Why Odinga may not have been an ideal president

Why Odinga may not have been an ideal president

By Andrew Bomani

Raila Odinga is, without a doubt, a colossus on the African continent. Any student of leadership in Africa can’t afford not to study what it is that makes him tick.

And a most helpful place to begin is Odinga’s voluminous autobiography from 2013 titled The Flame of Freedom, which the former Nigerian head of state, General Olusegun Obasanjo, was so complimentary about in his foreword writing: “Too much of what our children are taught in school about development and government is borrowed from societies that, socially and historically, have backgrounds very different from ours. There has, until now, been a shortage of accessible literature on home-grown leadership responses to uniquely African problems and challenges. That is why I would like to see many more African leaders from all national public and professional sectors put their career experiences on record, just as Raila has done.”

And before Odinga’s autobiography was a biography by a Nigerian Professor, Babafemi Badejo, titled Raila Odinga: An Enigma in Kenyan Politics.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines an enigma as “a mysterious or puzzling person or thing.”

I more broadly wish to explore this intriguing characterization of Odinga in a manner that may well be at odds with what the good professor had in mind.

Instructively, Odinga narrates in his autobiography how he went to extraordinary lengths to assist Nigeria in getting itself out of the nightmarish rule of General Sani Abacha.

“After the Addis meeting, I returned to Nairobi and gathered MPs, and we agreed to petition the Nigerian and Kenyan governments to pressure Abacha to release Obasanjo and others, including former president Abiola, who was still in prison. I drafted a petition to the Nigerian government, addressed it to Abacha, and collected the signature of 87 MPs. Some of them and I, along with media representatives, walked to the Nigerian high commission in Nairobi, where we handed in our petition, also forwarding copies to the president’s office and the ministry of foreign affairs.

I wrote an article on the Nigerian situation published in the local press. In it, I said that what had occurred in Nigeria constituted a major setback to the democratisation in Africa, especially given Nigeria’s size and the strategic position it occupied in African affairs.”

Odinga deserved many accolades for this “major setback” to democratisation in Africa. Odinga would later not spare then-Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in his intimidation of the MDC.

But in the interests of consistency, the million-dollar question is why he chose to turn a blind eye to the horrific civil rights abuses occurring in neighbouring Tanzania under John Magufuli.

As it were, Odinga and Magufuli had a bosom friendship going back to their time as ministers in charge of the roads portfolio. In the years to come, Odinga found it befitting to invite Magufuli as one of the foreign guests at his ODM Congress.

To little surprise, the classically unhinged Magufuli broke all etiquette in his dressing and address. If it were not for President Kibaki’s gentlemanly mien, a diplomatic crisis would have most likely broken out.

And Odinga was thrilled upon the nomination in 2015 of Magufuli as a presidential candidate.

All the calamitous signs were apparent in Magufuli’s presidency. An outspoken opposition MP, Tundu Lissu, was shot in broad daylight near the parliamentary precincts and had to be evacuated to a Nairobi hospital.

My forlorn expectation was that Odinga would have comforted the MP and then taken it upon himself to excoriate Magufuli through the Tanzania high commission in Nairobi or, say, African Union.

The work of statesmen is to speak out at the hour of calling, even when it involves personal friends. For instance, in the lead-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Nelson Mandela condemned not only Bush but Blair of the UK.

He specifically said that Blair was “like the foreign minister of the US.” Blair was known to be on excellent terms with Mandela, but Madiba still called him out.

And when Tanzania held the most farcical polls in its history in 2020, for a man who has cried foul so often, Odinga’s silence was deafening.

I made a small appeal in November 2020 for Odinga and other Kenyans of goodwill to raise their voices during our darkest chapter.

As if this was not enough, it was most alarming how Odinga would classify Magufuli upon his death as someone schooled in the ‘ideals’ of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere.

The two are worlds apart: Nyerere believed in people-centred development above all else. In contrast, Magufuli had his singular mind on transportation infrastructure.

