run suffered lower voter turnout, averaging 72.5% in Nyanza (Migori, Kisumu, Siaya and Homa Bay). This was a reduction from 83% in 2017.

In the lead-up to the election, Kenyatta cautioned Kisumu saying: “You all agree that Baba [Odinga] is the path to the future, unfortunately, most of you just say it […], but on the day of voting you have other engagements.”

Shaky strongholds

Odinga dominated the vote in Nyanza, hitting an average of 95% (1.48 million) votes in the four counties. Ruto secured 15% of the vote in Migori County, majorly from the Kuria sub-counties.

On the contrary, Ruto maximised on the voter turnout and margins of dominance, especially in the North and South Rift regions. In six Rift Valley counties (Uasin Gishu, Elgeyo Marakwet, Nandi, Kericho, Bomet and Baringo), the average turnout was 76.5%, nearly 12 points above the national average. Ruto secured an average of 90% of the vote in the six counties totalling over 1.2 million votes.

Even though the turnout in Mt. Kenya was significantly lower compared to previous elections, it was still higher than the national average and most of Odinga’s historical strongholds. Meru, Tharaka Nithi, Embu, Kirinyaga, Murang’a, Kiambu, Nyandarua and Nyeri counties had a voter turnout of over 67% on average. Ruto dominated the vote securing between 78% and 90% of the votes cast. He got 2.4 million votes against Odinga’s 573,245 (17.2%) in the region.

Pollsters had projected that Odinga would get up to 24% of the vote in Mt. Kenya, but he only hit the target in Kiambu County (25.5%).

Ruto’s invasion

David Ndii, a Ruto insider, had said: “What Raila needs to win, is to first keep his battlegrounds and gain up to 30% in Mt. Kenya. If Ruto loses ground in Mt. Kenya, he needs to gain ground in Raila’s strongholds.”

In Bungoma County (in the western region), Ruto edged Odinga out with a resounding command of 63% of the vote against Odinga’s 35%. In 2017, Odinga had marshalled 68% of the vote, while President Kenyatta got only 30%. Ruto’s alliance with Bungoma Senator and Ford Kenya leader Moses Wetangula appears to have paid off.

Raila has lost ground in Western [Kenya], Ukambani and the coast

In January 2022, Wetangula and his ANC party counterpart Musalia Mudavadi dumped the One Kenya Alliance with Musyoka for Ruto. Mudavadi hails from Vihiga county but appears to have had a lesser impact on Ruto locally. Ruto got just over 36% of the vote there against Odinga’s 62%. Odinga’s dominance in Vihiga reduced from 89% in 2017.

Anthony Oluoch, a lawyer, says Odinga’s dalliance with Kenyatta since 2018 could have come to haunt his fortunes.

“The political DNA of some of our support bases has always been anti-government because the government has been perceived as the key perpetrator of land rights [and] extrajudicial killings,” Oluoch says. “Many of these things [I] must admit that post [the] handshake became a bit muted.”

Coastal disappointment

At the coast, Odinga had enjoyed a fanatic following since 2007. In this election, even though he still carried a majority of the votes, misfortunes trailed him. Mombasa County has over 641,000 voters, but the voter turnout this year dropped to 44%, the lowest in the country. In 2017, the turnout stood at 59%. To make matters worse, Odinga lost sizable control of the coastal county. Out of 277,301 votes, Odinga got 58% against Ruto’s 41%. In 2017, Odinga had 70% of the Mombasa vote against Kenyatta’s 29%.

Since May 2022, pollsters had been putting Odinga ahead of Ruto in the national contest. “Raila has lost ground in Western [Kenya], Ukambani and the coast. He has also not reached the 30% threshold [in Mt. Kenya], how then is he ahead if he has lost ground, but not gained as much in Mt. Kenya?” Ndii said in early August.

Campaign stutters

“The messaging of UDA [Ruto’s party] in terms of regions was very specific on what they perceive to be the people’s problems,” says Danstan Omari, an advocate in Nairobi. “Across the country, they got votes, [and] that became a big basket in the end. […], Raila was seen to carry the sick bed of the incumbency.”

Oluoch, for his part, says: “When they came [up] with the bottom-up [economic] model, it was very easy for the gullible, suffering populace to gravitate towards that.”

Ruto was driving the bottom up [model], connecting with the people to open up

Odinga’s late entry into the race coupled with his affiliation with the state and the perception that Kenyatta intended to extend his control over the government may have dealt the Azimio la Umoja candidate a heavy burden. He was also facing a younger, energetic and suave politician who had managed to play the victim card in the face of voters.

“Azimio had a lot of connection with the deep state,” Wilson Sossion, a former MP now affiliated to Ruto, says. “Ruto was driving the bottom up [model], connecting with the people to open up.”

Some of Odinga’s supporters have been heaping blame on key voices within the Azimio campaign, including former Mombasa governor Hassan Joho and Suna East MP Junet Mohamed.

Already, more than a dozen MPs elected under the Azimio la Umoja alliance have switched allegiance to Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza, as the latter plots dominance in parliament. The shifting allegiance of some Nyanza leaders to Ruto’s side could also be the start of signs of disillusionment in Odinga’s camp.

Odinga’s loss could now herald several political orphans whose battle torch has been in the veteran politician. With his advanced age, it is unlikely that he could seek election in 2027.

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