Raila Odinga’s appointment as an African Union High Representative is causing jitters among his supporters and the Opposition that it could pave the way for William Ruto’s easy ride to State House.
Raila’s key allies are worried that his new continental role might remove him from Kenyan politics and jeopardize his chances of taking the presidency in 2022.
The former prime minister has not publicly declared if he will take a fifth aim at the presidency but his close allies have been hinting that he could throw his hat in the ring again.
After months of speculation of an imminent role as an African Union envoy, the ODM leader was on Saturday appointed High Representative for Infrastructure Development in Africa by the AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat.
In his new role, Raila will spearhead the AU’s infrastructure drive and the Planning and Coordinating Agency of New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).
As a special envoy of the AU chairperson, Raila will have an office in Addis, but with frequent travel across the continent.
This could be a highly-engaging itinerary that could keep him on the move as he organizes investment and other transnational development initiatives.
While Raila will also have an office in Nairobi with staff and advisers to boost his local presence and unity programmes with Uhuru, politicians believe his schedule could chip away at his local influence.
The Star has established that there are loud murmurs within his ODM party and some MPs are seeking audience with Raila to respond to their fears.
Those apprehensive of the future say the ODM leader should be cautious about the appointment as it could be a bait by his rivals to remove him from the political contest.
“There is confusion in the party over our leader’s new role. This could be a strategy to shove him off the main political stage. His absence will be catastrophic for the opposition. He must explain to us how he intends to shuttle between the two roles while making sure that his role in the 2022 elections remains clear,” said a senior ODM member.
The politician, who spoke to the Star on condition of anonymity, said Raila’s busy continental diary could destabilise NASA.
“Raila is the cornerstone of NASA. His absence is a concern because that would throw us into disarray and reorganizing ourselves might be a challenge,” he added.
But some of Raila’s close allies say his elevation, as a continental envoy, will only strengthen his presidential ambitions.
“The role enhances his standing as presidential material,” said ODM minority Whip Junet Mohamed, one of his close allies and strategists.
The Suna East MP played down fears, among opposition supporters, that Raila’s posting could give Ruto an edge in the race to State House in 2022.
“The culture of campaigns year-in, year-out must stop so that focus shifts to development. We want to give those who want to campaign time but when election time comes, we shall show them dust,” he said.
Ruto, seen as Raila’s foremost opponent in 2022, has already started frenetic "development tours" across the country, signaling his desire to take an early lead.
Ruto’s allies were quick to challenge Raila to quit politics and concentrate on his new AU job which they argue requires him to be apolitical.
However, ODM secretary for political affairs Opiyo Wandayi said Raila is an indefatigable leader with the capacity to shuttle between major capitals of Africa and still find time for home politics.
“Odinga is a man of all seasons. He is more than able to multi-task. He is a revolutionary and freedom fighter. Revolutionaries never retire,” the Ugunja MP said.
But some argue that Raila’s appointment as AU envoy is a reminder to Kenyans of his track record of integrity, honesty and servant leadership.
“Nobody invited Odinga into politics and therefore nobody can dictate to him when to retire. If African needs Raila then Kenya needs him most,” he said.
Homa Bay senator Moses Kajwang said despite his appointment, Raila still remains a formidable player in Kenya’s political sphere.
Kenya needs Raila’s handshake role for the Building Bridges initiative to bear fruit.
“By taking up the AU role, that does not mean giving up his Kenyan citizenship rights and civil rights,” he added.
ODM treasurer and former Kitutu Masaba MP Timothy Bosire said the appointment would enhance Raila's stature as a pillar of democracy in the region.
“It is important that Raila’s vision for integrity and distinguished efforts on development matters has been recognized. This should enhance his advocacy for democracy and his 2022 chances,” said Bosire.
He said Raila’s track record when he served as Prime Minister in the grand coalition government is unrivalled.
Homa Bay Woman Representative Gladys Wanga said Raila will remain the ODM party leader and that he will continue to play a role in local politics.
Nominated MP Godfrey Osotsi said Raila’s appointment demonstrates that he is a statesman and a true Pan-Africanist who has something to offer to the continent.
“In fact his new position gives him more expanded network and those who fear Raila’s candidature now have more reason to be worried than ever before," he said.
Reacting to the calls by some Jubilee party leaders for Raila’s exit from local politics, Siaya senator James Orengo said Raila's new job will not compromise his role as Opposition leader.
“The appointment has nothing to do with Raila's leadership in NASA and the ODM party. It enhances his role to try and build bridges and bring peace and respect for human rights and rule of law in the continent. It does not take away his current political status in Kenya and in the rest of the world," he said.
Following his appointment, it is not clear how that would impact on his calls for a referendum and the Building Bridges initiative with analysts suggesting his new role could give the twin issues divided attention.
Jubilee leaders yesterday claimed the push for a referendum was motivated by a desire to create a position for Raila. Now that he has been appointed, they claimed, calls for constitutional amendments should be abandoned.
Raila will not be the first active politician appointed by the continental body to perform a task and return to or continue with politics at home. Former South African foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was elected by the AU as its chairperson, making her the first woman to lead the organization between October 2012 and January 2017. After she was replaced by current chairperson and former Chadian Foreign Minister Faki she unsuccessfully ran for South Africa’s president. The former wife of former President Jacob Zuma and was favoured by Zuma to succeed him both as President of the ANC and as President of South Africa. She lost both to Cyril Ramaphosa in December 2017.
Her predecessor, Jean Ping served as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Cooperation and Francophonie of Gabon from 1999 to 2008, During his tenure, he also served as President of the United Nations General Assembly from 2004 to 2005. After he left the AU commission, he contested for the 2016 Gabonese presidential election against President Ali Bongo. He lost by just 5,594 votes in a protracted election tussle.