In 1973, Nyerere wrote: “Every country in Africa can show examples of modern facilities which…are now rotting unused. We have schools, irrigation works, expensive markets, and so on by which someone came and tried to ‘bring development to the people’. If real development is to take place, the people have to be involved, for development means the development of the people. Roads, buildings, and increased crop output are not development; they are only development tools.

A new road only extends a man’s freedom if he travels upon it.”

And upon Nyerere’s demise in 1999, the former president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, aptly captured his essence: “While world economists were debating the importance of capital-output ratios, President Nyerere was saying nothing was more important for people than being able to read and write and have access to clean water.”

It was my earnest wish that Odinga could have found it worthwhile to go through the findings of the report of the South Commission chaired by Nyerere after stepping down as president. It elaborated on freedom in complete variance with the manner of Magufuli’s rule that bore all the hallmarks of fascism. Even Tanzanian women were on the receiving end of humiliating language that was in contrast to Nyerere’s progressive outlook going back to his Makerere University days when he won an award for an essay on women.

To cap it all, Nyerere, during Tanzania’s war with Uganda under Amin, refused any monetary compensation for the release of the Libyan prisoners of war captured going to strengthen Amin’s forces. Now then, consider Magufuli’s remarks in the presence of the World Food Programme representative to Tanzania, ‘that our nation must seek to profit from the fighting nations nearby as even if it is wrong, those people will still fight anyway.’

It was a shame to humanity to have such a Neanderthal in the highest office!

Had Odinga chosen to put Magufuli on the carpet, the international community would undoubtedly have taken serious note. Electorally Odinga would have strengthened his credentials for president of Kenya. One undeniable challenge that Odinga faced against President Ruto was that he was a man of the past; the young voters were less concerned with his history of liberation than their own pockets.

This was true to a point which is why it was of utmost importance that a powerful message be sent to the citizenry that the region is not out of the woods on the democratic front. An unstable neighbour is bad for everyone.

In sum, the ways of Odinga match perfectly with the enigma epithet. At the heart of it, though, is a leader of double standards.

To illustrate the double standards, one has to go back to the Moi succession race of 2002. This was an epoch-making moment for the country that had to be gotten right. Following the 2017 nullification of the presidential election, Odinga’s camp played on the court ruling that the process was a mess. Yet, in 2002, a very sound formula was suggested by the late Simeon Nyachae for arriving at the candidate’s name to be fronted by the opposition parties against KANU. There had been significant divisions before that.

Odinga gave the formula a wide berth. In addition, Nyachae had also stated in no uncertain terms that his intention, if elected, was to serve Kenyans for only a single term and hand over to a younger person. This year, some of Raila’s supporters were preaching that if ‘Baba’ were elected, it would mark a ‘Mandela moment’.

You only ask yourself why he didn’t give a chance to Nyachae, who not only came from a minority tribe that would have been very important for the ethnic cohesion of the country but was also highly competent such that Kenya would have, in my estimation, attained dizzying levels of efficiency.

One can only imagine how meritorious the civil service would have been under Nyachae.

Odinga would totally arrogate himself supernatural powers by declaring at a rally ‘Kibaki tosha’ (Kibaki is enough) such that Nyachae’s fate was sealed at that moment. It was a fait accompli, in other words.

On the strength of this, my reason for Odinga pulling the rug from under Nyachae’s feet is that he knew Nyachae was nerves of steel and, as president, wouldn’t give into his publicity stunts.

In the final analysis, Raila’s double standards made him chicken out of the presidential debate with Ruto.

He met his match and undoubtedly lost critical votes in the process. It was a blot on one’s escutcheon. Indeed it is not for nothing that a former spokesperson for former UN secretary-general Koffi Annan as well as Odinga himself, Salim Lone, only in July this year observed the following on Ruto before he fell out with Odinga: “I thought he was one of the sharpest, most focused leaders at that time, despite some troubling weaknesses.” ( 

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