Why Odinga may not have been Kenya’s ideal leader

Kenya's Azimio La Umoja Party (One Kenya Coalition Party) presidential candidate Raila Odinga and his running mate Martha Karua look at a document at the Milimani High Court in Nairobi on August 22, 2022. 

What you need to know:

  • Raila’s double standards are what made him chicken out of the presidential debate with Ruto
  • One undeniable challenge that Odinga faced against President Ruto was that he was a man of the past; and that the young voters were less concerned with his history of liberation but rather their own pockets.

Raila Odinga is without a shadow of doubt a colossus on the African continent. Any student of leadership in Africa can’t afford not to study what it is that makes him tick.

And a most useful place to begin is Odinga’s voluminous autobiography from 2013 titled The Flame of Freedom, which the former Nigerian head of state, General Olusegon Obasanjo, was so complimentary about in his foreword writing: “Too much of what our children are taught in school about development and government is borrowed from societies that, socially and historically, have backgrounds very different from ours. There has, until now, been a shortage of accessible literature on home-grown leadership responses to uniquely African problems and challenges. That is why I would like to see many more African leaders from all sectors of national public and professional life put their career experiences on record, just as Raila has done.”

And before Odinga’s autobiography was a biography by a Nigerian Professor, Babafemi Badejo, titled Raila Odinga: An Enigma in Kenyan Politics.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of enigma is “a mysterious or puzzling person or thing.”

It is precisely this intriguing characterisation of Odinga that I more broadly wish to explore in a manner that may well be at odds with what the good professor had in mind.

Instructively, Odinga narrates in his autobiography how he went to extraordinary lengths to assist Nigeria get itself out of the nightmarish rule of General Sani Abacha.

“After the Addis meeting, I returned to Nairobi and gathered MPs, and we agreed to petition the Nigerian government and also the Kenyan government to put pressure on Abacha to release Obasanjo and others, including former president Abiola, who was still in prison. I drafted a petition to the Nigerian government, addressed it to Abacha, and collected the signature of 87 MPs. Some of them and I, along with representatives of the media, walked to the Nigerian high commission in Nairobi, where we handed in our petition, also forwarding copies to the office of the president and the ministry of foreign affairs.

I wrote an article on the Nigerian situation that was published in the local press. In it, I said that what had occurred in Nigeria constituted a major setback to the democratisation in Africa, especially given Nigeria’s size and the strategic position it occupied in African affairs.”

On this “major setback” to the democratisation in Africa, Odinga deserved many accolades. Odinga would later not spare then-Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in his intimidation of the MDC.

But in the interests of consistency, the million-dollar question is why then he chose to turn a blind eye to the horrific civil rights abuses that were occurring in neighbouring Tanzania under John Magufuli.

As it were, Odinga and Magufuli had a bosom friendship going back to their time as ministers in charge of the roads portfolio. In the years to come, Odinga found it befitting to even invite Magufuli to be one of the foreign guests at his ODM Congress.

To little surprise, the classically unhinged Magufuli broke all etiquette not only in his dressing but address too such that were it not for President Kibaki’s gentlemanly mien, a diplomatic crisis would have most likely broken out.

And Odinga was thrilled upon the nomination in 2015 of Magufuli as a presidential candidate.

Within no time of Magufuli’s presidency, all the calamitous signs were apparent. An outspoken opposition MP, Tundu Lissu, was actually shot in broad daylight near the parliamentary precincts and had to be evacuated to a Nairobi hospital.

My forlorn expectation was that Odinga would have comforted the MP and then taken it upon himself to excoriate Magufuli through the Tanzania high commission in Nairobi or say African Union.

The work of statesmen is to speak out at the hour of calling even when it involves personal friends. For instance, in the lead-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Nelson Mandela condemned not only Bush but Blair of the UK.

He specifically said that Blair was “like the foreign minister of the US”. Blair was actually known to be on very good terms with Mandela but still Madiba called him out.

And when as well Tanzania held the most farcical polls in its history in 2020, for a man who has cried foul so often, Odinga’s silence was deafening.

I personally made a small appeal in November 2020 for Odinga and other Kenyans of goodwill to raise their voices during our darkest chapter.

