Deputy President William Ruto has ultimately identified him as a key presidential challenger in 2022, while President Uhuru Kenyatta has singled him out as a valuable partner in his second term in office.
But Raila Odinga, who made news this week when he joined President Kenyatta on an official trip to China, is himself stuck in the middle — or so it seems — neither picking up the gauntlet from the DP nor opening up on whether or not his political dalliance with the President will stretch beyond 2022.
And for continuously giving mixed signals on these two fronts, the opposition leader has attracted a lot of interest in his actions and dealings, with each and every step he makes being watched closely by political foes and allies. The idea behind this has been to decode any signals from his vitendawili (riddles) and body language.
With cards close to his chest, Mr Odinga’s moves have not been easy to discern. Even close confidants like Senate Minority leader James Orengo have reportedly been out of step with the former Prime Minister’s desired political narrative, on some occasions.
Only a month ago, the Siaya senator is reported to have angered the ODM leader by suggesting a plot to capture political power with the help of President Kenyatta.
It took quite some firefighting by the ODM brigade, led by party chairman John Mbadi, to correct the impression created by Mr Orengo. Mr Mbadi, who is also the National Assembly Minority leader, dismissed his colleague’s sentiments as “personal opinion”. Mr Odinga, he explained, was fully committed to uniting the country.
If indeed Mr Mbadi’s stance supersedes Mr Orengo’s, the emerging scenario begs a host of questions. Has Mr Odinga truly given up on running for the presidency in 2022? What then happens to their newfound unity pact with the President, once he leaves office? Or is he being (mis)used by the anti-Ruto forces within Jubilee to politically tame the DP?
And while at it, is the notion of abandoning his oppositionist and fiery brand of politics not hurting his political constituency across the country, including his personal career? Isn’t this kind of hands-off approach partly responsible for his party’s electoral defeat in Ugenya and Embakasi South by-elections on April 5 and “withdrawal” from the by-elections in Wajir West constituency over what Jubilee secretary-general Raphael Tuju termed “in the best interest of the country”?
So, does the former Prime Minister have a game plan or has he been reduced to a jaded revolutionary only interested in feathering his own nest before retiring?
Reached out for comment on some of these questions, most members of the ODM brigade went mute.
Others, including senior party officials, who had initially promised to respond, failed to come through. This is probably due to the need to remain cautious or ignorance over what precisely Mr Odinga was up to. Maybe they just did not wish to burn their fingers by second-guessing their boss.
A senior political figure in the Orange party, who declined to be named, confided to Nation that Mr Odinga was truly committed to uniting and healing the nation and that he was not going to run for presidency in 2022. According to the politician, the former Prime Minister and his supporters believe he has never lost a presidential election since 2007 and there is therefore no need to go to the ballot and subject the country to tensions and violent protests owing to poll rigging by the establishment.
“Baba (Mr Odinga) has reached a point where these polls no longer have meaning. What is the point of participating in an exercise where you win but you are not sworn in as President? He will not be on the ballot and has instead opted to heal the nation,” affirms the politician.
Nonetheless, the Orange party’s secretary for political affairs Opiyo Wandayi was willing to go on record: “In politics, just as in war, tactics do change even if the long-term strategy remains the same,” said Mr Wandayi, who is the MP for Ugunja.
According to the vocal MP, a change of plan in Mr Odinga’s political approach cannot be ruled out. The underlying factor, he observes, “is the common good”.
It is probably on account of “the common good” that Mr Odinga has been in the news most of the week after publicly announcing he would accompany President Kenyatta to China to negotiate the Naivasha-Kisumu Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) loan among other business deals at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. It is a trip that did not yield the required results.
Nonetheless, the about-turn by Mr Odinga on the SGR question is curious, considering his previous sustained criticism of the Jubilee administration’s heavy borrowing, overspending and “theft of public resources”. His message to supporters in Kisumu last week that he would be “bringing development by extending the SGR” has opened him to critics who point to his “opportunistic character”.
In a position shared by most of those critical of Mr Odinga’s apparent about-turn, Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro (Jubilee) interprets Mr Odinga’s stand as “opportunistic and inconsistent”.
“In Mr Odinga’s books, Eurobond was a ‘scam’ before the handshake and a revolutionary financing vehicle afterwards. Kenya was taking so much debt before the handshake, but we appear able to absorb more debt now and he’s headed to China to take more. That’s Raila,” the vocal pro-Ruto MP said earlier in the week.
However, Mr Wandayi maintains that “Mr Odinga has been very consistent in championing what is good for the people and the China deal is just part of it”.
According to the MP, the handshake should be seen in that light of what is good for the people, which includes a call to peace and unity in the country “for the eventual realisation of national prosperity”.
Mr Odinga has won and similarly lost several political battles, but he remains politically relevant. And going by the NDP-Kanu experience, the DP knows better.
That is why he has consistently warned that the former PM is a “politically dangerous man” with whom the President ought not to have entered into an alliance.
But for a moment, Dr Ruto was convinced the former PM and one-time party boss at ODM was genuine when he tweeted on March 7 last year—perhaps out of political convenience given his stand against the handshake later. “Congratulations Pres Uhuru & Raila for being statesmen. You have risen to the moment for Kenya and against hate, negative ethnicity and division…Wangwana mubarikiwe mpaka mshangae (gentlemen, be blessed abundantly).” Only time will tell whether this was sarcastic or prophetic and whether it will return to haunt the DP.