Odinga is running his fifth presidential race. Why the result means so much for Kenya

Leo ni leo. Inawezekana (Today is the day. It is possible). These are the Swahili lyrics of Raila Odinga’s anthem for the presidential campaign. The 77-year-old veteran Kenyan politician has not lost his optimism despite voting for the fifth time. He was in the running in 1997, 2007, 2013 and 2017.

This time he looks like the front runner. This is due to the strategic alliances he has built, as well as the fact that incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta has mobilized the state machine to support him in the August 2022 elections.

He has been close to victory twice before. The 2007 election result was hotly disputed and ended with tragic consequences. Widespread violence left over 1,100 dead and 600,000 displaced.

It was an election he and his supporters believed he won against incumbent Mwai Kibaki. That could well have been the case. An independent commission set up to investigate the survey found widespread misconduct. It concluded that it was impossible to determine who won.

Then, ten years later, Odinga managed to annul Uhuru Kenyatta’s first-round win in the Kenyan Supreme Court. It ruled that the electoral commission had not conducted the presidential elections in accordance with the constitution.

Kenyatta won the replay which Odinga boycotted. His reason was that not enough reforms had been implemented to protect the ballot from the practices that had led to the annulment of the previous election.

This time, Odinga represents an alliance, Azimio la Umoja (Kiswahili for “promise of unity”). This has brought together 26 parties dominated by Odinga’s own Orange Democratic Movement and outgoing President Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party. With 20 governors and over 100 national constituency members, the coalition represents a potentially sizeable national electoral base.

Long considered an anti-establishment candidate, Odinga has a common note that resonates with Kenyans who since independence in 1963 – the Kikuyu and Kalenjin – have felt locked out of the power matrix controlled by two ethnic groups.

This time, however, he is the establishment candidate.

Odinga the strategist

Odinga comes from a political family. He is the son of Kenya‘s first post-independence Vice President, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Much has been made of his family background, and his opponents suspect he is driven by entitlement.

But he also built his own credibility. First as a political prisoner between 1982 and 1988, then as MP and then Prime Minister (2008-2013). He has also established himself as a veteran opposition leader and a stalwart presidential contender.

He is considered a master strategist, sometimes a populist, and a superb mobilizer with a fervent following among his Luo relatives.

Odinga was recently 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 contested 2017 election, the two protagonists agreed on a national reform framework marked by a symbolic handshake.

This resulted in the Building Bridges Initiative. The aim was to counteract the “winner-takes-all” nature of Kenya’s elections and ensure that the country never experiences electoral violence again. The reform package did not last long. It was later declared unconstitutional.

The 2018 rapprochement marked the end of the alliance between President Kenyatta and his Vice 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 Ruto for the presidency. And with the help of incumbent President Kenyatta, he appears to have a real chance.

In the absence of credible opinion polls, this is believed to be a close two-horse race between Odinga and William Ruto of the Kenya Kwanza coalition. In my opinion, the result will be determined by the ability to mobilize collectively and the support of the coalition blocs. There are currently no other competitors apart from the two and their allies in the Azimio and Kenya Kwanza electoral blocs.

Potential kingmaker

Broadly speaking, Kenyan politics is not so much about ideological positions or even outspoken political differences as it is about the ability to forge strategic coalitions—largely ethnically structured—to deliver the loot of power to competitors.

Consequently, no presidential candidate in Kenya ran on the same party (coalition) platform as in the previous elections. Significant horse-trading takes place before each election cycle. For the 2022 election, over 180 members of the Senate and National Assembly have left the party that sponsored them in 2017.

Odinga’s new platform was designed with these factors in mind.

Beyond Kenyatta, Odinga has built an impressive alliance of veteran politicians and political heavyweights. These ethnic constituency supporters are expected to mobilize community support for the Azimio candidate.

Ethnic interests continue to shape Kenya’s politics. To date, Uhuru’s Kikuyu and Ruto’s Kalenjin have dominated the Kenyan presidency and civil service. With their candidate Odinga, the Luos have a realistic chance for the first time.

Her triumph would signal a seismic shift in power symmetry, as no Luo has previously held the presidency.

To achieve this feat, Odinga brought the following 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 the late former President Daniel Arap Moi

  • Charity Ngilu of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) and one of the few women to have served in different governments

  • Martha Karua from NARC-Kenya and former government minister and unsuccessful presidential candidate in 2013.

Baba or the hustler?

Kenyatta has asked the Kenyans to do so

Support this old man (Odinga) and help him protect our interests and legacy. If this young man (Ruto) steps down the line in the future, we will…consider him.

This points to a generational struggle, one between Kenya’s ancient political family, seen as stable and confident, and the “teenage hustler” vice-president, portrayed as boisterous, unyielding and cunning.

Kenya has come a long way from the orgies of electoral violence in 2007. But his political path is still fraught with nervous uncertainty.

Odinga’s agenda

Odinga will have a full treasury in case of victory. Kenya’s sovereign debt portfolio has risen to $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, in part by renegotiating short-term commercial loans with penalty interest.

Economic revitalization and combating persistently high levels of poverty are also his declared priorities. He also says he is concerned about endemic corruption and judicial reforms.

Kenya’s ailing health system is not effective and Odinga speaks of “Babacare”, a program to ensure universal health care with well-equipped facilities.

With youth unemployment at a very high level, skills development and technical training is another of his priorities. It is currently around 39%.

Finally, Odinga envisions a social security system called Azimio la Umoja, a sort of welfare state with a $60 monthly stipend for poor Kenyans.

But all of these policies are largely the same concerns as in previous elections and both the Kwanza (Ruto) and Azimio (Odinga) alliances.

The August 2022 elections represent an epochal moment that will either define its future or mirror its past.

About Sonia Martinez

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