As if this was not enough, it was most alarming how Odinga would classify Magufuli upon his death as someone schooled in the ‘ideals’ of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere.

The two are worlds apart and just to show their fundamental divergence, Nyerere believed in development that was people-centered above all else whereas Magufuli had his singular mind on transportation infrastructure.

In 1973, Nyerere wrote: “Every country in Africa can show examples of modern facilities which...are now rotting unused. We have schools, irrigation works, expensive markets and so on by which someone came and tried to ‘bring development to the people’. If real development is to take place, the people have to be involved...for development means the development of the people. Roads, buildings, the increase of crop output are not development; they are only the tools of development.

A new road extends a man’s freedom only if he travels upon it.”

And upon Nyerere’s demise in 1999, the former president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, aptly captured his essence: “While world economists were debating the importance of capital output ratios, President Nyerere was saying nothing was more important for people than being able to read and write and have access to clean water.”

It was my earnest wish that Odinga could have found it worthwhile to go through the findings of the report of the South Commission chaired by Nyerere after stepping down as president. It elaborated on freedom in a manner which was completely at variance with the manner of Magufuli’s rule that bore all the hallmarks of fascism. Even Tanzanian women were on the receiving end of humiliating language that was in contrast to Nyerere’s progressive outlook going back to his Makerere University days when he won an award for an essay on women.

To cap it all, Nyerere during Tanzania’s war with Uganda under Amin, refused any monetary compensation for the release of the Libyan prisoners of wars captured going to strengthen Amin’s forces. Now then consider Magufuli’s remarks in the presence of the World Food Programme representative to Tanzania, ‘that our nation must seek to profit from the fighting nations nearby as even if it is wrong, those people will still fight anyway.’

What a shame to humanity it was to have such a Neanderthal in the highest office!

Had Odinga chosen to put Magufuli on the carpet, the international community would certainly have taken serious note.

And electorally Odinga would have definitely strengthened his own credentials for president of Kenya. One undeniable challenge that Odinga faced against President Ruto was that he was a man of the past; and that the young voters were less concerned with his history of liberation but rather their own pockets.

This was true to a point which is why it was of utmost importance that a powerful message be sent to the citizenry that the region is not out of the woods on the democratic front. An unstable neighbour is bad for everyone.

In sum, the ways of Odinga match perfectly with the enigma epithet. At the heart of it though is a leader of double standards.

To illustrate the double standards, one has to go back to the Moi succession race of 2002. This was an epoch-making moment for the country that had to be gotten right. Following the 2017 nullification of the presidential election, Odinga’s camp played on the court ruling that the process was a mess. Yet in 2002, a very sound formula was suggested by the late presidential hopeful Hon. Simeon Nyachae for arriving at the name of the candidate to be fronted by the opposition parties against KANU. There had been big divisions before that.

The formula was given wide berth by Odinga. In addition, Nyachae had also stated in no uncertain terms that his intention if elected was to serve Kenyans for only a single term and hand over then to a younger person.

That he would be a transitional head of state. Now this year Raila through some of his supporters were preaching that if ‘Baba’ were elected, it would mark a ‘Mandela moment’.

You only ask yourself then why he didn’t give a chance to Nyachae, who not only came from a minority tribe that would have been very important for the ethnic cohesion of the country, but was also extremely competent such that Kenya would have in my estimation attained dizzying levels of efficiency.

One can only imagine how meritorious the civil service would have been under Nyachae.

Odinga would totally out of the blue arrogate himself supernatural powers by declaring at a rally ‘Kibaki tosha’ (Kibaki is enough) such that Nyachae’s fate was sealed at that moment. It was a fait accompli in other words.

On the strength of this, my reason for Odinga pulling the rug from under Nyachae’s feet is that he knew Nyachae was nerves of steel and as a result as president wouldn’t give into his publicity stunts.

In the final analysis, Raila’s double standards are what made him chicken out of the presidential debate with Ruto.

He met his match and undoubtedly lost critical votes in the process. It was a blot on one’s escutcheon. Indeed it is not for nothing that a former spokesperson for former UN secretary-general Koffi Annan as well as Odinga himself, Salim Lone, only in July this year observed the following on Ruto before he fell out with Odinga: “I thought he was one of the sharpest, most focused leaders at that time, despite some troubling weaknesses.”