Politics in Kenya: A Look at Prime Minister Raila Odinga

Dubbed the "kingmaker" for helping put President Mwai Kibaki in power five years ago, Odinga lost what some say was his best chance to dethrone his former ally in Kenya’s December 27, 2007 election.

Final results from the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) gave Odinga 4.35 million votes to current President Mwai Kibaki’s 4.58 million.

The narrow defeat appeared to effectively end Odinga’s hopes of leading East Africa’s most powerful economy and realizing a dream that eluded his late father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, a nationalist hero and Vice President in Kenya’s first post independent government.

"Part of the vote was for me. But part of it was against Mwai Kibaki, because he failed to unite the country. You know what the Somalis say? ‘Never mistake a lion for a cat that’s been rained on.’ I think supporters of Kibaki mistook me for a wet cat. I represented change. I have fought throughout my life to bring about democratic changes to enable Kenya realize its potential," says Odinga, the presumptive winner of Kenya’s contested Presidential poll which Kibaki is widely thought of having stolen.

As a consequence of bungling of the vote, internecine violence pitting supporters of the two political protagonists broke out like a wild fire across Kenya in late December 2007, leaving in its wake 1,000 people dead and tens of thousands others displaced from their homes in a span of two months.

Yet in an altruistic gesture, Odinga opted to forfeit a protracted contest of power with Kibaki by instead agreeing to stitch-up a large coalition with his adversary. This type of partnering is virtually unheard of in the African continent

By accepting to co-opt his Orange Democratic Party (ODM) in Government and agreeing to serve as Prime Minister – a first in independent Kenya – Odinga’s move is thought to have halted the country from toppling over the precipice into civil war.

"I’ve been in politics since birth," says Odinga, whose mother belonged to the Alego clan, just like the father of U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama.

But Odinga’s formative years gave him another crucial advantage: an ability to think outside the bounds of Kenya’s tribal politics. He left home at 15 to attend school in East Germany and eventually returned to Kenya with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and experience of life on both sides of the Berlin Wall.

His Kenyan passport allowed him to pass freely through the divided Germany’s checkpoints, and his friends in the communist East would send him to bring back fancy watches, TVs and other forbidden luxuries from the West. He served as a translator when Louis Armstrong visited the country on an Iron Curtain tour in 1965. A speech by Fidel Castro impressed Odinga so much that years later he would name his firstborn son after the Cuban leader. "I’ve lived in both sides of the world," says Odinga. "I’m better placed than most people who only hear about these things in books."

He got to know still other sides of the world after he came back to Kenya in 1970. He shuttled between government posts and the opposition, all the while remaining a close friend to Kibaki. Odinga’s life changed again in 1982, when he was jailed for nearly a decade for his alleged role in a coup plot against Kenya’s then dictator, Daniel Arap Moi.

Odinga reminisces the time spent in jail, "The government sent me from one prison to another. One was in the middle of a game preserve, where an escapee would have no hope against the predators of the savannah. In another I spent weeks on end in solitary confinement. My mother died in 1984, and I was not told about the misfortune until two months later. I went on a hunger strike to protest my incarceration, and at night I yelled, to let my fellow prisoners know I was still alive. I intended for everyone to hear. I didn’t want to die like a dog in there."

As far as what drives him, Odinga said, "My convictions, principles and vision. I believe that in life you must have a vision, then a strategy to achieve the destination, and thirdly, tactics. I am motivated by the desire to see the emergence of a better Kenya."

But burgeoning voices of distrust and criticism follow Odinga. Professor Makua Mutua, a law lecturer at the State University of New York and Chair of the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) has this to say about Odinga: "Because of his zealotry to rule Kenya, he will do anything to reside at the State House. The grand march to the House on the Hill is the only thing that matters. All other things-truth, principles, and relationships-are just malleable details….The tragedy for Odinga is that he is a witting victim of the tribal ideology that drives Kenya’s politics, and from which he has benefited. In fact, it is not clear that Odinga would be anything without the tribalization of Kenya’s politics. He is the quintessential tribal baron."

Mutua continues, "The ethnic baton that he so effectively wields is not an accidental gift. It is an inheritance from his father, the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. If Jaramogi rose to be king of his community, Odinga was its prince. Once the old man passed, the hopes of the community were reposited in Odinga…"

Before his demise in August 2003, Kijana Walmalwa, an eloquent former Vice President of Kenya who had a ringside view of Odinga-having done battle with him for the control of the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD-Kenya)-had this to say: "Odinga is not my peer intellectually by any description. If Odinga was a man of any abilities, as the son of Kenya’s first Vice President in the early 1960s when scholarships to the top universities in the world were open to the sons of African leaders at their taking, the fact that he had to go overload to Cairo to get on to some ramshackle boat to go to East Germany, I think is a reflection of his abilities." 

