Raila Amollo Odinga is a man who elicits love and hate from friend and foe in levels that can bewilder a visitor to Kenya. Raila the man is a study of everything Kenyan politics. I bet he has seen the good, the bad and the ugly side of our political games. That he has survived all these and still get the energy to enthusiastically cover the Kenyan landscape after each setback confirms why he is an enigma to his fans and a stigma to his foes. So today I ask the real Raila Odinga to stand up.
Raila was born in the mid-forties, when his father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was a teacher at Maseno School. He went Maranda High School then left for Germany via Egypt. A typical second born, his elder brother Oburu seemed to have towed the line as his brother experimented, beat the rules and stretched boundaries.
Fast forward and Raila comes back as lecturer at University of Nairobi then lands a job at Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) until 1982. That is the last we hear of Raila in formal employment. Every leader has a watershed moment, when they are thrust or voluntarily walk through the door of no return. Nelson Mandela had his turn during the Rivonia trial that sent him to Robben Island for twenty seven years. For Raila Odinga that moment was the coup of August 1982 by Kenya Air Force service men.
He was detained for six years for collaborating with the coup plotters. Until this time Raila spent most of his time at the Kenya Bureau of Standards and family business, East African Spectre (later Spectre International). His father was placed under house arrest as former president Daniel arap Moi went into an overdrive to consolidate his grip on power.
Apart from Raila, many others were incarcerated for the failed coup. The plotters were executed while others, like University of Nairobi student leader Titus Adungosi, died in prison for a crime he had no capacity to commit. Raila has never acknowledged his involvement in the coup but then he has never denied it either. It is Babafemi A. Badejo, in his autobiography “Raila Odinga – An Enigma in Kenyan Politics”, who states that Raila had contact with Pancrus Oteyo and Hezekiah Ochuka, the coup plotters.
Seven months after his release in February 1988, Raila was sent to the coolers again to serve a second stint for agitating for human rights and opening of democratic space in Kenya. He was released in June 1989 then sent in again a year later with Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia until June 1991 when he was released; he fled to Norway.
Kenneth Matiba suffered a stroke in detention where he was denied medication. He was released and left immediately to seek medical attention in London. He returned to a heroic welcome ready to run for the 1992 multi-party elections where he came second to Daniel Moi. What happened after that is subject for another long story. Matiba is currently shuttling between his home and hospital, broken and relatively broke compared to his heydays as a multi-billion business magnate. Charles Rubia went into obscurity as soon as he failed to win a political seat, opting for a life behind the scenes.
Fast forward to the era of multi-party politics where Raila has shown his mantle as a politician made of steel. He came third in 1997 General Election with his National Development Party (NDP) after Kanu’s Moi and DP’s Mwai Kibaki. He then went ahead to fold his party and join Kanu where he was given the post of Sec-Gen at the cost of JJ Kamotho in choreographed party elections at Kasarani.
Raila walked out with part of Kanu comprising friends and foes that were not happy with Moi’s choice of Uhuru Kenyatta as Kanu’s presidential candidate to form LDP. People say this was Raila’s plan A from the beginning, but I believe his desire was to fly Kanu’s flag in the 2002 elections to which Moi categorically stated that “Kanu has its owners”. He was left with the shorter end of the stick and he voted with his feet. It was more of a pragmatic than strategic move.
The pseudo socialist
Raila’s father Jaramogi aligned himself with the East during the Cold War so his son and some of his allies benefited by getting scholarships to Eastern European countries that were sympathetic to communist ideals. This had a great influence on Raila, but like many officials in Tanzania’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi during Ujamaa, Raila was a socialist during the day and a capitalist in the night. The moment he settled in after his studies, he formed East African Spectre.
The Odinga family is part of the ruling elite in Kenya despite none of them ruling this country. This can be confirmed by how Spectre International, the Odinga’s flagship enterprise, has enjoyed state protected monopoly on manufacture of gas cylinders for many years. So to say that Raila is a socialist is like calling Moi a federalist. He might have toyed with the ideals of socialism and even exploited it, but he never believed in it.
We may not know the facts or the level of Raila’s involvement in the 1982 coup but why was everybody suspected to have been involved either killed or forced into exile except Raila? There is rumour that Raila cut a deal with the state to implicate former powerful Attorney-General Charles Njonjo in the coup to buy his freedom as Moi looked for ways of cutting Njonjo to size. Raila is also believed to have enjoyed relatively good treatment in prison throughout his incarceration.
If Raila really had contact with the rebel soldiers and was aware of the plot, then it is absurd that his life was spared by the state. Just like his father who was always kept under house arrest – or rather quarantined in Bondo and Kisumu while other dissidents went into detention – the Odinga’s cannot claim to be true leftists.
I can rightfully claim that Raila Odinga is the black sheep in the ruling elite family. They are ashamed of his choices but they cannot do away with him. If you look at the tenure of the Kenyatta and Moi regimes, any perceived threat on the establishment was met with brutal force, detention or even assassination. For Jaramogi and his son to be a thorn in the flesh of the government for this long and survive where others are decimated politically, socially and economically is subject to scrutiny.
When Raila’s first born son died in unclear circumstances in early 2015, the government gave Raila full support, including choppers from the Kenya Defence Force to transport the body and family to Kisumu and Bondo for burial. Many leaders in Kenya, both in government and opposition, have lost close relatives but the government has never made it military affair. As much as the Odinga family speaks to the left, they definitely eat to the right, which is their rightful home.
Raila has played the common man politics so well that he is the darling of the masses. This has always been confused for his socialist background but it is a means to counter the conservative arm of government to an extent that it is safe for both parties. He knows that he can never win an election but he keeps giving his supporters and backers false hope.
The paper tiger
The other theory is that the system knows that Raila is a paper tiger who is incapable of causing damage to the magnitude his supporters believe he can cause. This might be the reason he is left to play his political games, make his money and then leave the Kenyan boat with relative calmness, keeping it in motion.
This creates a picture where the conservative ruling elites sit down and watch Raila pull crowds all over the country then toast and sip their drink. One of their own is chaperoning the masses. This means that Raila, on his mission to take his supporters to political Canaan, will always stop on the banks of River Jordan, cry foul and give an excuse why they cannot cross into the Promised Land.
I can see someone raising his hand to point out the 2007 election, which everyone in Kenya believes Raila won fair and square. Yes, he tried to eclipse the system but the system did not give in to his quest. When Kibaki won in 2002, the system was assured of security and protection and they let it pass. As for the black sheep in the family, Raila, they were not assured of this and kept him at bay.
These two are my deductions of Raila Odinga; he is either part of a conspiracy by the “owners of Kenya” to keep the masses in perpetual hope, or another paper tiger that does not threaten the state’s grip on the instruments of power.