Raila, the political litmus

Raila,  the political litmus

George Omuholo

An apocryphal narrative from family sources recalls the day that an incensed Raila Odinga abandoned his three siblings in a car on Ngong Road, Nairobi in the 1970s. He had only recently returned from training in East Germany and had taken up a job at the University of Nairobi. His elder brother, Oburu Oginga, was then an elected councilor in Kisumu Municipal Council. Their two sisters, Beryl and Akinyi Wenwa Odinga, were in high school. The family matriarch, Mama Mary Odinga, was striving with the role of both father and mother while their father, Jaramogi Ajuma Oginga Odinga, did time in detention without trial, apparently conveniently forgotten by the Jomo Kenyatta government.

The two brothers had taken their sisters out to enjoy an evening of music, dance and biting at the then famous Hallians Club along Tom Mboya Street. When time to go home came, it was Raila who took the steering wheel of his mother’s old Austin to drive the family back home in Karen. Oburu did not know how to drive and so it naturally fell upon his more enterprising brother to be the family chauffer. Along the way, Oburu began complaining about his junior brother’s driving skills. Cut to the quick, Raila abruptly stopped the car and stormed out, telling his elder brother to drive on, if he thought that he, Raila, was a poor driver. To their dismay, the three siblings saw their brother board a public bus, leaving them stranded with a car none of them could efficiently maneuver back home.

The story goes that a shaky Oburu managed to steer the vehicle all the way to Karen from Ngong Hills Hotel, mostly engaging only the first and second gears of the car. Upon arriving home, the three found their brother enjoying a glass of his favourite Scotch on the rocks and rocking his head to the musical wonders of Stevie Wonder. He threw them a casual look and carried on with his activities, sipping at his glass, throwing peanuts in his mouth and selecting the next album, as if nothing had happened. Not a word was mentioned of the earlier happenings of the evening.

That is the quintessential Raila Amolo Odinga, the second born son to Kenya’s first Vice President, the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. A hugely precocious child, even in the early years, Raila demonstrated edgy wit that made him the de facto leader of the Odinga children, often harrying the genial older boy. He easily sidestepped him and took over the role of captain of the family. It is a role he has carried to the national arena and to its politics. Everywhere he goes, he seeks to be the overall leader and often gets his way.

The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesus, who lived between 535 BC to 475 BC, famously said that our fate is tied up in a double knot with our character. “Ethos anthropos daimon,” he said; “Character is a man’s destiny.” The totality of the things that define our behaviour will ultimately define not just who we are, but also our fate. The morals, values and personality traits that define us in certain situations and the choices that we make will inform who we are and determine where we end up. Raila Odinga is no exception, certainly not by the path he has chosen and travelled this far. Where will it land him, ultimately, in the Kenyan minefield that is the country’s political agora?

Odinga forged an uneasy alliance with Kibaki in 2008.

Odinga is gifted with rare restlessness. With that also comes a witty head and a domineering comportment. He does not suffer slow characters lightly and he tells it as he sees it. These attributes have been both a boon and a burden in his political metamorphosis. Having been brought up in a political family, Raila cut his teeth quite early in politics. Born on 5 January 1945, he was already an intelligent young adult of 18, when his father, Jaramogi, threw a celebratory bash for both the incoming and exiting political notables at the ornate family residence in Nairobi’s Kibera in the later days of June 1963. Daniel Branch notes in the book, Kenya Between Hope and Despair, 1963 – 2011, that Jaramogi was a forceful personality who fully justified his nickname of “The Bull.”

The luminaries at his 1963 festivity included none other than the country’s brand new Prime Minister, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. In August 2010, the younger Odinga would host a similar celebration at his Nairobi residence, this time to mark the dawn of a brand new Constitution, the Constitution of Kenya 2010. As his father had done in 1963, an Odinga shared the glory of the moment with a Kenyatta – Uhuru Kenyatta. While, as in 1963, Odinga was voluble and ebullient, Kenyatta kept his remarks brief and cryptic. Dave Opiyo, as read by Branch in the Daily Nation of 17 August 2010, recalls Uhuru as having only said, “I don’t care what you do or say today, nothing will make me angry.”