But Otieno Kajwang, a close ally of Odinga and currently the country’s Minister for Registration of Persons and Immigration, thinks highly of the Prime Minister: "Odinga has pursued progressive ideas unceasingly. I do not know of anybody else who has put more effort in seeing the emergence of a more equitable state of affairs in Kenya."  

"He is a very great politician. He is very hardworking. He is also very intelligent and I think he has been able to galvanize national appeal because he is a people’s type of politician," says Oloo Aringo, a former legislator.

Coincidently, Kajwang and Aringo are members of Odinga’s Luo community whose numerical strength ranks fourth in the country.

But what is all this fascination with Odinga?

"I do not think that there is mystique in my name Odinga," Odinga said of his family’s history in Kenyan politics. "You see politics is about people and you must understand the people. As a leader, you need to champion the interests of your people. So I am myself, just a servant of the people and I serve the interests of the people. That is the reason why people associate with me. There is nothing like mystique or inheritance. People just stand against the interests, wishes and aspirations of the people and they find themselves swept by the wayside. So long as I represent the people and attend to their interests, I remain relevant and he who comes with me will remain relevant (laughs).The day I stop doing that, I know I will find myself completely isolated from the people."  

Belonging to one of Kenya’s elite political dynasties, Odinga credits his father Jaramogi for instilling in him a sense of nationalism and social equality.

Nicknamed "Agwambo" or warrior in Luo, Odinga is Kenya’s longest serving political detainee in the country’s independence history. He was first detained in 1982 after Moi was nearly overthrown in a coup attempt that Odinga revealed that he backed. "Detention is a good school. You learn to reflect and think. You can also learn tolerance, to be forgiving, particularly against your adversaries. You also learn time is of essence, that things should be done faster and better," Raila Odinga said.

Like his father, Odinga held a cabinet post before falling out with Kibaki, and like his father, Odinga appeared destined to spend the remaining years of his political career in the opposition.

With a flair unmatched in Kenya for rousing the masses, Odinga wooed large groups of voters beyond his traditional Luo base by playing to their disillusionment with the 76-year old Kibaki’s record on graft, security and tribalism.  

But it was not enough. "The presidency is something he has wanted for a long time," says Dr. Kiruti Kinoti, a Political Science lecturer at the University of Nairobi (UON). "He would have been the kingmaker who made himself king."  

Odinga’s big break came in 2001 soon after he led his party, the National Development Party ( NDP), into a merger with the Kenya African National Union (KANU) the then ruling party.

As Energy Minister in Moi’s government he was introduced to the family of Sheikh Abdukeder AlBakari, one of the richest families in Saudi Arabia with interests in petroleum drilling, petroleum exploration and export in the Middle East, Asia, USA and Africa.

Through the Saudi contacts, Odinga was initiated into the lucrative world of oil business and soon enough he had joined the league of large independent oil importers via his firm Pan African Petroleum Limited.

Industry sources say that one of the things that helped Odinga make money in the oil business was a concessionary petroleum deal he struck with the Al Bakri Group. In this deal, he was not only incorporated as a silent partner in the local arm of Al Bakri International, but was also supplied with petroleum products from Saudi Arabia at subsidized prices which his firm would sell in the market at normal prices. That way, Odinga was able to deftly beat the competition in oil business by occasional price undercutting.

While still Energy Minister, Odinga re-established his links with the Libyan government of Colonel Muammar Gadaffi, maintaining oil importation business and receiving material support during the 2002 general elections.

Besides supporting Odinga’s political causes, the Libyans also played a key role in supporting Odinga in the oil business in a couple of ways. Industry sources say that between 2001 and 2002 when Odinga served as Energy Minister, he received at least three consignments of petroleum products at very low prices which were later sold locally at market prices. Reliable sources say that Libyans bankrolled the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) campaign in 2002 with some US$3 million, thanks to Odinga’s contacts in the oil-rich land of Gadaffi.

Besides Libya, Odinga enjoys good links with the South African government of Thabo Mbeki while in Nigeria he is known to have strong links with Olosegun Obasanjo, who was a close friend of Odinga’s late father Jaramogi. That Libyans, South Africans and Nigerians had enough confidence in Odinga to channel campaign funds through him although he himself was not a presidential candidate in 2002 is an indication of how well connected he is in some international circles.

When Odinga quit the ruling party of outgoing President Daniel arap Moi in 2002 for a coalition with Kibaki, it was a masterstroke that gave the opposition its broadest ever support among the country’s more than 40 tribes. The move sealed the defeat of Moi’s KANU party, which had monopolized power since independence in 1963, and boosted Odinga’s reputation as an adept political tactician.

With next elections scheduled for 2012, Odinga will no doubt remain a formidable player but whether he will ascend to the presidency will largely depend on how the remaining four years unravel.


Photo of Odinga by Demosh, printed here under a Creative Commons License.