Raila: Opposition strategist or opportunist?

Sunday September 15 2019

ODM leader Raila Odinga makes his remarks during the Council of Ministers meeting during the Northern Corridor Transit and Transport Coordination Authority executive meeting at Sarova Whitesands Beach Resort in Mombasa on July 26, 2019. An aspect of the “new” Mr Odinga is that he is hardly accessible to the media as he once was. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

His legion of supporters long nicknamed him Agwambo, meaning the “mysterious one” in his native Dholuo, for his ability to pull political surprises.

And today, ODM leader Raila Odinga seems to be living true to the moniker, going by his latest pronouncements and decisions, which have confounded friend and foe.

Though he is the leader of the National Super Alliance (Nasa), a coalition of opposition parties which ODM is part of, one finds it difficult nowadays to call him an Opposition leader.

Short of inspecting a military parade, which is strictly the preserve of the Head of State, Mr Uhuru Kenyatta, Mr Odinga has done everything else that a prime minister would do when supervising government.

For one, he has severally represented the man who defeated him in the last two presidential elections — President Kenyatta — in diplomatic functions outside the country.

In further proof of his newfound status, government delegations, including Cabinet secretaries, pay him homage at his private offices in Nairobi’s Capitol Hill to brief him on government business.


Yet one and half years ago, the very government that he now defends was mulling arresting him for “treason” after he swore himself in as the “People’s President” on January 31, 2018 after rejecting the re-election of President Kenyatta in 2017.


In a stunning change of heart since the March 9, 2018 handshake between him and his erstwhile political foe, Mr Odinga seems he can longer find fault with Mr Kenyatta’s presidency.

Today, the former prime minister is likely to be found explaining government policies as opposed to criticising them as he used to.

In the process, he has found himself in the unlikely position of defending some of the unpopular Jubilee projects which he liberally lampooned when he was on the other side of the political divide.

For example, just over a week ago, he gave the Sh7 billion loss-making Galana Kulalu Irrigation Project in Kilifi and Tana River counties a clean bill of health, even though a parliamentary committee concluded that it is not viable.

"We were hearing reports that funds for the project have been embezzled but we have witnessed something good," he said while on a tour of the project.

At the height of the 2017 campaigns, Mr Odinga had dismissed the project as a white elephant which was gobbling public resources with little to show for it.

Following Mr Odinga’s change of heart over the irrigation project, an editorial cartoonist for the Daily Nation depicted him in a cartoon as a rubber stamp being used by President Kenyatta to give legitimacy to the government’s controversial projects.


Mr Odinga has reportedly instructed his foot soldiers in Parliament to stop attacking the President in particular and the ruling Jubilee Party in general, and seems to be having his way.

For example, ODM chairman John Mbadi had to eat his words over the new Sh1,000 notes which he had initially criticised for bearing the statue of founding President Jomo Kenyatta against the requirements of the Constitution, which prohibit the use of images of people in the new notes.

We have learnt from well-placed sources that the combative Gwassi MP was asked to ‘set the record straight’ and later publicly endorsed the new notes.

When governors sought Mr Odinga’s support during the two-month long impasse on the Division of Revenue Bill, they were disappointed when he asked them to take what the government was offering, thus echoing President Kenyatta’s stand.

Having been one of the staunchest defenders of devolution, the governors perhaps expected him to rally behind them to push the government into adding them more money, but they were wrong.

In light of these and many other examples, observers are at a loss on whether the recent happenings signal a change in philosophy or is just a matter of convenience.


When he came under attack by those who feel he has sold his soul by working with Mr Kenyatta, Mr Odinga’s handlers fired back:

“Raila and opposition are not synonymous. He does not just oppose for the sake of it. He knows when to oppose and when not to,” one of his handlers said.

Even though he is not known to harbour political grudges, pundits say the speed at which he made up with Kirinyaga Governor Anne Waiguru was unexpected.

Mrs Waiguru had sued him for linking her to the first National Youth Service (NYS) scandal where the public is thought to have lost in excess of Sh790 million.

Also, combative Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i is today one of his favourite ministers, and recently defended him from critics who had called for his resignation.

“This is a man who knows his job, even though some wanted to tarnish his name,” he said in June after a section of politicians dragged the minister’s name into the fake gold saga involving the United Arab Emirates ruling family.

Ironically, after the 2017 presidential elections, Mr Odinga accused Mr Matiang’i of allegedly ordering the police to crackdown on his supporters who were protesting the outcome of the vote.


The only recent instance in which Mr Odinga seemed to have reverted to type is when he issued a hard-hitting statement condemning a huge delegation of MPs who had gone to the United States of America for a seminar.

But this could as well have been in support of President Kenyatta’s call for austerity measures by government officials at a time when the economy is limping.

Rarieda MP Otiende Amollo interprets Mr Odinga’s current way of doing things as a strategic cessation of hostilities in preparation for the next big fight.

“You cannot say that ODM has joined the government,” he said. “There is a difference between joining government and joining hands with the government, which is what the PM has done,” he said.

At a time when Nasa supporters were under harsh crackdown by the security forces for advancing Mr Odinga’s cause, the lawmaker says something had to give in.

“A lot more of our supporters would have died if we continued with the hard-tackle politics. We were losing an average of 10 people per day. Even in war, you do not have to win every battle,” said the lawmaker.

Makadara MP George Aladwa, who is also the Nairobi ODM chairman and a close ally of Mr Odinga, said the party supports the handshake as a way of addressing historical injustices.


He defended the former PM from accusations that he abandoned his supporters after closing ranks with the President.

“Already we are seeing fruits of their cooperation: Kisumu Port is coming up well and soon Sio Port will be sorted too,” he said.

“We know that those opposed to the handshake use to profiteer from the constant squabbling between ODM and Jubilee,” he added.

An aspect of the “new” Mr Odinga is that he is hardly accessible to the media as he once was.

However in an earlier interview on his dalliance with Mr Kenyatta, Mr Odinga explained his new way of doing things.

“Generally, we are where few expected us to be. The general expectation was that it would be chaos, standoff and rage all the way to 2022, and that was going to give way to a divisive and possibly chaotic elections.

"There are even those who believe that if Raila had dug in, Uhuru’s government would have collapsed,” he said.

To him, the peace deal has been seen as a tremendous show of leadership by a number of Kenya’s friends and want it to last beyond 2022 in spirit.


On perception that he had abdicated his watchdog role, he said: “There are concerns that Opposition may be dead, but I do not agree. I believe that all the issues the Opposition was fighting for are captured in the BBI (Building Bridges Initiative Taskforce).”

This week, his spokesman, Mr Denis Onyango, said Mr Odinga remains alert to the needs and expectations of Kenyans.

“Those who mistake his silence for abdicating his role as the watchdog of the public are misreading him the same way they did not see any possibility that he could work with the President,” said Mr Onyango.

Mr Odinga’s camaraderie with the President has caused much annoyance to Deputy President William Ruto and his allies, who view him as an interloper in the government.

“Raila is a master tactician,” said Mr Tom Mboya, a political science lecturer at Maseno University.

“What he is doing now must be seen in the contest of laying ground for another stab at the big seat. He is keen to endear himself to Mr Kenyatta’s support base while at the same time taking advantage of the fact that some influential players in central are frowning at DP’s forays in the region.”