Is Raila Odinga’s Time Up?


Is Raila Odinga’s Time Up?

At 79, Raila Odinga may just have made his worst political blunder. 

Across his chequered political career spanning over five decades, both friend and foe agree that Odinga has made significant strides and sacrifices for the struggle for Kenya’s liberation, just as he has unilaterally cut under-the-table-deals with the devil for his own personal advancement in the pretext of making tactical compromises for the benefit of the peoples’ struggles. 

But with every subsequent deal – starting with the KANU/NDP merger in 1998; to the Koffi Annan-mediated Grand Coalition Government ten years later in 2008; to the handshake with Uhuru Kenyatta a decade later in 2018; to whatever arrangement he made with William Ruto in 2023 (for Odinga to trade in anti-Finance Bill 2023 maandamano for the promise of support for the African Union chairmanship); to now whatever deal he has made or is making with William Ruto in their call for national dialogue with Gen Z – Raila Odinga has unfortunately proven that he loves himself more than he loves Kenya, that he cares about his own political and economic advancement than he cares about Kenya’s comprehensive political and economic liberation.

In cutting these deals, Odinga and his compliant inner circle have always pleaded either national interest or have framed their deals as tactical moves for the benefit of the struggle, or both. Yet in actual effect, with each of these deals, Odinga has either sold off or sold out part or parts of that struggle, if not derailed it in its entirety. It is this double-faced-ness of being a fighter for Kenya’s liberation by day while moonlighting as a self-seeking political deal maker by night that has always put question marks on Odinga’s legacy as a liberation stalwart. But now, the man from Bondo is about to make the work of historians easy by cutting to the chase and confirming that indeed he is and has always been a sell-out moonlighting as a revolutionary. 

But maybe we are being too harsh on the man. So let’s revisit history.

In 1991, at the height for the clamour of multipartism, there was no doubt that the vehicle through which that second liberation would be realised was the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD). However, in seeking his own self-preservation, dictator Daniel arap Moi wouldn’t risk facing a united FORD during the 1992 general election, and so using members of FORD such as Martin Shikuku, Moi engineered FORD’s split into FORD Kenya, led by Jaramogi Odinga Odinga, and FORD Asili, led by Kenneth Matiba. Jaramogi’s office was at Agip House on Haile Selassie Avenue in downtown, thus FORD-Agip, while Matiba’s office was on Muthithi Road in Westlands, hence FORD-Muthithi. Other than splitting FORD, Moi enlisted Youth for KANU 1992 (YK ’92), a flamboyant lobby group led by Cyrus Jirongo (in which William Ruto was a member) which used money to bribe voters countrywide in a bid to keep Moi in power.

At the point of splitting up, it was a no-brainer that the majority if not all of the infamous Young Turks sided with Jaramogi. Jaramogi was 81, and the consensus among the Young Turks – Paul Muite, James Orengo, Anyang’ Nyong’o, Mukhisa Kituyi, Gitobu Imanyara, Kiraitu Murungi, Michael Wamalwa Kijana, and others – was that much as they shared a belief set with Jaramogi, the least they owed him was support to become president, considering the man had sacrificed his whole life fighting for a better Kenya at the expense of his own well being. Further, the old man was on his way out anyway – he joked that he needed to be president even if just for a day.

And so after Jaramogi died in January 1994, it went without saying that FORD Kenya would remain the vessel through which the group would pursue change, seeing that Moi had won reelection by garnering 36 percent of the vote (Matiba and Jaramogi had a combined 43.5 percent). But before the dust could settle, Raila Odinga challenged the chairmanship of Michael Wamalwa Kijana, who was Jaramogi’s vice chairman and had inherited the leadership. Claiming Wamalwa was being sympathetic to Kamlesh Pattni in investigating the Goldenberg scandal (Paul Muite had stepped down from party leadership earlier on, alleging that Jaramogi had received campaign money from Pattni), Odinga rocked the FORD-Kenya boat, hard. And when he couldn’t dislodge Wamalwa from party leadership, with the rest of the Young Turks and even older folks like freedom fighter Ramogi Achieng Oneko siding with Wamalwa, Odinga left the party in a huff, taking over the National Development Party (NDP), with which he defended the Langata parliamentary seat during a by-election after dramatically resigning from FORD Kenya.

There are those who believe Odinga’s act of splitting FORD-Kenya comes a close second to Kenneth Matiba and Martin Shikuku splitting the original FORD, since with every split, the FORD family lost momentum, meaning Moi had more time in power. But then the surprise of all surprises came after the 1997 polls, which Moi won with 40 percent (Kibaki, Raila, Wamalwa and Ngilu had a combined 57.74 percent ), when in a startling move, Odinga folded his NDP and joined Moi’s KANU, renamed New KANU. To critics, Odinga was a sell out. To insiders, Odinga was being tactical – apparently, he needed to be inside KANU for him to disarm Moi.

Yet the truth is that with the merger, Odinga and his boys got ministerial positions, houses were moved, new properties acquired and political budgets beefed up. It so happened that Moi only became the devil incarnate once again the moment he overlooked Odinga and handpicked Uhuru Kenyatta as his successor. For Odinga, who had thought Moi would endorse him for the presidency in 2002, the presidency was too close yet too far. Much as it was the eleventh hour, Odinga ditched Moi and went to join who? Wamalwa – who Odinga considered corrupt, Mwai Kibaki – who had zero struggle credentials, and Charity Ngilu – a 1997 presidential newcomer.