The Son of the Bull is a true chip off the old block. The restless spirit is typical. Jaramogi was reputed to have had a penchant for banging the table at President Kenyatta at Cabinet meetings, at a time when the young nation and its first government were groping for direction. A surviving senior politician of that generation recalls how they would hold their breath in anticipation as the elder Kenyatta listened patiently to his raging deputy. In the end, the two men fell out. Phase One was in March – April 1966, when a Tom Mboya-led coup saw Jaramogi and the radicals in Kanu troop out of the party to form the Kenya People’s Union (KPU). With the exception of Luo Nyanza, KPU candidates did disastrously in the Little General Election of June 1966. The election followed yet another Mboya-led coup against Jaramogi, when Mboya successfully led a motion changing the law, to make an MP who left his party to go back to the electorate to seek a fresh mandate from the people. The final fall out came during the opening of the New Nyanza Hospital in October 1969. A rare public exchange of expletives between Jaramogi and Kenyatta ended up in a rumpus in which lives were lost. KPU was banned at once. Kenyatta detained Jaramogi.

It was during this detention stint that the younger Odinga returned from Germany and huffily deserted his siblings on the high road in the night. And so, like father, like son. And yet not quite so all the way. A characteristic that is not shared was Jaramogi’s ability to consider others as better placed for the task at hand than he was. It is well documented that at the dawn of independence, the departing British wanted to hand power over to Jaramogi, when Kenyatta was still in detention. But Jaramogi declined. He coined the mantra “No independence without Kenyatta.” Kenyatta was Kenya’s leader and he was the person to take the country to independence. Not even when Kenyatta’s fellow Kikuyu tribesmen advised him to take power and free Jomo from detention after that would Jaramogi listen to them. Kenyatta was “Kenya’s second God,” Jaramogi averred, adding, “If I was a woman, I would marry him.” And so power bypassed the Odinga house and went to the Kenyatta house. Over the years, the Odingas have strived in vain to bring back what they let go in the 1960s. They have formed one alliance after the other and metamorphosed from this political platform and from this friend to the other, but to no good end. In the process, the younger Odinga has betrayed tragic inability to make lasting friends. Political friends are instruments. They can be employed and be dispensed with when the purpose for which they were fashioned no longer obtains. His chameleonic political maneuvres led his biographer, Babafemi A. Badejo,  to call him “the enigma of Kenya’s politics”.

And truly, Odinga is a paradox. His political moves by far surpass the complex combinations of the famous Akamba Mwomboko Dance. He will leave friend and foe alike breathless with his midair acrobatic swings. You will be thinking that he is going in some direction only to be shocked by a midair about-face. Michael Wamalwa, Mwai Kibaki’s first Vice President in 2002, understood this trait rather well. He famously said that there were three Raila Odingas in one package. There was Raila, Amolo and Odinga. When negotiating anything with one, it was imperative to know which one of the three you were talking to. Raila may promise you something. But you had to be sure that both Amolo and Odinga agreed. If you did not have the other two covering your tracks, you were likely to find yourself crying in a smoky washroom – alone and disconsolate.

Wamalwa had himself learnt this the hard way. When Jaramogi passed on in February 1994, Wamalwa was one of his two deputy party chairmen in the Ford-Kenya Party that broke off from the original Ford Party to leave Ken Matiba and Martin Shikuku holding the other plank, Ford Asili. The younger Odinga thought that he was the right person to step in his departed father’s shoes. If his elder brother Oburu replaced their father in a by-election as the MP for Bondo, Raila wanted to become the party leader. He could not surmount the combined forces against him, however, comprising as they did then, of Wamalwa, Paul Muite, James Orengo, Peter Anyang Nyong’o, John Kapten, Mukhisa Kituyi, Gitobu Imanyara and a host of other then youthful politicians who went under the generic moniker of Young Turks. The election of Jaramogi’s successor in the party gave Wamalwa a resounding victory over Raila, leading to instant fracas at the Thika Municipal Stadium, where the late Archbishop Manases Kuria of the Anglican Church of Kenya was the returning officer. Kenyans recall photographs of some shaken notables hiding under tables as havoc reigned at the stadium.

