How Raila is using BBI as another chance for reinvention

ODM boss Raila Odinga is the country's master of political reinvention

In Summary

• Raila has over the decades exploited a 'handshake' with political rivals to re-engineer  and rebrand himself.

• Having controversially lost the election to Kibaki, Raila forced the Party of National Unity into a government of national unity deal

ODM leader Raila Odinga
ODM leader Raila Odinga
Image: FILE

Raila Odinga is the country's master of political reinventions and the Building Bridges Initiative crusade promises to give him yet another chance to rebrand.

The ODM leader — we can't honestly call him an opposition leader as there's virtually no opposition — is basking in the glory of his latest comeback, sending signals he is determined to pull the rug out from under the feet of both friends and foes.

Deputy President William Ruto, who had initially expressed reservations on BBI, appears to have made a U-turn and is now backing the Raila-Uhuru project that is likely to trigger a referendum.

Once a sworn enemy of President Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila is now toasting to new beginnings — enjoying the trappings (and reality) of state power and having a larger-than-life public stature.

Raila's bromance with Uhuru has eclipsed other key opposition leaders, including  Musalia Mudavadi (ANC), Kalonzo Musyoka (Wiper) and Bungoma Senator Moses Wetang'ula (Ford Kenya). Ruto too appears isolated from the centre of power.

Raila has over the decades exploited the 'handshake' — ordinarily a gesture of friendship — with political rivals to re-engineer and rebrand himself.

Even without any official position, Raila is calling some of the shots in government and has emerged as one of Uhuru's fiercest defenders as the Jubilee administration is torn by infighting.

Raila and Uhuru have been invited to the US next month for a two-day talk on their almost two-year-old handshake, which attracted the highest level of endorsement from western powers.

The former Lang'ata MP appears to be the main driver and face of the BBI, which has taken the country by storm as politicians align themselves ahead of the 2022 General Election. Going by the last two rallies in Kisii and Kakamega, and the so-called Tangatanga MPs' change of tune on Tuesday, it is either the BBI way or the highway.

Raila, no doubt, lives true to the adage that in politics there are no permanent enemies or permanent friends — only permanent interests.


At different times, Raila’s image has ping-ponged between victim and victor, hero and villain in his numerous battles against the establishment.

His fortunes, analysts say, have oscillated among the favourite, front runner, kingmaker and the perennial loser — even as he plots a key future role in 2022.

Former Cabinet minister Franklin Bett described Raila as the “lord of political realism” given his ability to turn the tables against his rivals even when he is cornered.

“Some people can say that he is a political opportunist. But that is not the case. Raila is a political thinker. He is a smart politician and has the capacity to think outside the box,” the former Buret MP said.

"Raila can see things other politicians cannot see," he said.

Bett, who served as ODM National Elections Board chairman in the run-up to the 2013 polls, said Raila knows how to blend himself into situations, even when circumstances do not favour him.

USIU-Africa professor Macharia Munene terms Raila a tactical politician with exceptional credentials.

“Raila has exceptional political agility. He is a genius in politics. He has been able to reinvent himself and then taking over those he was competing with,” he said.

He further said that while BBI is a work in progress, Raila stands to reap big from the process.

“Raila has managed to turn BBI into his own baby and he now has the support of the president. He knows how to turn things around in his favour,” he said.

Raila is always seen to be having a trump card up his sleeve.

The resuscitation of his role in Kenyan politics has evolved into a well-calculated strategy to remain politically relevant.

Political scientist Mutahi Ngunyi once described the ODM leader as the grand-master of the politics of change.

“No one can smell change as freshly as Raila does. And that is why we cannot argue with him over the referendum. If Raila says it will happen, it will surely happen,” Ngunyi said concerning to Raila's push for a referendum.

Following the controversial reelection of  Uhuru in 2017 — which Raila challenged in the Supreme Court — many thought the former Prime Minister's political career had hit a dead end.

Even with a political history of a man who exhibits unrivalled credentials to always bounce back to the limelight in the most unlikely moments, Raila surprised the world with the handshake.

Former South Mugirango MP Manson Nyamweya, who has worked with Raila throughout the agitation for multi-party democracy, told the Star that Raila is a shrewd politician.

“Raila is not an ordinary politician. He is a focussed leader who means well for this country. He can be down but never count him out in a political duel,” Nyamweya said.

Nyamweya said the ex-PM is a political schemer who plays his cards very well but denied claims the BBI is out to resuscitate his political fortunes.

“Raila's interests have never been selfish or self-centred. He is not like other politicians who think they must lead this country by force. If you supported someone, it is not a must that you reciprocate. That is self-seeking,” he said.

The March 9, 2018 handshake was a confounding move amid concerns he had abandoned his reform credentials upon which he had built an enduring legacy on the fight for social justice.

After his controversial swearing-in as the people's president on January 30, 2018, at Uhuru Park and having been deserted by his main opposition principals, Raila had set out on a path to reassemble his political machinery for another reinvention.


Incidentally, 12 years earlier, Raila had stood on the same spot and shaken hands with President Mwai Kibaki in what symbolised the signing of a peace deal after the 2007-08 post-election violence.

Having controversially lost the election to Kibaki, Raila forced the Party of National Unity into a government of national unity deal in an accord brokered by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan.

He managed to reinvent himself, having fallen out with Kibaki during the 2005 referendum. Raila crafted a formidable outfit that almost sent Kibaki home and ended up sharing power with him.

In 2002, with just months to one of the most definitive elections in Kenya’s history, Raila landed perhaps his cleanest and deadliest blow to the establishment.

Some observers had written off Raila, maintaining that his party had been swallowed by Kanu.

He would, however, have the last laugh after leading an exodus out of the then ruling party to form the National Rainbow Coalition, which clinched that year’s presidential election.

The Moi-Raila political marriage was consummated on March 18, 2002, in a 'handshake' that unsettled the political equation in the country. The opposition forces at the time labelled Raila a traitor.

But Raila maintained that he was joining Kanu to engineer sweeping reforms from within and agreed on the historic merger of his National Development Party with the independence party.

Unaware of Raila's secret card, Moi named him Kanu secretary general but when he bolted five few months to the polls, the then Lang'ata MP left behind only a shell of a party.

Initially, just from the surface, Moi had thought he had received a much-needed political boost that would enable Kanu to retain power in the hotly contested polls.

But Raila managed to cannibalise Kanu internally and when he left, he took with him former Kanu stalwarts such as Kalonzo Musyoka and Vice President George Saitoti.

In another handshake, just after the Kanu exodus, Raila buried the hatchet with Democratic Party leader Mwai Kibaki and followed through with his famous “Kibaki Tosha” declaration at Uhuru Park on October 14, 2002. That is the declaration that is said to have ended Kanu's four-decade hold on power.

A bitter falling between Narc luminaries and Kibaki over the implementation of their 2002 MoU led to bitter discord in government. That triggered a referendum push in 2005 leading to Raila's sacking from the Cabinet.

However, Raila would later reinvent himself.

Outside the Cabinet, Raila teamed up with Mudavadi and Ruto, who then was Eldoret North MP, among others to run electrifying campaigns in which many believe they won the chaotic and discredited 2007 presidential polls.

Raila now faces a litmus test in his reinvention game plan as the BBI politics gain momentum.