Raila Odinga returns to natural habitat

The suspense is over. The anxious waiting has ended. The Supreme Court of Kenya’s ruling last Saturday cleared the way for Mr Uhuru Kenyatta to be sworn in next Tuesday, 9th April, as the fourth president of Kenya. It also means that Mr Raila Odinga, Kenyatta’s main challenger, must return to familiar territory – the opposition.
Joseph Rwagatare
Joseph Rwagatare

The suspense is over. The anxious waiting has ended. The Supreme Court of Kenya’s ruling last Saturday cleared the way for Mr Uhuru Kenyatta to be sworn in next Tuesday, 9th April, as the fourth president of Kenya. It also means that Mr Raila Odinga, Kenyatta’s main challenger, must return to familiar territory – the opposition.

In a sense this seems the most natural outcome. Mr Odinga has spent most of his political life in the opposition that it is difficult to envisage him in a different role. Indeed it might even be said that opposition politics is Odinga’s natural habitat.

By temperament and long historical conditioning, Odinga’s mind has been set on bringing down governments, not building them.

Even when he was in government, first in the Daniel arap Moi’s administration in the late 1990s, and more recently as a joint principal in the Grand Coalition with President Mwai Kibaki, he always acted as if he were on the outside and opposed the set-up that he was part of.

Mr Odinga is not alone in this. Most of his allies and advisors have a similar political mindset moulded during their long stay in the opposition. Many of them started as student activists against the Moi government and matured into politicians opposed to the same government. Others matured into civil society activism where they have remained. All have failed to make the transition from those earlier positions.

However, Odinga’s going back to what he knows best is not necessarily a bad thing. He and his associates are expected to provide a worthy opposition to the Uhuru Kenyatta-William Ruto administration, keep them in check and, hopefully, that should benefit Kenyan democracy and the wider East African region.

There is one proviso, though – that he keeps his coalition intact and other such arrangements survive the electoral outcome. That is doubtful.

If there is any serious contribution that Mr Odinga has made to Kenyan politics, it is the politics of coalition. Kenyan style coalitions are typically the coming together of political parties for the express purpose of removing an incumbent president from power or denying another accession to power. As such, they often reflect the interests of party leaders. Seldom are they formed on the basis of principle, ideology or common programme.

Because of this, coalitions and alliances are seasonal. They rarely survive beyond a particular election. And while Odinga has been behind nearly every political alliance in Kenya, he is also responsible for wrecking most of them. His track record in this respect is impressive.

His first involvement in making and breaking coalitions was with FORD (Forum for the Restoration of Democracy) formed by his father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and Kenneth Matiba to remove Daniel arap Moi in the 1992 elections. Soon, FORD split into tribal and regional factions and the attempt to remove Moi from power failed.

Raila Odinga eventually left his father’s faction, FORD- Kenya and joined the National Development Party (NDP) to stand in the 1997 elections, which Moi again won.

Soon after this failure, Odinga engineered the merger of NDP and KANU, the party he had quit before. He left KANU again following President Moi’s endorsement of Uhuru Kenyatta as the party’s presidential candidate in the 2002 elections. Together with Kalonzo Musyoka, his losing running mate in the 2013 elections, and some other disaffected members from KANU, he formed the Rainbow Movement and joined the Liberal Democratic Party,  which he led into a coalition with Mwai Kibaki’s National Alliance of Kenya (NAK), itself an alliance of smaller parties, to form the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). NARC defeated Uhuru Kenyatta’s KANU and Mwai Kibaki was elected president in 2002.

Odinga, however, was not happy within NARC, complaining that Kibaki had not fulfilled pre-coalition agreements about sharing cabinet posts. He and his associates subsequently left NARC and formed the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) which he led in the 2007 elections. NARC as a national coalition was effectively destroyed, leading to the formation of other alliances.

Kibaki contested the election under another alliance, the Party of National Unity (PNU). He was declared winner. Odinga contested the verdict. Violence broke out in which thousands died or were displaced. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan brokered a Grand Coalition between PNU and ODM that saw Kibaki remain president and Odinga become Prime Minister. The conduct of government was, however, fraught with disagreements about practically everything, with the notable exception of the referendum on a new constitution.

The March 2013 elections were all about coalitions. Odinga led the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD), Uhuru Kenyatta, Jubilee, and Musalia Mudavadi, Amani. There were other smaller ones.

Given Odinga’s coalition destruction record, will CORD survive till the next election, or shall we see yet another political alliance?

Mr Odinga will spend more time in the opposition for another reason – arrogance. His now infamous retort about governing the country from The Hague via Skype will surely haunt him for quite a while.

One will also recall his ill-advised derisive dismissal of a political scientist’s prediction of the election outcome based on the analysis of registered voters in given parts of the country – what he called the tyranny of numbers. As it turned out, the political scientist was right. Odinga was wrong.

The arrogance seems to have developed from what he interpreted as endorsement by Western leaders. He had hobnobbed with many of them on his many foreign travels and thought he was already president. Former US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Johnnie Carson, with his warning of consequences if Kenyatta was elected and the British High Commissioner to Kenya saying very much the same thing gave him further false confidence.

In this sense Raila Odinga behaved like some Rwandan politicians who put much store on foreign backing and completely ignored the local population. They have many interesting stories to tell about their folly. Now Odinga has them too.

Blog: josephrwagatare.wordpress.com

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