MWAMISI: Raila exit from politics will greatly weaken ODM, Azimio

As succession plans are not in place, there is a leadership vacuum and this can lead to internal strife, fractures and obvious confusion.

In Summary
  • There will be realignments because, while some people may choose to remain loyal to the ODM or the larger Azimio.
  • Raila’s departure will prompt some supporters to reassess their allegiances, defect to rival parties or become independent candidates. 
ODM Leader Raila Odinga at past event in Meru on February 3, 2024.
ODM UNITY: ODM Leader Raila Odinga at past event in Meru on February 3, 2024.

When a political kingpin and Orange Democratic Party leader Raila Odinga retires from politics, it will set off a chain of events having significant ramifications both within the party and the broader political landscape. The impact of his decision will be great, considering his stature and the longevity of his political career, the strength that ODM has had, and the prevailing political climate in which several of his lieutenants will be angling for the presidential ticket.

Clearly, there is emerging a leadership vacuum within the ODM and the greater Azimio coalition. This vacuum has already triggered power struggles among senior party members such as former Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho and former Kakamega Governor Wycliffe Oparanya. Both have been very close to Raila over the years as they maintained strong loyalty to him and the party.

Obviously, these two leaders and others like Babu Owino have varying interests and ideologies that will make their approaches different. Embakasi East MP Owino has already formed an alliance with Githunguri's Gathoni Wamuchomba, Starehe's Amos Mwago and Embakasi West MP Mark Mwenje. They are youthful and energetic, claiming to be the future.

One thing unsaid thus far is that there has not been serious succession planning in the ODM or Azimio. Indeed, it had never been considered that Raila would one day leave the party, leave alone leave politics. Ideally, political parties with meticulous planning should have succession plans to ensure a smooth transition of leadership. However, if such plans are not in place or if there is disagreement over the designated successor, it can lead to internal strife and even fractures within the party. This is very likely going to happen in the opposition.

The opposition support base is currently confused. Raila has had his network across the country and on which he has depended and which has depended on him for years. Creating new systems for these people will not be easy and they will most likely shift their support to more aggressive, strategic and benevolent political leaders. Raila will take with him and away from ODM such significant political support that some people may decide to retire from politics with him, uncomfortable with becoming political ‘orphans’. This will weaken ODM’s electoral prospects in the future, even its very existence.

There will be realignments because, while some people may choose to remain loyal to the ODM or the larger Azimio, Raila’s departure will prompt some supporters to reassess their allegiances, defect to rival parties or become independent candidates when there are any by-elections or when the 2027 election.

There may also be a shift in ideology within the ODM. Some Nyanza legislators such as Lang’ata’s Jalang’o already aligned themselves with President Ruto. It could be they considered that Raila’s leadership had waned. Their main argument was that they wanted development for their people. While this makes conventional sense, politicians are only guided by their own interests. Either way, the development compass will continue to draw them as it is the first argument they make to their supporters. This means that the policy preferences and leanings are going to continue to differ from those of the ODM party and its links with Kenya Kwanza will be further strengthened.

At some point, there is going to be a sweeping reevaluation of political strategy in ODM. Its messaging and policy platforms will have to be seriously modified but this won’t be successful when there is strife. Those left behind will want to rejuvenate the party to be able to appeal to the broader segment of the electorate. The fact that Babu Owino is already charting a different path gives me an inkling that he feels that there won’t be space for him in the Raila succession. The reality is that Babu is not yet a national leader and it will take him another 10 years to be able to grow political girth roots nationally. His ambition and drive is admirable but he must be careful to not get ahead of himself.

Raila’s departure is going to affect the balance of power within the broader political system, influencing alliances, coalition-building efforts, and the overall dynamics of governance. Currently, Raila and his entourage are pushing to appear as independent and capable in the quest for the African Union Commission chairmanship, yet we all know that without state leadership in this process it would be very difficult to emerge victorious. Musalia Mudavadi’s Foreign & Diaspora Affairs domain has to facilitate the dynamics for Raila across Africa besides the major role that President Ruto is playing in the quest. The push to win the position is a push by the State of Kenya.

Having presumably assisted Raila to capture the AUC chairmanship, President Ruto will have grown further and deeper roots in Nyanza and a greater part of Luhyaland. Mudavadi will also grow more popular in the same regions, further propelling his chances of becoming a future president in Kenya. Raila’s retirement from Kenyan politics which will obviously come with this process is an opportunity for other leaders to gain ground and expand their own influence. With a successful bid, Mudavadi will gain one over Wetang’ula as his national stature grows.

Raila will fancy wielding influence behind the scenes even as he retires from active engagement. His endorsements, however subtle, public statements and interventions in key political matters can continue to shape the direction of their party and the broader political landscape. In order to curtail Kalonzo Musyoka, Martha Karua and others, he might decide to stay mum and never utter any words about the transition that Azimio will be going through. Instead, he might influence proceedings stealthily.

The greatest challenge Kalonzo and Karua face is the lack of enough resources to mount strong presidential bids of their own and Joho and others who are moneyed are likely to have say in who becomes the opposition candidate in 2027. The retirement of Raila will mark the end of a remarkable era and herald a period of transition and recalibration not only in ODM but the larger political landscape. It is creating challenges and uncertainties but is also presenting Kenyans with renewal, redefinition and emergence of new leadership within the opposition. ODM will not be able to manage the transition properly and it is likely going to lead to disintegration.

Political commentator 

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