Yet Odinga metamorphosed swiftly and went on to redefine himself in the unfolding political environment. While some thought that he had been licked, they had seen nothing yet. For he resigned from Ford Kenya and from his seat as the Member of Parliament for Lang’ata. He took over the then little known National Development Party and declared himself the Party Leader. He went on to win the by-election in Langata. Thus began the rise and rise of the Son of the Bull. In the process, he fought many battles, crushed many heads underfoot and got many former foes to literally kneel before him. His third task, after owning a political party and winning the Lang’ata seat, was to fight for the soul of the Luo people.

Traditionally, the Luo are a warrior community that loves strong-willed leaders, almost to the point of worshipping them. The people who led their migrations from Southern Sudan into the Great Lakes Region of Eastern Africa were themselves folk heroes of great acclaim. The various migrating groups were named after each of these heroes. There were the Joka Omolo, Joka Oketch, Joka Owiny, and Joka Ojok. There were also the Japadhola, among others. Away from these patriarchs, there were other folk heroes like Lwanda Magere, whose story reads like an African version of the Samson and Delilah story, and Gor Mahia son of Ogalo – both father and son being reputed to have been rare medicine men. People like Raila Odinga and his late father walk easily in the footsteps of these legendary figures. Long after this generation is gone, the Luo people will probably be talking of Raila Odinga in the same light as they have talked of Lwanda Magere and Gor Mahia. They will tell stories of how, like Mahia, he was a man of Mahia, which is to say a man of wonders.

After the demise of Jaramogi, the Luo people wanted another folk hero to replace him. The battle was fought in a variety of theatres. There were the erudite arenas with the likes of James Orengo and Prof. Anyang Nyong’o. This class basked in the glory of letters, urbane polish and manners. But their high learning and genteel nature did not impress the abrasive and bucolic Luo. Speaking good English, couturier, gastronomy and sundry are important attributes in the modern Luo cosmology. However, they do not a leader make. The Luo are more readily mesmerised by a person who, at the end of an address, is ready to lead them into combat, and not by vacuous speeches and resolutions of majorities. In that regard, Raila easily vanquished the university types. In the 1997 elections, Nyong’o lost the Kisumu Rural parliamentary seat to an Odinga acolyte, the late Job Omino, when he (Nyong’o) contested for the seat on a Social Democratic Party ticket. His party – which had also fielded Charity Ngilu as a presidential candidate – however – won enough seats to salvage him as a nominated MP. In the subsequent election in 2002, Nyong’o was wise enough to smell the coffee. He crossed over to Raila Odinga’s new party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). But I run ahead of myself. Suffice it to note that Orengo was still stubborn. Not only did he run for the Ugenya seat on a National Social Congress ticket, he also tried to become President and lost in both efforts. In subsequent times, he would surrender to Odinga and become  his most loyal disciple and confidant.

But Raila also fought bloody street battles in Kisumu town and elsewhere in Luo Nyanza, before he could stamp his authority as the undisputed Luo leader. It is recalled how every Friday, his Bagdad Boys would do battle with Mayor Akinyi Oyile’s own bad boys. Eventually, it was Odinga who took control of Kisumu and the soul of the Luo people. Oyile not only lost Kisumu and his people’s soul, he died shortly afterward. Odinga became the king and has remained so. He probably will rule the lives of these people to the very end of our times. It is behind this supremacy that Odinga has defined himself as a wily political craftsman. Underrate him at your own peril, as many a politician has discovered – painfully.

