By Kenyatta Otieno
When Cord announced it would hold demonstrations every Monday to push the Jubilee government to agree on an extra-legislative process to reform the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), one man was noticeably missing in action. The once-vibrant Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) youthful secretary-general Ababu Tawfic Namwamba was nowhere to be seen. Nicknamed generali (the General) for his oratory and mobilisation skills, Ababu’s political story may be coming to an end even before it fully begins.
In early 2008, as Kenya smouldered in the fire of post-election violence, Ababu caught the eye of nation. The swearing-in of members of parliament is usually conducted in alphabetical order, and so Ababu was the first in the process, after the tension-filled elections for the speaker. He pledged his allegiance to his party leader, Raila Odinga, and not the controversially elected Mwai Kibaki. The first-time MP for Budalangi in Busia County had left his mark in the history of Kenyan Parliament, even as he was forced to take the oath appropriately.
He was subsequently appointed assistant minister, and later, towards the end of the term of the Grand Coalition Government, became Minister for Youth and Sports. A vibrant debater in parliament and an astute player in party politics, Ababu’s affinity for the finer things in life became evident. He retained his parliamentary seat in 2013 and, as they say, the rubber met the road. The Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (Cord) lost to the Jubilee Alliance. In the new constitutional dispensation of the purely presidential system, Cord lost out completely. Without party leader Raila Odinga in parliament, ODM started to drift.
In 2014, Cord decided to hold party elections. Youthful politician Ken Obura of Kisumu Central was among people gunning for the secretary-general’s seat with Ababu Namwamba and Dr Agnes Zani. The party’s old guards were in favour of Dr Zani. Ababu unleashed campaign machinery that was above his political and economic stature. Eyebrows were raised; where was Ababu getting the money to hire choppers for use in traversing the country to meet ODM delegates?
On Election Day, party stalwarts did not allow Ababu’s team to take over reins. The infamous “Men in Black” disrupted the elections. In Ababu’s corner was Hassan Joho, who was gunning for party chairman, together with other politicians like nominated MP Isaac Mwaura. After the elections, ODM went back to a semblance of normalcy as the former officials retained their positions. To the keen political eye, Ababu had lost a spring in his political gait.
Then the wrangles at the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee, which Ababu chaired, followed. He won the first rounds but in the end some ODM legislators pushed him out of the chairman’s role. ODM chair, John Mbadi, was interested in the seat but Rarieda MP Nicholas Gumbo was picked to replace Ababu. This marked a very important point in how ODM viewed Ababu in regard to parliamentary business. The party had belled the cat.
Ababu must have realised that crucial party members handled him with a long stick.
Nevertheless, to stem a possible fall out, the party worked out a deal and Ababu got his desired secretary-general’s seat. This must have been a last attempt to deny him an excuse to bolt out. The only caveat is that crucial responsibilities of elections and political affairs were hived off from his office, but he remained party spokesman and head of secretariat. Things went back to normal but Ababu retreated into being a dotting husband and proactive father, instead of a quintessential secretary-general.
Cheating the grind
The American maxim – you can never cheat the grind – is as true in politics as it is in other disciplines. Long-drawn struggles for freedom despite the huge losses involved have advantages over overnight victories. This is where the likes of Ababu and Ken Obura lose when they imagine themselves inheriting the mantle from the Raila–Nyong’o–Orengo generation.
South Africa’s ANC amalgamated in 1912 from several groups that had fought for the rights of Africans since around 1890. From 1912, the path to 1994 was long and treacherous.
People like Chris Hani of the Communist Party had to die and pay the price when South Africans could smell the dawn of freedom. What the eighty-two years did was to separate the wheat from the chaff while building the mantle of those who remained in the struggle.
The many years of disillusionment without a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel, and the incarceration of the party’s bigwigs, was enough to send the unconvinced back to the Bantustans or to work for the apartheid regime.
The same is happening in Palestine. Their struggle with Israel began in 1948, and from the look of things, they will be in it for a years to come. Initially, the many Palestinian groupings confederated in the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). Along the way Fatah, the biggest group in PLO, has been struggling to stamp its autonomy with the rise of militant Hamas in Gaza. Such realignments are inevitable in finding a balance in long struggles for freedom. In the end, the cream settles at the top because such struggles outlive the genius and resources of impatient individuals.
Raila began his political activism a few months before the 1982 coup. James Orengo and Anyang’ Nyong’o had begun as student activists in the seventies. The strong-arm and scorched-earth tactics the Kenyatta and Moi regimes applied to dissidents forced the chaps into believe more in their ideals and prepare for the inevitable. This is what kept this generation of second liberation heroes going as they built trust with the people. In hindsight, I think Moi gave in to demands for multi-party democracy too early.
By the time section 2A of the previous constitution was being repealed in December of 1991 to allow for formation of many political parties, the opposition had not yet crystallised. Some elements that came into the struggle late did not know how far the George Anyonas, Abuya Abuyas and Wanyiri Kihoros had come. They rained on the party and Moi continued with his dominance. The original Forum for Restoration of Democracy – FORD – split into tribal enclaves lending credence to Moi’s earlier excuse that multi-party politics would breed tribalism.
Learning from Raila
This brings us back to the Ababu Namwambas of today. Raila and ODM picked a nondescript politician out of a young lawyer and threw him into elective politics. Between 2007 and 2016, we have had nine years of Ababu in active politics; a very short time to imagine that one can consolidate a county like Busia under his wings. I can bet my space in this magazine that Ababu will struggle to retain his Budalangi seat, where he bagged 44 per cent of votes cast in 2013.
After the death of the doyen of opposition politics who also happens to be his father in 1994, Raila remained in Ford Kenya for a few months. Kijana Wamalwa took over as chairman, with James Orengo as his deputy. In 1995, Raila began his push to oust Wamalwa from the helm. The in-fighting dragged for months, with elections and reconciliation efforts failing. Raila realized he could not take over the party and resigned from it and Parliament in 1996.
The Luo community was split. Ford-Kenya was their party, and one does not leave a homestead to a wife inheritor. Many Luos still felt that Raila should not leave his father’s party. Raila went ahead and defended his seat on NDP ticket and won months to the 1997 general election. That by-election made Raila; people in Kibera still tell the story of how Raila traversed the slum on foot to look for votes, eventually prevailing against well-oiled Kanu machinery. The rest is history.
This is what Ababu needs to do. The people of Busia are watching him keenly. They know he cannot afford the choppers he uses, so most likely someone must be funding him. The Raila punching bag will get monotonous after a few months if not weeks. To re-invent himself, he must bite the bullet and go for the by-election. It is a big risk but it has a chance of high returns. The people of Busia will take him seriously and he will shed off the gun-for-hire tag.
The ideal was buying time in ODM; work hard at winning over grass root leaders and MCAs in Busia then bolt with the people. Now that he has crossed the Rubicon, the only option is to differentiate his interests and the interests of Raila’s enemies. Western province is a complex puzzle that Raila and Mudavadi have not been able to fully marshal; the one person Ababu must beat is himself. This is the stuff that makes men great… but it can also break great men.
The grind is real. Time will tell. Let’s talk in August 2017.