He opted to stay away from the campaign trail, giving the Friday by-elections in Embakasi South and Ugenya constituencies a wide berth, but now the outcome has left him with egg on the face.
This is the new dilemma for Kenya’s political grandmaster of decades, Raila Amolo Odinga, as he tries to exit from local politics to team up with President Uhuru Kenyatta at the national and continental levels following his appointment last October as African Union’s High Representative for Infrastructure Development.
In an interview with this writer moments after the poll results, Orange Democratic Movement’s (ODM) director of elections Mr Junet Mohamed regretted the absence of the party leader from the campaign trail.
“The elections in Embakasi South and Ugenya have proved that indeed the Honourable Raila’s word is the most serious one within ODM and among our supporters,” said Junet, who is also the Minority Whip in the National Assembly.
Although the loss in the by-elections, coming over three years ahead of the next general election, does not pointedly offer an inkling of Mr Odinga’s or Orange party’s political influence in the upcoming polls, it is nonetheless a wake-up call for the opposition leader to style up and put his house in order.
In joining the President to bury the hatchet and build a united Kenya through the handshake, former Cabinet minister Prof Amukowa Anangwe observes that the former Prime Minister entered a slippery arena, which required him to go slow on politicking and maintain a national image.
“That comes with a great deal of individual political sacrifice and with the additional feather at the AU as a special envoy, Raila has overstretched himself to the point where he could not effectively oversee the running of his party, let alone marketing it,” observes Prof Anangwe.
His views are buttressed by South Pokot MP, David Pkosing, who wonders how Mr Odinga expected candidates from his party to perform well when he has slowed down on playing politics at the grass roots level.
“In Kiswahili we say ‘safari ya kesho hupangwa leo (tomorrow’s journey is planned today)'. Baba (Mr Odinga) has taken the electorate in his backyard for granted and has even stopped endearing himself to voters in other parts of the country, especially in the populous Rift Valley and Central Kenya regions. So how does he expect his political star to rise, unless of course he is waiting for endorsement to run for a national seat?” asked the Jubilee-allied legislator.
Over the past one year, Mr Odinga has been basking in the handshake glory, receiving accolades locally and internationally with relatively little political activity on the ground. However, unlike his partner in the handshake, President Kenyatta, who is clearly exiting the political scene upon completing a second term in office, Mr Odinga’s political future or exit plot — if any — remains a jealously guarded secret.
This has greatly complicated operations in the party and clouded political focus ahead of 2022. With Mr Odinga taking a low profile, Prof Anangwe says one of the key lessons learnt from Friday’s polls is the former PM’s inability to groom a successor: The results, particularly in his Nyanza region backyard where ODM’s Chris Karan lost to David Ochieng of Movement for Growth and Democracy, have exposed the region’s soft underbelly in the absence of Mr Odinga.
Mr Odinga has instead been engrossed in “national duties”, including gracing state functions and even representing the President at official international events outside the country. It is an arrangement that even members of the diplomatic corps have come to respect.
On Wednesday, for instance, Mr Odinga bade farewell to outgoing South Africa’s High Commissioner to Kenya, Ms Koleka Mqulwana, who is leaving the country at the end of her tour of duty. In January, he bade farewell to the former United States’ ambassador to Kenya, Robert Godec, during a breakfast meeting hosted at his Karen home in Nairobi.
For a vibrant and daring politician who was sworn in as the people’s President by his supporters in January 2018, Mr Odinga’s climbdown to team up with Mr Kenyatta — his perceived political tormentor — is a development that took many by surprise.
Although the Orange party leader has eloquently defended his decision stating that he did it for the greater good of the Kenyan nation, some of Mr Odinga’s backers, including his co-principals in the National Super Alliance (NASA) are yet to fully buy into his argument.
“Some of Mr Odinga’s supporters are still enraged by his sudden about-turn. He had the gravitas of bashing his political enemies hard and this earned him a huge following. But now his credibility has gone down and he is probably now perceived as a person who makes compromises at the expense of his supporters,” opines Prof Anangwe.