Will Raila's new toned-down strategy hand him power?

Observers say there is nothing ODM leader has not done to ascend to power, now he's Mr Nice and Moderate

In Summary

• After the handshake of March 9, 2018, Raila has maintained his cool, sticking to diplomacy in a complete shift from the traditionally abrasive nature of his politics.

• He was famously a protester, rabble rouser and man of the people. But that hasn't worked, though his based loved it and some now are puzzled by his about face. But with age comes wisdom and a change of tactics.

President Uhuru Kenyatta when he was hosted by ODM leader Raila Odinga during a tour of KIsumu County on October 22, 2020.
President Uhuru Kenyatta when he was hosted by ODM leader Raila Odinga during a tour of KIsumu County on October 22, 2020.

ODM leader Raila Odinga has, since his handshake with President Uhuru Kenyatta, changed from a rabble-rouser to a conformist who remains guarded in his actions and holds his cards close to his chest.

Even when he is not happy, the AU Infrastructure envoy doesn’t publicly protest – though protest has defined his politics over the years.

When retired President Mwai Kibaki violated his agreement with Raila ahead of the 2002 General Election, the ODM leader generated a lot of heat and acrimoniously abandoned Kibaki.

Raila rebelled against Kibaki in the 2005 referendum in which 57 per cent of voters rejected a draft constitution that the President had championed for.

Raila, 76, was among the ministers Kibaki kicked out of the Cabinet after suffering defeat in the referendum on the new Constitution – popularly known as the Wako Draft.

The Grand Coalition, which settled the post-2007 poll chaos, also exposed Raila’s character.

He protested throughout the life of the administration, pouring out his frustrations over the reception he got at state functions.

Raila often accused Kibaki of sidelining him when making key appointments and using junior officers to undermine him. Former Speaker Kenneth Marende had to step in to quell tension.

The former premier has led a radical political career and was jailed many times by former President Daniel Moi. He was treated with suspicion that he he could avenge the wrongs done him. 

But after the handshake of March 9, 2018, Raila has maintained his cool, sticking to diplomacy in a complete shift from the traditional abrasive nature of his politics.

Even when there are indications that some people are playing him, the ODM leader has maintained that his handshake with Uhuru is intact.

Despite concerns by some of his supporters that he was given the short end of the stick in the handshake, he has kept assuring his supporters that all is well.

Raila has stuck with the turbulent Building Bridges Initiative, expressing confidence his handshake partner, President Kenya, was keen on promoting it.

Over time, Raila has been more left leaning – being sympathetic with the people, even it meant creating enemies, however, he but has apparently moved to the Centre Right.

His political philosophy has greatly changed, a step political observers say could be a deliberate decision, having learned from history.

Power minders in Kenya prefer politicians who can protect businesses – possibly even those whose legitimacy is in question.

Going to the ballot is nonsense, creating a coalition doesn’t help since numbers don’t count. What matters are these people who rig elections.
Wafula Buke

Raila’s spokesman Dennis Onyango, at the height of the turmoil in ODM pitting Raila against Siaya Senator James Orengo, said they were taking a new path.

Clearly, he meant the politics of always being in the opposition and being pro-people for the sake of popularity no longer sufficed.

In a tweet at that time, Onyango said, "Power is never negotiated or retained through loud public pronouncements.”

“Negotiating and retaining power have little to do with law or education. It’s about being strategic, knowing when to be a clever fool, when to fight, when to take cover,” he said.

In his most recent hard-hitting statement condemning police excesses in the Bonchari by-election, Raila took the blame, shielding the President.

ODM complained for a long time they were being squeezed by the state but instead of calling press conferences and other protests, chose to write protest letters to the IEBC.

In the past, Raila would raise all manner of allegations and hit at the government in his rallies.

Once in Kisumu, he sensationally claimed the military were used to rig the 2013 presidential election.

Former ODM director of strategy Wafula Buke said Raila has no option but to play ball with the establishment.

“There is nothing we have not tried to do to capture power and succeeded. Raila, if he thought the only way to capture power was to endear himself to the criminals who always deny us power through rigging, suppression of mass action, assassination…as a senior citizen, there can only be one way he can try his way.”

“Going to the ballot is nonsense, creating a coalition doesn’t help since numbers don’t count. What matters are these people who rig elections,” Buke said.

He cited the Kabuchai, Bonchari and Matungu MP by-elections as cases revealing that the people who decide who ascends to power are still in charge.

“These people are the same, they will still rig the election. If you saw events in Bonchari, you can see that monster is still alive,” Buke said.

His other view is that Raila may be changing tack as “any Maraga experience is not possible now with the court.”

“We have people in power whose mission is to preserve power and we are doing [what we can] to determine who ascends to that power.”

Buke argues, “Raila’s options are either to step aside and fight the monster like Uganda’s Kizza Besigye or talk to the criminals in power.”

He added that Raila symbolises a reform journey - with many participants, who stem from the tree of groups that have sought to take power.

“Strategies have kept changing based on our collective experience. The use of bullets failed in the 50s, conspirators defeated the cause in the 60s, as well as in 1982.”

“From that time through the 90s, we only had the experience of power given to someone  in 2002 but even then, we had to surrender pursuing power for them to surrender power to another person,” Buke added.

ODM chairman John Mbadi said wisdom comes with Raila’s age and his party leader is looking at politics beyond himself.

“The more you grow, the more you mature in politics. He is at that point where he says what we need is to leave a united country.

“As to whether this will bear fruit, Kenyans also have started realising that you cannot play the same brand of politics throughout,” Mbadi said.

The Suba South MP said Raila has seen it all, hence. selfishness would be the last thing in his mind considering the times.

“Whatever it is, where he is going is nearer than where he has come from, in terms of even politics. He can’t be in politics forever,” Mbadi said.

“There would be no ceasefire in 2007 if he was not putting the country’s interests first. The new strategy will pay dividends since Kenyans are looking at a Raila who is not selfish at all.”

Dr Charles Nyambuga, a commentator from Maseno University, holds Raila's traditional support base backed the rabble rouser.

“When he is doing this, his supporters are running away because they don’t understand him. People are asking a lot of questions about whether this is what Raila has been fighting for. It is negatively costly for him,” he said.

(Edited by V. Graham)