Leo ni leo. Inawezekana (Today is the day. It is possible). These are the Kiswahili lyrics of Raila Odinga’s presidential campaign anthem. The 77-year-old veteran Kenyan politician has not lost optimism even though he’s contesting the election for the fifth time. He was in the race in 1997, 2007, 2013 and 2017.
This time around he looks like the front runner. This is because of the strategic alliances he has built as well as the fact that the incumbent president, Uhuru Kenyatta, has mobilised state machinery to support him in the August 2022 poll.
He has come close to victory twice before. The 2007 poll result was hotly disputed and ended with tragic consequences. Widespread violence led to the death of over 1100 people and 600 000 were displaced.
It was an election he and his supporters believed he had won against the incumbent Mwai Kibaki. This could well have been the case. An independent commission set up to investigate the poll found widespread malpractices. It concluded that it was impossible to determine who won.
Then ten years later Odinga succeeded in annulling Uhuru Kenyatta’s first round victory in the Kenya’s Supreme Court. It ruled that the electoral commission had failed to conduct the presidential elections in a way that was compliant with the dictates of the constitution.
Kenyatta won the rerun, which Odinga boycotted. His reason was that not enough reforms had been put in place to safeguard the ballot against the practices that had led to the previous election being nullified.
This time round Odinga represents an alliance, Azimio la Umoja (Kiswahili for “pledge of unity”). This has brought together 26 parties, dominated by Odinga’s own Orange Democratic Movement and the outgoing president Kenyatta’s Jubilee party. With 20 governors and over 100 National Constituency members, the alliance represents a potentially sizeable national electoral spread.
Long seen as an anti-establishment candidate, Odinga has a common touch that resonates with Kenyans who have felt locked out of the power matrix controlled by two ethnic groups since independence in 1963 – the Kikuyu and Kalenjin.
This time, though, he is the establishment candidate.
Odinga the strategist
Odinga comes from a political family. He is the son of post-independence Kenya’s first vice-president, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Much has been made of his family background, and his opponents suggest he is driven by a sense of entitlement.
But he has built credibility in his own right too. First as a political prisoner between 1982 and 1988, then as a member of parliament as well as prime minister (2008-2013). He has also established himself as a veteran opposition leader and perennial presidential contender.
He is considered a master strategist, sometimes populist and excellent mobiliser with a fervent following among his Luo kinsmen.
Recently, Odinga has been officially endorsed by outgoing president Uhuru Kenyatta, his rival in the last election. Their families have, historically, been rivals. But in 2018 after the bitterly disputed 2017 poll the two protagonists agreed to a national reform framework marked by a symbolic handshake.
This resulted in the Building Bridges Initiative. The stated aim was to try and counter the ‘winner-takes-all’ nature of Kenyan elections, and to ensure that the country never experienced electoral violence again. The reform package didn’t have a long shelf life. It was subsequently ruled unconstitutional.
The 2018 rapprochement marked the end of the alliance between president Kenyatta and his deputy president, William Ruto. Together they had won elections against Odinga.
The ‘handshake’ moment was the point at which Odinga began to position himself to challenge for the presidency against Ruto. And with the help of the incumbent president Kenyatta, he appears to have a real chance.
In the absence of credible opinion polls, the belief is that this is a tight two horse race between Odinga and William Ruto of the Kenya Kwanza coalition. The outcome, I believe, will be dictated by the collective mobilisation capacity and support of the coalition blocs. At present there are no consequential contenders beyond the two and their allies in the Azimio and Kenya Kwanza voting blocs.
Largely, Kenyan politics is not so much about ideological positions or even distinct policy differences but the ability to craft strategic coalitions – largely built along ethnic lines – to deliver the spoils of power to contenders.
Consequently, no presidential candidate in Kenya has run on the same party (coalition) platform as in the previous elections. There is significant horse-trading prior to any electoral cycle. For the 2022 election, over 180 members of the senate and national assembly have shifted allegiance from the party that sponsored them in 2017.
Odinga’s new platform has been built with these factors in mind.
Beyond Kenyatta, Odinga has built a formidable alliance composed of veteran politicians and political heavyweights. These stalwarts of ethnic constituencies are expected to mobilise communal support for the Azimio candidate.
Kenya’s politics is still characterised by ethnic interests. To date, Uhuru’s Kikuyu and Ruto’s Kalenjin have dominated the Kenyan presidency and civil service. In their candidate Odinga, the Luos have, for the first time, a realistic chance.
Their triumph would signal a seismic shift in the power symmetry given that no Luo has held the presidency before.
To achieve this feat, Odinga has brought on board:
Kalonzo Musyoka of the Wiper party, representing the Kamba ethnic constituency
Gideon Moi of the Kenya National African Union party, a current senator and son of former president late Daniel Arap Moi
Charity Ngilu, of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) and one of the few women who have served in various governments
Martha Karua, of NARC-Kenya and a former government minister and unsuccessful presidential candidate in 2013.
Baba or the Hustler?
Kenyatta has asked Kenyans to
support this old man (Odinga) and help him protect our interests and legacy. When this young man (Ruto) toes the line in future, we … will consider him.
This indicates a generational contest, one between Kenya’s old political family, seen as steady and assured, and the “youthful hustler” vice-president, painted as impetuous, unyielding and cunning.
Kenya has come a long way from the orgies of the 2007 electoral violence. Yet its political trajectory is still filled with nervy uncertainty.
Odinga will have a full in-tray if he wins. Kenya’s national debt portfolio has risen to US$54.3 billion. The World Bank has warned the country about its ability to meet its loan repayment obligations. Odinga has promised to address this, partly by renegotiating short-term commercial loans that carry punitive interest rates.
Lastly, Odinga envisages a social security system known as Azimio la Umoja, a kind of welfare state with a monthly stipend of US$60 for poor Kenyans.
But all these policy areas are largely the same concerns of previous elections and of both the Kwanza (Ruto) and Azimio (Odinga) Alliances.
The August 2022 elections represents an epochal moment, one that will either define its future or mirror its past.