If it were up to him, maybe Odinga would have fronted himself as the united opposition’s candidate, but by the time he was leaving Moi, Wamalwa, Kibaki and Ngilu had already settled on Kibaki as the united opposition’s candidate, deputised by Wamalwa. Odinga negotiated for the non-existent prime ministership, which he would ascend to once they had taken power and enacted a new constitution, which would prescribe the appointment of a prime minister. 

With Odinga’s massive support, Kibaki beat Uhuru Kenyatta hands down and Odinga became Minister of Roads, before it all came apart in 2005 after Kibaki’s men attempted to force an unfavourable constitution on Kenyans. Odinga led an internal revolt in government, which saw Kibaki defeated during the 2005 referendum, after which Kibaki sacked Odinga and Co. from cabinet. By 2007, Odinga was the presidential frontrunner, and when the election was botched and post election violence broke out – Kibaki was sworn in at night on the lawns of State House after the General Service Unit invaded the presidential election tallying centre and whisked away the chairman of the electoral commission into a protected room, from where he declared Kibaki winner – it all came down to either Odinga letting go of the whole thing and seeking to dislodge Kibaki from power, or Odinga compromising and agreeing to a power sharing deal.

Koffi Annan brokered the deal, and Odinga has always maintained that he took the deal for the sake of peace. Fair enough. But as Prime Minister, Odinga had his wings clipped, ending up lamenting at how junior government apparatchiks didn’t accord him the respect he deserved. It had happened. Kibaki had played Odinga during the talks and afterwards. Much as Odinga had executive power on paper, the same couldn’t be felt across government. It was under these circumstances that Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto snatched the presidency in 2013. 

Odinga couldn’t believe it.   

Had Odinga allowed Kibaki to govern alone post-2007, could that have increased his chances at the presidency in 2013? Maybe. But Odinga’s stay in the cold wouldn’t last long because after yet another pulling-of-the-rug-from-under-his-feet in 2017, it didn’t take long before Odinga cut a deal with a weakened Uhuru Kenyatta, who Odinga accused of stealing his electoral victory. 

Not officially in government but enjoying proximity to power more than William Ruto, Kenyatta’s sidelined deputy, once again, Odinga accrued KANU-NDP-esque personal and political benefits. And just like 2002 when he thought Moi’s endorsement would make him president, in 2022 Uhuru Kenyatta actually endorsed Odinga, but then a shrewder and hungrier William Ruto still pulled a quick one on Odinga and made away with the presidency. Dumbfounded, Odinga was up in arms against Ruto, mobilising street protests to simultaneously demand for electoral justice and push for the lowering of the cost of living in opposing Ruto’s Finance Bill 2023. 

As if knowing Odinga’s Modus Operandi – give him a deal and he’ll be off your back, even if he claims you stole his mandate – Ruto eventually played ball and offered his support for Odinga’s bid for the African Union chairmanship, and whatever else these underhand deals entail. Odinga complied and mellowed, occasionally feigning a critique of Ruto’s shambolic governance but never really criticising his brother (that’s what Odinga calls them once the deal is sealed).

And yet, as Odinga has navigated the murky waters of Kenyan politics and accumulated capital – both politically and in actual shillings and dollars – tens if not hundreds of his erstwhile comrades have paid and continue to pay the ultimate price for believing in the things they once believed in with Odinga, only for him to leave them behind as he parched at the altar of state largesse, sitting with a smiley face next to the oppressors. But nobody says these things out aloud, because come the next electoral cycle, there is a high likelihood that you may need Odinga’s endorsement to win a local seat, if not get his party’s ticket. This is Raila Odinga, the struggle stalwart and political merchant who has monopolised the art of unsettling the powers that be before negotiating a befitting deal, leaving the masses and their revolution stranded.

And so when Raila Odinga appeared today on the steps of the Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC) – just as he appeared on the steps of Harambee House twice, first with Mwai Kibaki in 2008 then Uhuru Kenyatta in 2018 – for bookmakers, it was not a question of if but a matter of when Odinga would step forward to try and salvage William Ruto from successive salvos coming from a discontent Gen Z. Unfortunately for Odinga (and by extension Ruto), Kenyans have watched this movie before, with Odinga as the repeat cast member, and they already know the ending. Odinga and his men and women will be the sole beneficiaries, as the rest of the country is left nursing wounds, watering graves and clearing debris from streets. 

Kenyans led by Gen Z have therefore said a firm no thank you to Raila Odinga, because this is not his deal to negotiate. When Gen Z risked life and limb and took to the streets to protest against the Finance Bill 2024 and told Odinga to stay at home, Odinga must have mistaken this for a request or a compliment, when in actual fact Gen Z were asking to be allowed to prosecute their own struggle the best way they know how. But because he cannot help himself, Odinga has shown up, and both simplified and finalised the question of his legacy in a single stroke – his was always a quest to mediate between the oppressed and the oppressor, and never for the benefit of the oppressed. And now, as Kenyans and the world watch Raila Odinga once again risk his life’s work for yet another political deal, the question on everyone’s mind as the country sighs in disbelief is, will it ever be enough for Raila Odinga? Or is it time for him to go? 

Hopefully, Raila Odinga will prove us and millions of Kenyans wrong. Hopefully 😅.

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