Magazine article New African

The Return of Raila Odinga

Magazine article New African

The Return of Raila Odinga

Article excerpt

The political epitaph of Raila Odinga, Kenya's former prime minister, began to be written a year ago. This started after his third attempt to become Kenya's president floundered at the polls in which he was a favourite. Odinga lost to the less fancied Uhuru Kenyatta and some of his aides were contemplating his political retirement, with his star fading fast in Kenya's political galaxy--but not any more.

Just over one year in office, President Uhuru Kenyatta has spent the better part of his term to date complaining, talking tough on corruption and issuing ultimatums to civil service mandarins. Little action has been seen from his government, which has found itself mostly reacting to situations as opposed to setting the agenda. Odinga, who had been in the US for a two-month sabbatical at Boston University's African presidential centre, returned to Nairobi on the eve of Kenya's Madaraka (self-rule) Day and unwittingly stole the Kenyan political show.

Initially, the word on the streets of Nairobi and in social media was awash with claims that Odinga had returned to Kenya to kick-start a hard-hitting "Kenya's Spring" upheaval along the same lines as the revolutionary "Arab Spring" that started in 2010. However the former premier seems to have read the mood and the dynamics that define Kenyan society and instead opted for a softer approach and setting the agenda for the country as he bade his time.

A number of events conspired to give Odinga a much-needed political lifeline. Key among them was President Kenyatta's slow pace in jolting the Kenyan economy into life; quibbling over devolution; dithering on bearing down on graft; and multiple gaffes in containing runaway insecurity.

Odinga did not rise to the centre of Kenya's politics by sheer dint of luck but by playing bare-knuckled politics informed by an ability to sniff at opportunities and pounce on them when the prospect arose.

The highlight of Odinga's address to thousands of his supporters at Nairobi's Uhuru Park was a demand for a national dialogue conference, to be convened within two months. Odinga's message was interpreted as meaning a call for a "grand-coalition government" similar to the one cobbled together in 2008 with former president Mwai Kibaki after the post election violence.

A few hours after Odinga's call for national dialogue Deputy President William Ruto responded by saying there would be no dialogue, and Kenyatta made an announcement a day later echoing Ruto's sentiments.

A day after Kenyatta told Odinga to forget a coalition government, Odinga and his Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) were at it again, setting the rules of engagement. Security, corruption, national unity, the electoral body and devolution, were the five points that Odinga tabled as the agenda to be discussed in the national dialogue conference.

Indeed the events of early June showcased Odinga's political savvy and the ability to cash in his chips at the opportune moment. This skill has revived the man and thrust him back into the national limelight of Kenya's politics. As was expected, Odinga is using every response from the Jubilee government as an opportunity to repackage himself as the alternative leader-in-waiting.

While inaction seems to be dogging the Jubilee administration, Odinga is openly using Jubilee's missteps to reboot his political profile which three months ago had all but vanished.

In late February Odinga's political party the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) suffered its worst credibility crisis when its national elections were violently aborted at the last minute. To this day, ODM has not elected its officials. This inability to inculcate intra-party competition, which has been Odinga's weak point for decades, is likely to blot Odinga's reengineering posture. However owing to the exigencies of the moment, Odinga's Achilles' heel is being ignored as the party is involved in a brawl with Jubilee. …

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