After the 1997 elections, the losing presidential candidates – Mwai Kibaki, Michael Wamalwa, Charity Ngilu, Raila Odinga and Wangare Mathai came together to form what they called the Opposition Alliance. At first they wanted to contest Moi’s legitimacy. However, Moi and the court system defeated them and they agreed to work together as a strong united Opposition. What the rest did not know was that even as they negotiated and signed pacts with him, Odinga was secretly talking to President Moi about working with him in government. It did not take long before Kenya began hearing about “co-operation” between Kanu and NDP. A disdainful Alego Usonga MP, Peter Oloo Aringo, who had recently defected from Kanu as his own surrender to Odinga could not believe his ears. “Cooperation mar chiethi!” he quipped, saying something whose meaning is best left in the original language.

Yet not too long afterwards, NDP was in a formal compact with the Kanu Government. Aringo was the very first person to gleefully take his seat on the front benches in the National Assembly. He had been talked to and he had to toe the line. That is one thing Odinga has perfected. For all his avowed democratic credentials, the Luo must toe the line or forever stay in the political cold. He is exceptionally impatient when addressing this particular community, and especially so in mother tongue. He does so with the superior authority of a flock owner. Those who do not agree with him are best off holding their peace. The best attitude is that which has recently been demonstrated by two legislators from South Nyanza.

Talking about the Odinga-Kenyatta handshake of 9 March on the doorsteps of Harambee House, Homa Bay County Woman Representative in the assembly said, “We laud this handshake and cooperation with the Government for three reasons; number one, because Baba is always right. Number two, because Baba is never wrong. And number three, because if you are in doubt refer to number one and number two.”

Now this kind of gibberish does not make for a flattering support base for any democrat. Where is the rigour of logic? Where is style and substance? It is pure sycophancy and this is how you are expected to behave when you are from the big man’s tribe. The NASA Minority Whip, Junet Mohamed, made matters worse by taking this absurdity to the floor of the National Assembly. He said, “When Baba says we jump, we jump. When he says run, we run. When he says migrate, we migrate. We don’t question.”

Odinga has had problems trying to impose the same kind of blind following within NASA affiliate parties. Recognising that they come from a different formation and they have their own leaders and party organs, some of the officials from the other parties have found it difficult to blindly follow Odinga, the way he is accustomed to being followed in ODM. He is said to be particularly unhappy with former Senators Bonni Khalwale of Ford Kenya and Johnston Muthama of Wiper Democratic Movement. Also a thorn in his flesh is ANC Secretary General, Barrack Muluka, who is known to be ferociously independent-minded. Muluka worked for Odinga before, in the lead up to the 2013 elections, but left prematurely because he could not cope with Odinga’s omniscience.

Between this omniscience and restlessness resides Odinga’s destiny. It has defined his brief and fleeting political partnerships that have been characterised with elements of dominance and political duplicity. The post 1997 cooperation, for example, matured into a full fledged merger of NDP and Kanu. It saw Odinga get the reward of a Cabinet position in the Moi Government as well as the secretary-general position in the party. Yet, when Moi preferred Uhuru as his successor, Odinga led a detachment of politicians out of Kanu into the little known LDP. Unbeknown to his colleagues in LDP, he signed a cooperation pact with Simeon Nyachae of Ford People. They would agree who between the two of them should be the presidential candidate and how to work together in government. Little did Nyachae know, when signing this pact on 14 October 2002, that Odinga had already concluded another deal with Mwai Kibaki. Odinga got himself out of the tight double-spot by declaring at a rally in Uhuru Park, the very same day, that Kibaki was the best candidate.

Wetangula, Mudavadi and Musyoka have vowed to make life “very difficult” for Raila after his now-famous handshake with President Kenyatta.

The expected solid relationship between Odinga and Kibaki was short-lived, however. Within the first month of forming government, Kibaki had to reckon with Odinga’s demand for better office. He had been appointed to the Roads portfolio in Cabinet. This was not enough, he said. He wanted to be made Prime Minister. Cabinet meetings became difficult, with his dominant voice. Conversation about a new Constitution could not move forward. In the end, Kibaki had to secure his Cabinet when, on 1 June 2004, he brought Nyachae and his team into Government. In the subsequent Constitutional referendum in November 2005 Odinga got an opportunity to fashion a new team that included, among others, Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi, Uhuru Kenyatta, William Ruto, Omingo Magara, Joe Nyagah, Najib Balala, and a host of other notables from across the country. They went on to work together under the banner of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) towards the botched 2007 elections, with the exception of Uhuru, who decamped in 2006, to join Kibaki. Kalonzo also left a few weeks to the poll. Both cited high handedness in Odinga’s inner circle as the reason for their departure.

