Why Raila Odinga is Kenya’s diehard presidential hopeful

Kenyan opposition leader Kenyan Raila Odinga waves as he arrives for a rally at which he announced he would make his fifth bid for the presidency in Kenya's 2022 general election, in Nairobi, December 10, 2021. PHOTO|  AFP

What you need to know:

  • Now 76, Odinga on Friday announced his candidacy for the August presidential election, after years locked in bitter rivalry with two-time President Uhuru Kenyatta

Nairobi. Raila Amolo Odinga, a veteran Kenyan political leader and one-time prime minister, has long cast himself as an anti-establishment firebrand, despite belonging to one of the country’s top political dynasties.

Now 76, Odinga on Friday announced his candidacy for the August presidential election, after years locked in bitter rivalry with two-time President Uhuru Kenyatta, whose father was also a longstanding foe.

The two families have dominated Kenyan politics since the country won independence from Britain in 1963, with Jaramogi Oginga Odinga losing out to Jomo Kenyatta, the East African nation’s first president.

A member of the western Luo tribe, Raila Odinga entered parliament in 1992 during the rule of president Daniel arap Moi, after spending much of the previous decade in prison or in exile during the struggle for democracy.

He ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 1997, 2007, 2013 and 2017, claiming to have been cheated of victory in the last three elections.

The 2007 polls in particular -- which many independent observers also considered deeply flawed -- cast a long shadow over Kenyan politics, unleashing a wave of ethnic violence that pitted tribal groups against each other and cost more than 1,100 lives.

Few therefore expected Odinga and Kenyatta to strike an alliance and draw a line under decades of vitriol with a handshake in March 2018, only months after their last electoral bout sparked deadly clashes.

“Never again shall a Kenyan die because of an election. On my own behalf and that of all those behind me, I tender my apology,” Odinga said, embracing Kenyatta at a prayer meeting two months later.

Known universally as “the handshake”, the pact stunned Odinga’s colleagues and supporters, effectively leaving Kenya without an opposition.

As rumours swirled about Odinga’s motives and possible benefits he had secured for himself, the two men announced a plan to carry out sweeping constitutional reforms.

The deal stoked speculation that Odinga was in line to succeed Kenyatta, who cannot run for a third term, but could become prime minister if the amendments go through.

Odinga’s elevation came at the expense of Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto, who found himself sidelined as the erstwhile foes drew closer.

It also came loaded with risks for the veteran leader, with Ruto now positioning himself as a politician looking to upend the status quo and stand up for the “hustlers” trying to make ends meet in a country ruled by “dynasties”.

“Raila is quite conscious that a lot of the support he enjoys is because he has been an anti-establishment figure for so long,” said Gabrielle Lynch, Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Warwick.

“The handshake has undermined that narrative,” she told AFP.

Odinga, who was born on January 7, 1945 and is fondly known as “Baba” or “daddy” in Kiswahili, is now caught in a complex balancing act.

“He has a lot of trust to build, especially in his main voting block,” political analyst Nerima Wako-Ojiwa told AFP.

While his supporters consider Odinga a much-needed social reformer, detractors see him as a rabble-rousing populist, unafraid to play the tribal card.

A charismatic speaker, he has a reputation for being stubborn and sometimes short-tempered.

In the eyes of some observers, his crowd-pleasing skills have diminished in recent years, attributed to advancing age and ill health.

With his speech notes in hand he often stumbles and labours over his words -- especially in English. Speaking off-the-cuff in his native Swahili however, he retains the ability to inspire.

An Arsenal fan, he credits his love of soccer for helping him develop a philosophical attitude towards the rough and tumble world of politics.

“You lose some, you win some. It is painful but that is the way to perfection,” he said in an interview with AFP earlier this year.

Raised an Anglican, he later converted to evangelicalism and was baptised in a Nairobi swimming pool by a self-proclaimed prophet in 2009.

The Bible even crept into Odinga’s 2017 campaign with his repeated promise to lead his followers to Canaan, the mythical “promised land”.

He studied engineering in communist former East Germany and named his eldest son Fidel, who died in 2015, after the Cuban revolutionary.

Married to his wife Ida for almost half a century, Odinga has three surviving children -- Rosemary, Raila Junior and Winnie -- and five grandchildren