Opposition leader Raila Odinga’s strategic retreat on his push for constitutional change has once again reinforced the enigmatic tag of the leader who has played a central role in Kenya’s politics in the last three decades.
A man with the proverbial cat with nine lives, just when he is about to be written off, Mr Odinga often makes a turn which confounds both friend and foe.
Analysts are still trying to understand how he and President Uhuru Kenyatta struck an agreement which culminated in the now famous ‘handshake’ on March 9, 2018 which came after a bitter fallout arising from the disputed elections last year. At the height of the acrimony, Mr Odinga swore himself in as the ‘people’s president’.
A masterful orator with a gift to read the public mood, Mr Odinga often summons his grasp of Kenya’s history from where he picks narratives to appeal to any occasion.
From a suspected coup plotter in the 1980s to a grassroots mobiliser with support across the country in the 2000s, Mr Odinga has somersaulted from a radical to a charmer and back to radical before coming back to a master charmer often in a span of months and sometimes weeks, to the consternation of both supporters and detractors.
Since the ‘handshake’, Mr Odinga has smoothly morphed into something of an insider in the Jubilee government, issuing policy statements even as he plays a peace ambassador’s role.
AU SPECIAL ENVOY
Just last week, Mr Odinga visited South Sudan in a bid to get President Salva Kiir and his main rival Riek Machar on the negotiating table, triggering suggestions that Mr Odinga has finally accepted the role of an African Union’s special envoy.
He was also the government representative in South Africa during the burial of anti-apartheid icon Winnie Mandela in April. He travels back to South Africa this week on the South Sudan mission.
The matter of Mr Odinga taking up a special envoy’s role in the mould of the eminent persons club of retired African leaders is believed to be one of the agreements in his deal with President Kenyatta.
“All issues regarding any reforms have been referred by President Uhuru Kenyatta and Mr Odinga to a team of advisers under the Building Bridges Initiative. Until that is done, Mr Odinga does not seek to propose any reform initiative and shall await the report of the team of advisers,” Raila’s aide, Mr Dennis Onyango, said in a statement last evening.
On Thursday, President Kenyatta reaffirmed his unity deal with Mr Odinga during the national prayer breakfast. The Building Bridges Initiative has also been gazetted, securing it with the force of law.
Commenting on the metamorphosis of one of Kenya’s most enigmatic politicians, Prof Peter Ndege of Moi University said: “Raila is a very perceptive individual. His ability to read the shift in the brand of Kenyan politics is unparalleled.”
He said Mr Odinga has observed Kenya’s politics since the late 1950s which has taught him many lessons.
“He saw Jomo Kenyatta’s detention and his rehabilitation to be president. From Moi he learnt how he outmanoeuvred the Change-the-Constitution movement that tried to stop him from ascending to power and 1982 taught him the futility of using force to change Kenya.”
By roping in his running mate in the last election, Kalonzo Musyoka, in the rapprochement that also brought in Deputy President William Ruto, Mr Odinga has managed to shake off the charge by some of his supporters that he abandoned his colleagues.
But even as he basks in the glory of the new-found calm, some of his supporters are yet to come to terms with the development, arguing that very little has come out of the handshake.
Of particular interest is the feeling that the perceived historical socio-economic injustices and the push for electoral justice seem to have been pushed to the back burner. They say there has never been a call for justice to many Kenyans who were either killed, raped or maimed during the prolonged electioneering period last year.
Mutahi Ngunyi, the former PM’s acerbic critic, on Thursday described Mr Odinga as a true statesman. “I never thought I would admit this truth so soon: That Raila Odinga is a true statesman. It takes a big man to do what Raila has done. Bravo Babaman!”
University of Nairobi law lecturer Ben Sihanya says Mr Odinga is a statesman for always putting Kenya ahead of his own interests.
“He has a consistent record where he has questioned the bad things that have happened in our governance system. He is a consistent patriot. When things are bad he sticks his neck out. When they are good he applauds them,” says Prof Sihanya, pointing out the “promulgation of the 2010 Constitution as the hallmark of his service to Kenya.”
He says Mr Odinga was the whistle blower in numerous scams including the first scandal at the National Youth Service (NYS) in 2015 and the Eurobond dossier.
“But beyond this, Kenyans expect that the rapprochement among the political leaders will yield results. Kenyans love peace; they want it, but they also want to see justice in the electoral process.”
Born on January 7, 1945, Mr Odinga burst into the limelight in 1982 when he was arrested and detained for allegedly taking part in the abortive coup. He was detained without trial, kick-starting the first of the three stints he would be in prison on account of political transgressions against the Kanu state. Mr Odinga has always argued his participation in the attempted coup was an act of bravery to remove a despotic regime.
Mr Odinga has achieved much in his political career including becoming Prime Minister in a unity deal with President Kibaki after the disputed 2007 election, but the ultimate prize has eluded him.
In past interviews and conversations, Mr Odinga has come out as a man who felt demonised despite what he considers his many sacrifices to expand liberties in Kenya.
Whether his newfound deal with President Kenyatta secures him a position in 2022 or not, analysts agree that his manoeuvres, which often keep him at the centre of Kenya’s politics, cannot be ignored.