By the August 2012, Odinga was alone. Each one of his former partners had dropped him, one after the other, all citing what they called “dictatorship.” Some of the separations were exceptionally acrimonious, especially with William Ruto, who now faced war crime charges before the International Criminal court. Odinga publicly asked Ruto to “carry your own cross.” Conspiracy of political circumstances would, however, force Kalonzo back as his running mate. It is instructive that while they are said to have signed a pact that Odinga would support Kalonzo for president in 2017, Odinga did not honour this pact, arguing that he did not become the President, so this pact could not be followed through. He ran again in 2017, this time also with the support of Mudavadi who, had come back to him, owing to both public pressure and common sense that divided they stood no chance against the well oiled incumbent Jubilee political machine of Uhuru and Ruto. The perception that a different ticket stood a better chance was widespread. Odinga, however, insisted on running.

Strange things have happened since. The truth behind them will probably be ascertained in the fullness of time. There is cause to believe that Odinga decided to pull out of the repeat Presidential election of 26 October without ample consultation with his co-principals in NASA – Kalonzo, Mudavadi and Bungoma Senator, Moses Wetang’ula. It has also been said that after his colleagues had agreed to accompany him to Uhuru Park on 30 January 2018, to explain to Kenyans why he was not going to be sworn in, in an extra legal function, he duped them and turned up alone, to swear himself in at a scrambled function. Cries of betrayal against his colleagues soon began suffocating the air, much to Odinga’s delight. As debate continued to rage on whether he had betrayed them or they had betrayed him, the country heard that he had been having a secret conversation with Uhuru Kenyatta and that they were going to work together in a hitherto unclear formation, “to unite Kenyans and to conduct a national dialogue.” Those wondering about the whereabouts of his colleagues during his controversial 30 January Napoleonic swearing in began having second thoughts.

A few days later, Odinga dissolved the People’s Assemblies that NASA had formed beginning 25 October, under the aegis of the controversial National Resistance Movement, whose self-proclaimed General Miguna Miguna was deported to Canada under mysterious circumstances. It is instructive that Odinga has never uttered a word regarding Miguna’s extradition. Miguna has himself accused Odinga of duplicity and of what he calls “cowardice” and “betrayal of the people.” Dissolution of the People’s Assemblies was once again done behind his co-principals’ backs.

At the time of going to Press, Odinga’s battalion in the Senate has dethroned Wetang’ula from the position of Leader of Minority. Some circles believe that Odinga is muddying NASA waters so as to destroy the coalition and free himself from a contractual encumbrance that bars him from running for President in 2022, if the coalition will still be existing. Equally, the agreement bars his ODM party from presenting a presidential candidate. For some reason, the two sides will not disengage. At least not yet.

But whether NASA survives Odinga or not, he seems to have worked himself into an area between a rock and a hard place. Used as he is to restlessness and dominance, it is anyone’s guess how far he will go with his new found friends in Jubilee. Pundits say that his restless and domineering soul will see him quarreling with his new friends. He is likely to look for his old friends in NASA for soft landing, sooner than he imagines. Indeed, it is thought that the reason he does not want to disengage completely from NASA, while cozying up with Jubilee, is that he views NASA as a safety net.

But his NASA friends are also getting restless with him. While they want the alliance to hold, word is that they would like Odinga to leave so that they can chart their future path without him. How he wangles out of the present muddle is anyone’s guess. Indeed, Jubilee may be just holding him in a spider’s web. Suppose the Harambee House handshake was just a hoax, and suppose Jubilee abandons him in midair, where will the Son of the Bull go? Master of political metamorphosis, Agwambo, the mercurial one may have just reached his dead end, finally.

But then one can never quite write him off, can one?^

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